Higher Education and Law Enforcement Careers: Exploring Gender Differences in the Occupational Goals of Criminal Justice Students

Natalie Martinez[*]


            Historically, police departments in the United States have had low minimum educational requirements for recruits and despite the emergence of research on the advantages of having college-educated police officers, many agencies still only require that recruits possess a high school education.  Further, while criminal justice degree programs have become increasing popular among both male and female students, women continue to be vastly underrepresented as police officers.  This paper discusses the evolution and importance of criminal justice education in law enforcement, explores how gender differences may have an influence on criminal justice students’ decisions to become police officers, and provides recommendations for future research on higher education and law enforcement careers.   



          Over the last several decades, criminal justice has become an increasingly popular major at colleges and universities in the United States.  Currently, over 200 educational institutions offer bachelor’s degree programs in criminal justice and hundreds more offer associate’s degree programs (Finckenauer, 2006).  Both male and female students in these programs frequently indicate a desire to pursue a career in law enforcement as their motivation for majoring in criminal justice (Austin & Hummer, 2000; Courtright & Mackey, 2004; Krimmel & Tartaro, 1999; Yim, 2009).  However, though an increasing number of aspiring police recruits are enrolling in these criminal justice degree programs, the minimum educational requirement for the majority of entry-level law enforcement positions remains low and many police departments still only require that new recruits have a high school education.  Further, despite female criminal justice students’ expressed interest in law enforcement careers, women continue to be vastly underrepresented as police officers.

          As popular as criminal justice degree programs have become, few studies have attempted to determine what factors motivate the students in these programs to pursue certain careers over others within the criminal justice system.  Given that so few women ultimately obtain careers as police officers, it is particularly important to explore the extent to which this female underrepresentation is the result of gender differences among criminal justice students.  Moreover, the knowledge gained through further research on these gender differences may help law enforcement agencies to improve their female recruitment strategies (Seklecki & Paynich, 2007).

Criminal Justice Education in the United States

Police Officer Education in the Early Twentieth Century

Until the early 1900s, police officers were routinely appointed to their positions by local political leaders – of whom the officers were often close associates.  During that time, police officers received little formal job training – if any – and their primary focus was to protect and serve the interests of the local political leaders (Kelling & Moore, 1988; Vollmer & Schneider, 1917).  As a result, many early police officers were notoriously corrupt, as noted by their acceptance of bribes and other payments; infamously brutal in their interactions with suspected criminals; and highly ineffective with regard to crime control.  In response to the dismal state of American policing at the turn of the century, August Vollmer – who served as the chief of police in Berkeley, California from 1909 until 1931 – advocated for numerous police reforms aimed at increasing police efficiency and professionalism (Dinkelspiel, 2010; Polk & Armstrong, 2001). 

At a time when few police officers completed high school (Rydberg & Terrill, 2010),  Vollmer believed higher education to be essential for the professionalization of the police and was the first police administrator to actively focus recruitment efforts on college students (Decker & Huckabee, 2002).  Vollmer also helped to develop the first criminal justice program, which began at the University of California at Berkeley in 1916.  Vollmer required all officers in his department to enroll in the program and attend the classes, which were designed to provide them with training in a variety of subjects and consequently enhance their skills as police officers (Roberg & Bonn, 2004; Vollmer & Schneider, 1917).  Several other colleges and universities developed similar criminal justice programs around the same time, but officer education largely lacked support from police administrators until the 1960s (Roberg & Bonn, 2004).

