Why Go to College?

Kevin TownsendBy Riverside P.D. Sergeant Kevin Townsend, CA Lodge #8

You have a fresh haircut, are wearing your best suit, and somehow the moisture in your body has left your mouth and moved to your armpits. You sit nervously awaiting your turn to walk into a promotional panel interview and decide to review your résumé while you wait, wondering if you should have some type of college degree listed on this thing. Your mind starts to wander to previous conversations with friends, where you justified not having one. This leads to the ever-present question: Why are bosses looking for college degrees, anyway?

Regardless of the reason and who won the last debate on the topic, your confidence fades a little as you start to review who else is testing, who you know has a degree and who you’ve heard might have one. Do your years of service, training record, assignments and accomplishments outweigh the lack of a formal education? A little doubt starts to creep into your mind and you start to consider some options.

How about an online school? Everyone has seen commercials for online programs, which are now offered at countless institutions. They can provide flexible schedules to accommodate various lifestyles, including parents with child care issues; military reservists facing possible deployment; and those experiencing unstable schedules, such as SWAT operators and investigators who are on call. So you might need a degree to be competitive in a promotional process, and an online option limits scheduling issues, but why go back? Is it worth your time, effort and money? College is mostly theory-based and you are already a cop, so what would you learn, anyway? These are some of the questions often asked when considering returning to school to finish your degree.

Some of the more concrete, tangible benefits include enhancing your skills in research, organization, time management and writing. Most programs include a history of the topic to give the subject matter context. Schools with on-ground courses often have classes that require presentations (often through PowerPoint), giving you a safe place to practice the art of public speaking. Coursework, research and other activities should increase your ability to manipulate and utilize modern technology. Interpersonal skills, teamwork, conflict resolution and leadership are improved through class discussions and group projects. Some programs include management-centered courses, helping to prepare you for career advancement. Instruction and an overview of relevant theories, along with analysis and discussion on contemporary issues, are meant to broaden your perspective and expertise in the field.

You experience differences of opinion, often causing you to better support your viewpoint or possibly even change the way you look at something. College does not always instruct you — it influences you. It challenges you to analyze issues, explore and study them, question assumptions, develop informed conclusions based on comprehensive research, and then present them in an intelligent fashion through written work or by presentation.

We often get caught up in the day-to-day, but it is important to realize that at some point this wild ride will come to an end. The scary part to consider is, it could be today that a drunk runs a red light, you step off a curb the wrong way or some other mishap occurs, and you have to find a way to support yourself and possibly a family on a disability retirement. Should you somehow manage to make it to a full retirement, while law enforcement personnel in different parts of the country are well compensated — and many claim to want to just golf, fish and relax in retirement — the prospect of never working again while only in your early to mid-50s is rare.

Having a degree can help, when you contemplate a career after active-duty law enforcement. Options often include writing, consulting or teaching. You may want to move completely out of the public-safety field after your life as a cop, causing some to argue that cops should consider getting a degree in something non-law-enforcement-related. Turning that weekend passion one has always had into a small-business venture can be supported with specialized or higher-education coursework. On a personal note, having a degree can model something that many parents want for their children. One usually feels proud not only announcing to interviewers that you put in the work to get a degree, but even better when supporting your assertion that your kids should have one.

The time to acquire a college degree is not while in the waiting room before a panel interview. Even if you are not testing for a promotion now, plan in advance and begin your research now. Find a school that fits you, whether it’s online or in-person, and ensure it is accredited. And remember — you will get out of it what you put in. Education may open the door to career improvements, strengthen your ability to explore post-retirement opportunities, set the example in your family, and boost your personal growth and development.

About the Author

Kevin Townsend is a sergeant with the Riverside Police Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, master’s degree in public administration, and teaches criminal justice courses at a university aimed at active-duty law enforcement.

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