“Take it from a college professor: there’s nothing you learn in college that you can’t learn elsewhere.”
Adam Grant Ph.D.
There continues to be a push from groups both inside and outside the law enforcement profession for a university or college degree to be a prerequisite to get hired as a law enforcement officer. I am a fan of education. I am not a fan of law enforcement agencies having a requirement for applicants to have a college or university degree. Education comes in many forms. Formal college and university education is simply one form of education. Agencies need to look at the individual applicant and what he or she has done since high school. I am not sure why some agencies place greater value on formal education than the skills and abilities developed through working in the real world.
I continue to be an advocate for providing high quality, impactful, well delivered training for law enforcement professionals throughout their careers, not just front loaded and then delivered sporadically over the next 20 to 30 years as is often the case right now.
The following is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote in 2020 on this topic:
There is a mistaken belief that spending four years at college or university automatically teaches you critical thinking and problem solving skills. I believe the right courses and the right professors can help development critical thinking and decision-making skills, but there are many people graduating with a 4-year degree who still lack those skills.
On the other hand, some aspiring law enforcement professions who have been in the workforce for years dealing with people, solving real problems, making decisions and developing their leadership and communication skills as well as their EQ would make great police officers, but he or she would be automatically discounted if a degree was a mandatory requirement.
I often use my two sons and examples. Both Jesse and Cody are very successful entrepreneurs in the tough hospitality industry. Both have high EQ, great problem solving and critical thinking skills, a strong work ethic and impressive leadership and people skills. They are willing to do what is right when it is not popular, easy, or expedient. Both are highly educated and would make great law enforcement professionals if they chose that career route, but neither has a university degree and so both would be immediately excluded from consideration if a degree were a requirement.
Those of you who know my story might suggest I am biased, as I am a man with limited formal education. I have however, worked hard to educate myself in the 42 years since I started my law enforcement career. I still do not have a college or university degree. I know several highly respected law enforcement professionals and trainers who also lacked a degree at the start of their career yet have gone on to continually educate themselves. Some now have degrees; some have advanced degrees, and some still lack that piece of paper.
You may want to discount my opinion due to my bias so let’s look at some thoughts on this from some in the world of Academia. Recently in his newsletter Adam Grant shared a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal titled The Disparate Racial Impact of Requiring a College Degree: Among U.S. workers over 25, only 26% of blacks, and 40% of whites, have a bachelor’s or higher. If you are not familiar with Adam Grant he is an American psychologist and author who is currently a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania specializing in organizational psychology. He is consistently rated as one of the top professors at Wharton, is a multiple time bestselling author and his two TED talks combined have been viewed over 9.6 million times. Peter Blair and Shad Ahmed wrote the WSJ article Grant shared the link to. Peter Blair is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, where he co-directs the Project on Workforce. Shad Ahmed is chief partnerships officer at Opportunity@Work.
In the article Blair and Ahmed recommend corporate executives, “…. change their hiring and management practices to focus on job skills, rather than continuing to privilege college degrees. This change would increase diversity in the workforce and expand economic opportunity without sacrificing quality.” They suggest a degree requirement for most jobs is a barrier to entry for would-be employees of any race. In their research they looked at workers “skilled through alternative routes”, which they refer to as STARs. They suggest, “U.S. companies are systematically overlooking talent. Employers are missing out on talented workers without bachelor’s degrees, and black workers in particular.” (It is an interesting twist that the people who are screaming about “systemic racism in law enforcement” may be pushing for a standard that discriminates against people of color.)
When you take time to reflect on the concept of skilled through alternative routes you soon realize that STARs work in many diverse jobs including EMTs, paramedics, paralegals, the trades (electricians, mechanics, plumbers, etc), customer service, sales, the hospitality industry, administrative assistants, teaching assistants, wild land firefighters, corporate security and the list goes on. Many of the people in these professions would be excluded as applicants if there were requirements for a college degree.
Based on their research Blair and Ahmed suggest there are changes companies can make to address this problem:
- Hire for skills and work experience, not degrees. Rather than using the degree requirement as a default, employers should examine the skills that their jobs require and then use skill requirements for job postings, screenings, and assessments.
- Look for talent where STARs work and learn. Many STARs learn critical-thinking and complex problem-solving skills from work in overlooked sectors such as retail sales and childcare. Companies should expand recruiting pipelines from these sources, reassess referral processes to close what LinkedIn calls the “network gap,” and develop programs to bring STARs on board.
- Invest in STARs to support their career advancement. Such efforts improve efficiency, boost retention, and enhance skills.
Adam Grant echoed those thoughts with the below comment, which accompanied his link to the WSJ article:
Dear employers: stop requiring college degrees in job postings. It systematically disadvantages those who acquire skills through alternative routes—especially people of color. Take it from a college professor: there’s nothing you learn in college that you can’t learn elsewhere. (Yes, I still want my doctors and lawyers to have degrees… but let’s not confuse professional training with a liberal arts education.)
Bryan Caplan holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Princeton University, is professor of economics at George Mason University and the author of the book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Caplan argues that despite being immensely popular–and immensely lucrative—education is grossly overrated. Caplan draws on the latest social science to show how the labor market values grades over knowledge, and he advocates for more vocational education because, “practical skills are more socially valuable than teaching students how to outshine their peers.”
Nick Daugherty is a law enforcement professional and a financial planner and consultant. Nick works individually with law enforcement professionals and trains law enforcement leaders and officers on the topic of financial wellness. In an interview for the Excellence in Training Academy Nick told me that he cautions Chiefs and Sheriffs about having a requirement for a university or college degree. He addresses it from a financial standpoint referring to the massive student loan debt many people incur while acquiring a four-year degree. He shared a story of a young officer who along with his wife were both recent university graduates. While earning their degrees, they had accumulated a combined $250,000.00 in student loan debt. In addition to the student loan debt many new graduates carry they are often newly married and looking to start a family and buy their first home. That financial stress carries over to the job potentially impacting performance and adds to stress in marriages. The result is that many of these newly hired officers are trying to work as much overtime and as many extra duties as possible to manage their debt load. This adds to the already prevalent issue of sleep debt and sleep deprivation in the law enforcement profession. Sleep debt is the one debt that cannot be repaid and is linked to the mental health issues, Type 2 diabetes issues, and obesity issues plaguing law enforcement. It is also linked to impaired decision-making abilities.
It is incumbent on law enforcement agencies to hire the best possible candidates, not just the best candidates from the pool of university graduates. This means rethinking the requirement for a university or college degree and instead looking at each individual applicant and making case-by-case decisions. There are some highly skilled and educated STARs in your communities who would potentially make great law enforcement professionals but are lacking a university degree. Can you really afford to exclude them?
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