Changing Attitudes Regarding Officer Education 

The 1960s was an important decade in the evolution of educational standards for police officers.  By the early 1960s, police departments required that recruits possess at least a high school education (Garner, 1998).  Further, police administrators began to change their attitudes about higher education in 1967 when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended increasing the minimum educational requirements for police recruits from a high school diploma (or equivalent) to a bachelor’s degree (Carter & Sapp, 1990).  In making this recommendation, the President’s Commission acknowledged that the civil rights conflicts of the 1960s had both increased the complexity of police responsibilities and created the need to better develop officer’s decision-making skills (Smith & Aamodt, 1997).  In response to this report, the Law Enforcement Educational Program (LEEP) was created under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.  In an effort to increase the educational level of police officers and consequently improve their ability to control crime, LEEP provided federal funding to police departments to encourage and enable their officers to enroll in degree programs.  To accommodate these officers, many colleges and universities developed criminal justice programs (Carter & Sapp, 1990; Finckenaur, 2006; Royberg & Bonn, 2004).  However, most of these programs were poorly designed, offered essentially the same curricula as police training academies, and often lacked academic merit, all of which caused LEEP to be phased out by the 1980s (Roberg & Bonn, 2004).  However, the demise of LEEP did not put an end to criminal justice programs; in fact, these programs have thrived at colleges and universities around the United States.  In contrast to their earlier incarnations, today’s criminal justice programs have better curricula and they have also broadened their once narrow scope to include academic instruction in all areas of the criminal justice system (Roberg & Bonn, 2004).  In addition to careers in law enforcement, today’s criminal justice degree programs can also prepare students for careers in the court system, corrections, and other related fields.

Current Police Department Educational Requirements   

Despite the President’s Commission’s recommendation that law enforcement agencies increase their minimum educational requirements for recruits to a bachelor’s degree, their requirements have remained largely the same for over fifty years.  While federal law enforcement positions do require a bachelor’s degree at minimum (Carlan, 1999), the vast majority of local law enforcement agencies still only require a high school education of prospective police recruits.  Recent estimates indicate that 82 percent of local police departments (Reaves, 2010) and 89 percent of sheriff’s offices (Burch, 2012) only require recruits to have a high school diploma (or equivalent).  However, despite the fact that law enforcement agencies’ educational requirements have changed little in decades, the number of police officers with college educations has been increasing rapidly.  Over 65 percent of police officers had completed some college courses by 1988, increasing from just 46 percent in 1974.  Similarly, the number of officers with a bachelor’s degree increased during the same time from 8.9 percent to 22.6 percent (Carter & Sapp, 1990) and these percentages have continued to increase.  Moreover, because many police departments now require officers to complete at least some college coursework before they can be promoted, an increasing number of police chiefs and other police administrators hold at least a bachelor’s degree (Polk & Armstrong, 2001; Roberg & Bonn, 2004).  What this suggests is that while police administrators were once resistant to employing highly-educated police officers (often because they had little formal education themselves), having highly-educated leaders in police departments may encourage these agencies to place a greater emphasis on higher education in their recruitment and training of new police officers (Roberg & Bonn, 2004).

Research on College-Educated Police Officers

Due to the general lack of support regarding higher education in law enforcement in earlier decades, it was only after the release of the President’s Commission’s recommendation that researchers began to seriously study the differences between college-educated and non-college educated officers.  The findings have sometimes been mixed; for example, in a study of three metropolitan police departments in different regions of the United States, Worden (1990) found virtually no correlation between officers’ educational levels and either their attitudes regarding police work or the citizens’ perceptions of their job performance.  However, Smith and Aamodt (1997) noted that the degree to which officers’ educational levels have an influence on their behavior and performance is sensitive to how those characteristics are defined and measured – and may account for the discrepancies in the findings of different studies.  

In support of Smith and Aamodt’s assertion (and in contrast to Worden’s findings), much of the research spanning from the 1970s onward suggests that college-educated police officers perform the responsibilities of their jobs better than non-college educated officers do (Carlan, 1999; Roberg & Bonn, 2004).  For example, Smith and Aamodt found that supervisors rated college-educated officers higher than non-college educated officers in several performance categories including communication skills, public relations, report writing, decision-making, and commitment to the profession.  Similarly, using self-evaluations of police performance, Krimmel (1996) found that college-educated officers also rated  themselves higher than non-college educated officers did in approximately 90 percent of the performance categories included in the analysis.  Likewise, Kakar (1998) found that college-educated officers rated themselves higher in various police performance categories and those officers who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree rated themselves higher than those officers who had only some college education.  In contrast to Worden, who found no substantial differences in citizen’s perceptions of police officers’ performance, Kappler, Sapp, and Carter (1992) found that officers with college degrees had fewer substantiated citizen complaints accusing them of rudeness.  Further, the 29 percent of officers in the sample who had not completed a college degree accounted for 42 percent of all the substantiated complaints brought against officers in the department.          

