Finishing Your Degree

Fifteen years ago I was parked next to another cop who told me he decided not to go back to college to finish his degree (even thought the agency paid him to do so), because in his words, "I'm gonna do this until I retire; I love it." He failed his probationary period, was fired, and had nothing to fall back on. Another officer questioned my sanity when he asked why I would pay someone to give me homework rather than work an extra job for overtime. I still recall waking up after a few hours of sleep having worked midnights only to start typing a midterm paper while watching my 18-month-old son outside playing in beautiful spring weather, wishing I were with him instead of what I was doing. It was a sacrifice I made and I am not sure it was ever worth the price. In the end though, that piece of paper that said I had accomplished something starting paying me back, slowly.

Tarnished Badge

Face the facts you are getting older. At some point you won't be a cop anymore for a variety of reasons. It used to be, in my time, you stepped out of police-work when you were injured or had met the required age limit in order to collect your pension. In other words, you worked your tenure and your equipment showed its age. Today, cops are being involuntarily separated from service due to the economy in massive numbers and the hemorrhaging of blue uniforms isn't likely to stop anytime soon. The latest economic forecast touted by the White House indicates it will take another three to four years before local and state governments start collecting the revenue streams it did in 2007, which economists consider the beginning of the Great Recession. That means shrinking budgets until at least 2013, if all goes well, and more pink slips for cops.

If you do not possess that document saying you have attained a college degree, and a degree is needed, then where are you going to work? With the economy so bad you might wonder that even if you had a degree where would you find a job regardless? As my mentor told me once, "Having a college degree is like needing to wear a tie to get into a fancy restaurant; you have to have one to get in." If you are doing what you want to in life and know absolutely life will never change then why pursue a college degree? That's the problem. Life changes and nothing is guaranteed. A college degree will never be of true value until you need it, and you can't obtain it over night. It takes years. Anything you ever learned that is of value cost you something. You paid for it dearly either monetarily, with time or effort. Finishing your degree will take the same effort, but there are better ways of doing it today.

Work Smarter Not Harder

I'm not so sure I ever really learned that rule, but what I have found is that obtaining your degree is much more accessible now than ever before. I earned three degrees the hard way; sitting in class night after night for years. That's known as the brick and mortar way, however, just because someone has the title, "Professor" or "Assistant Professor" doesn't mean they earned the right to stand in front of you because they are the "Expert". On more than one occasion I learned that the "Professor" in front of me was only qualified to teach the topic because they earned a Doctorate. In other words they took classes from some other clueless individual for three more years than I did and wrote a book about it. In terms of operational experience they never did anything. As a matter of fact, they read about what I did on the street and then talked about it in class! It's what you have done that makes you knowledgeable; not what you have read or what someone has told you. A world-class fighter pilot doesn't learn best by reading about flying, or what they are told about it; they learn by having air pass under their seat at Mach 2.

Professors can earn their title in a couple of notable ways. Some by hard work in the field they teach, being dedicated to their profession and their desire to truly become an expert in the field by learning as much as they can through experience. Others by political appointment, such as being the Dean. Still others found themselves lucky enough to socialize with the college or university vice president and their name was recalled when the job search began. As a student, you want the experienced professor, because you are paying big bucks to learn something. Unfortunately, and in my experience, not a whole lot of those people are in education.

For Profit v. Non-Profit

In the media lately there has been a lot of discussion over the differences between colleges and universities that are "For Profit" (in many cases representing the online colleges and universities) instead of the so-called "state schools" and others that are allegedly non-profit. Having taught for both Ican attest that truly being non-profit doesn't exist. Do you think the government would allow a publically funded academic institution to operate in the red every fiscal year? Is your police agency or city government budget legally allowed to function unbalanced or in a deficit? Simply put, No. It's illegal. A balanced budget is an operational necessity by statute. However, state assisted schools can claim the "not for profit" definitional status because they are funded primarily through the taxpayers. In reality though, they are all for profit. Check their annual budget balance sheets and you will see, in the millions, how in the black they are.

The reason why for-profit institutions have exploded over the last decade is because the former graduates of state schools learned that education has to do a better job. For profit can mean good things. In my experience it has meant that the best-qualified faculty members were hired (not the least). They function like a business, since post-secondary education is a business, where if the product or service is not superior to their competitors then the business folds. Let me give you a few more examples, again, based on my experience teaching criminal justice for a state (public) school and a for-profit institution:

Curriculum -
The public school updated their curriculum, at best, once every couple of years. The for-profit school updated the curriculum every ten weeks. The public school expects that I present the information for the student to retain for their upcoming test. The for-profit school demands that I continuously stimulate the student to learn so that the student will demonstrate what they have learned and apply the knowledge for life.

Technology -
The public school is using a technology delivered curriculum system that is dated back to 1995. The for-profit school is teaching the class online and using up-to-date technology and expanding into the smart phone era for teaching and learning; really cutting edge stuff.

Student Centered -
At the public school the faculty member is most important, and every student is identified by their student number. If that person never shows up to class they are dropped and as a faculty member I am not required to find out why they are not in class. The for-profit school requires that I contact each student personally at the beginning of class and on a weekly basis, at a minimum, if the student needs assistance. As a faculty member I have never (in 11 years) had to go through in-service training at the public school, but on average I have to complete a minimum of 8 hours of training for the for-profit school annually.

As we conclude this article, let's review what we know:

  • The old way of earning your college education, especially as a working cop, is to go to class on campus. The new way is to let the campus come to you (online).
  • Attending a brick-and-mortar (on campus) school is extremely time consuming when considering travel time, parking, walking to class, etc. Parking passes on campus, by the way, can cost a couple hundred dollars per year. Sitting in your living room is free.
  • Cops need to be college educated. It's a national goal that the law enforcement profession has been striving after for nearly 80 years. At some point you will leave the policing service either voluntarily or involuntarily and you need to be marketable.
  • Education is a business, especially at the post secondary level and beyond. It does not matter if you are state college or university, private not-for-profit or private for-profit institution. Positive cash flow is the bottom line.
  • Today we live by texting, Tweeting, and chatting. Since we live in a technology embedded society shouldn't we learn differently than how our great grandparents did?

Next month, I'm going to cover how to research what degree is beneficial to earn and why the process of accreditation is important to both taking classes on campus or on the web.