Career Goals of Criminal Justice Students

          Over the years, students in criminal justice programs have been the subjects of very few studies and consequently, knowledge about these students remains limited.  Nonetheless, existing studies have explored some of the characteristics of criminal justice students and provided some insight as to how male and female students differ in their desire to work in the criminal justice field.  According to the research, careers in law enforcement are consistently highly desired positions in the criminal justice field, both among criminal justice students and students majoring in other programs (Courtright & Mackey, 2004).  Similarly, the majority of criminal justice students choose to major in these programs because of a desire to pursue a career in law enforcement (Krimmel & Tartaro, 1999; Yim, 2009).  However, gender differences do exist, with male criminal justice students being consistently more likely than female criminal justice students to express a desire to pursue a career in law enforcement (Courtright & Mackey, 2004; Krimmel & Tartaro, 1999; Tontodonato, 2006; Yim, 2009).  Interestingly, female criminal justice students are more likely than male criminal justice students to prefer careers in corrections (Courtright & Mackey, 2004; Yim, 2009) or to express a desire to continue their education by attending law school upon graduation (Courtright & Mackey, 2004; Krimmel & Tartaro, 1999; Tontodonato, 2006; Yim, 2009).

          Research also indicates that male and female students differ in their perceptions about working in the criminal justice field.  Yim (2009) found that while the majority of criminal justice students had a desire to work in law enforcement, males were more likely than females  to believe that they were qualified to be police officers and that females were more likely to believe that they were qualified for work in a legal profession.  Considering that these perceptions aligned well with the students’ intended post-graduation plans, it seems possible that the student’s perceptions of their own abilities had some influence on those decisions.

Influences on Students’ Perceptions of Criminal Justice Professionals

          Research suggests that students’ perceptions about careers in the criminal justice field may be shaped by a couple of different factors.  Courtright and Mackey (2004) suggested that the masculine undertones typically associated with jobs in law enforcement may make those positions less appealing for female students who instead choose to pursue social service-oriented careers.  However, Dorworth and Henry (1992) alternatively suggested that the representation of women in criminal justice education may have a subconscious influence on students’ perceptions of the gender-appropriateness of different careers in the criminal justice system.  In a study that examined the visual representation of women in introductory criminal justice college textbooks, Dorworth and Henry found that men were eleven times more likely than women to be portrayed in the books’ photographs as authority figures in the criminal justice system (e.g., police officers, correctional officers, judges, criminologists) and that women were four times more likely than men to be portrayed as victims of crime – arguably the most powerless role in the criminal justice system.  In photographs that included both men and women, men were six times more likely to be portrayed as the authority figure.  Interestingly, Dorworth and Henry noted that men were the sole authors of 20 of the 22 textbooks included in the analysis and that only one of the books was authored solely by a woman.  Though the possibility was not addressed in the study, it may be that male authors portray females as non-authority figures more frequently than female authors do.  If this is indeed the case, the overrepresentation of male-authored textbooks in introductory criminal justice course may be one factor that influences female students’ perceptions of their own suitability for a career in law enforcement.       

College Students’ Perceptions of Female Police Officers

          Though few studies have examined college students’ attitudes regarding female police officers, the available research suggests that male and female students have differing attitudes.  For example, in a study of college students at a small university located in the northeastern United States, Austin and Hummer (2000) found that male students (in any college major) were less likely than female students to have a positive opinion of women becoming police officers.  Further, among all the college students, male criminal justice students were the least supportive of female police officers.  However, comparing their findings to those of similar earlier studies, Austin and Hummer did note that the attitudes among both male and female college students regarding female police officers have become increasingly more positive since the 1970s.  However, Haba et al. (2009) found that among college students at a Texas University, gender was not a reliable predictor of supportive attitudes toward female police officers.  Instead, they found that the students who had the most supportive attitudes were those who had a greater feminist orientation.  In further contrast to Austin and Hummer’s study, they found that male criminal justice students were no less supportive of female police officers than male students in other programs.  Haba et al. suggested that this finding may indicate that positive attitudes among male criminal justice students toward female police officers continued to increase in the intervening years between the two studies.              

Women in Law Enforcement

The History of Women in Law Enforcement

Law enforcement has always been a male-dominated profession; prior to the 1970s, women were largely excluded from being police officers due to discriminatory hiring practices.  The few women who did meet police departments’ unfair standards were generally not assigned to regular patrol as male officers were; rather, they were typically assigned to clerical positions or to work with juveniles and perform other social service duties (Kakar, 2002).  However, two major legal reforms in the early 1970s enabled a greater number of women to enter law enforcement careers and be given the same duties as male police officers.  In 1971, the Griggs v. Duke Power Company decision.  held that job requirements had to be related to the duties of the position (Roberg & Bonn, 2004).  For police officers, this decision removed the minimum height and weight requirements that had so often excluded female applicants after it was determined that these characteristics were not essential for carrying out police duties.  In 1972, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the Equal Opportunity Employment Act – was passed.  The Act prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin and thus further enabled women to obtain employment as law enforcement officers (Seklecki & Paynich, 2007).  However, despite the changes in hiring practices that have occurred over the last few decades and the research that suggests that a substantial number of female criminal justice students are interested in law enforcement careers, women continue to be underrepresented as police officers.  Recent estimates indicate that women represent just over ten percent of all police officers in both local police departments and sheriff’s offices (Hickman & Reaves, 2006a; 2006b).

Research on Female Police Officers

Research suggests that female police officers perceive that they are at least equally as competent as male police officers are.  In a self-report survey on police performance, Kakar (2002) found that female and male officers rated themselves equally in three-quarters of all performance measures.  Further, the female officers rated themselves higher in the areas of problem-solving, conflict resolution, and willingness to take advice from others.  Similarly, Seklecki and Paynich (2007) found that female police officers believed that overall, they perform their duties as well as male officers do, but did believe that they outperform them in terms of conflict resolution, responding to calls for service, interviewing witnesses, investigating, and report writing.

Research also suggests that female police officers tend to be more educated than their male counterparts are.  For example, Carter and Sapp (1990) found that female officers, on average, had one more year of education than male officers and twice as many females had a bachelor’s or master’s degree as males did.  More recently, Seklecki and Paynich found that 34 percent of the female officers in their survey had earned a bachelor’s degree and that over 86 percent had completed at least some college courses.

Perceptions of Female Inferiority in Law Enforcement

Kakar (2002) suggests that police departments began hiring more women only in response to legal and political pressures and not because they believed that women would make good police officers.  Thus, the continued underrepresentation of women in law enforcement may be an indication that police culture still perpetuates the belief that women are inferior to men as police officers.  For example, Marion (1998) found that while police academy training equips officers with the knowledge to perform their duties effectively, it also perpetuates gender stereotypes that may affect how female officers are perceived.  Prokos and Padavic (2002) similarly found that police academy training emphasizes masculinity in police work and portrays women as outsiders to police culture.    


Women have traditionally faced much opposition in the male-dominated policing profession.  However, as increasingly more police recruits enter the field with a college education, attitudes regarding the suitability of women as police officers may continue to improve.  In order to increase the representation of women in law enforcement, it is important for research on criminal justice student s to continue.


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[*] Natalie Martinez is a graduate student in the Criminal Justice Department at UNLV.  This paper was an assignment for a graduate course called Seminar on the Administration of Justice.