The Basics of Higher Education

Dr. Stephenie Slahor

Your reasons for higher education may be connected to the opportunity for promotion, advancement or better salary. Or higher education may be a long held desire to acquire knowledge in your career or your specialization. So, whether your goal is “earn,” “learn” or a combination of both, decide the degree and subject area which will be your focus and which colleges or universities offer the better, or best, programs in that field.

Degree Programs

An associate two year degree program will give your studies an overview and basic foundation (100 and 200 level courses). The associate degree (AA for Associate of Arts) is generally offered at community/junior colleges, technical colleges, vocational schools, and at a few colleges. The degree is usually completed after one year of general college level liberal arts and science courses, and another year of specialized study in the discipline chosen. Associate degrees usually transfer to some of the requirements for the bachelor’s degree’s four year program at a college or university, but it will depend on the courses taken, grades in those courses and any applicable state laws or university policies about transfer of credit.

A bachelor’s degree four year program (also known as a baccalaureate degree) will include basic undergraduate studies, but will add upper division courses (300 and 400 level) for a deeper understanding of the essentials of the field of knowledge. Students with successful high school advanced placement courses, or students who enroll in summer school courses, may be able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in three years.  Commonly, the degree is based on successful completion of courses and generally does not require a senior level thesis, although there are some universities which do have this requirement. The degree is usually designated as a Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA), depending on the college’s classification system and the particular curriculum.

The next level is the master’s degree – an advanced degree in a particular field. A bachelor’s degree is required for admission to a master’s program, but some foundation courses may be necessary if the bachelor’s degree was in a different field, or if it did not contain the correct coursework for the advanced study needed for a master’s degree.  Most colleges and universities require that students seeking admission to a master’s degree program take one, or more, standardized tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination or the Graduate Management Admission Test. These standardized examinations appraise the student’s skills in grammar, vocabulary, mathematics, English, comprehension, analysis, reasoning, and critical thinking. Colleges have a specified point over which the student must score on the standardized test(s) in order to be admitted to the master’s degree program. As its name implies, the master’s degree curriculum is developed to give “mastery” over a particular field of advanced study of both the theoretical and practical aspects. The work involves much more than a bachelor’s degree would and includes a great deal of analysis, evaluation and practical application. A thesis is usually required by most reputable colleges or universities. The thesis is an independent report by the student and considers a complex question or problem, and the findings related to the question’s or problem’s analysis or solution. The typical master’s degree candidate will have a committee of faculty members overseeing the progress of the thesis, and approving – or not approving – it. Ordinarily, one member of that committee is from a field completely unrelated to the master’s degree being sought. This helps evaluate the student’s clarity, reasoning, critical evaluation, and related skills as seen by an “outsider” to the topic being studied in the thesis. The master’s degree is usually designated as a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS) or a specialization such as Master of Education (MEd). The master’s curriculum usually needs two to three years to complete. Among the master’s level offerings pertinent to law enforcement or security are such specializations as criminology, law, cybersecurity, forensics, terrorism, technology and data analytics, social and behavioral psychology, sociological aspects of criminal justice, juvenile delinquency, public finance, urban/intercultural sociology, criminal justice policy, drug policy, statistics in criminal justice, courts/criminal procedure, homeland security, agricultural and food safety biosecurity, management and organizational leadership, and emergency/crisis management.

A doctoral degree in the United States is typically denoted as a Doctor of Philosophy or PhD program, even though the study of philosophy is not actually a major part of the curriculum. (Instead, the designation is based upon the original Greek in which “philosophy” meant “love of wisdom.”) This is the highest academic degree awarded by universities and it carries such prestige that the PhD graduate is entitled to use the title “Doctor” before his/her name, or use the post-nominal letters “PhD” after his/her name.  (Doctorates in theology, law or medicine usually have different designations such as DD for Doctor of Divinity; LLD for Doctor of Laws; JD for Juris Doctor; or MD for Doctor of Medicine.)  While requirements differ from university to university, the PhD program is extremely selective of its candidates. Coursework is at the 500 level and above and the program can take years to complete. Most universities require a doctoral dissertation – a study far more complex and thorough than a master’s degree thesis and which must be original and academic and worthy of publication in a professional, peer-reviewed publication. Just as with a master’s degree, the candidate will have a faculty member committee overseeing the candidate’s individual program and the progress and completion of the dissertation. Rigorous discussions and examinations of the dissertation will take place not only at the completion of the dissertation, but all along its way from start to finish. The final approval (or disapproval) of the dissertation is often called “oral examinations” or “orals” because it is conducted in person by all members of the candidate’s committee and can take hours to complete as the candidate discusses and defends the work done within the dissertation topic. The dissertation can be up to hundreds of pages. As is the case with the master’s degree thesis, and for the same reasons, at least one member of the committee will be from a field completely unrelated to the candidate’s field. In most fields, the PhD degree is a criterion for obtaining a professorship or a research position.

Certificate Programs

A recent addition to higher education is certificate programs. These are sets of courses usually dealing with one specific topic. In law enforcement and security, certificates usually relate to honing abilities and knowledge in law enforcement intelligence and analysis, applied psychology, report writing, or specific communication or judgmental skills. As an example, Michigan State University’s College of Social Science School of Criminal Justice offers certificates in anti-counterfeiting and product protection; conservation criminology; homeland security; international focus; judicial administration; intelligence analysis; and security management. Certificate programs can usually be pursued either while the student is enrolled in a degree program or while he/she is seeking professional development and career enhancement. Many certificate programs involve four to six courses.

Deciding on the college or university to attend means examining programs, course descriptions, retention (how many students continue a program after beginning it), graduation rates, admission policies, costs, quality of faculty, and whether to attend on campus or online.  You can seek help from education counselors, other students, teachers or professors, or the Internet.


One Web-based starting point is which has information for both law enforcement and security concerning programs, and the colleges and universities offering certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and PhD programs.

“College Navigator” is a service of the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Center for Education Statistics. It includes data for over 7600 colleges and universities. Log on to At the top box, type the name of the school you are considering or, in the next box, indicate the state(s) or regions from which you will consider schools. The next box will let you indicate a ZIP code and the number of miles from that ZIP code which you would consider traveling. You may click “Browse For Programs” to find the specific area of study in which you have an interest, such as “Homeland Security” or “Computer and Information Sciences.”  Check the box appropriate to the certificate or degree level, and the type of school you would consider (public, private/nonprofit, four year, etc.). Click the “Show Results” box and you will receive a list appropriate to the specific factors you have indicated. Extended search options allow examining tuition and fees, accreditation, student enrollment, campus type, extended learning opportunities including distance learning, weekend/evening classes, credit for life experiences, religious affiliation, student outcomes, and other items of specific inquiry.

The US Department of Education recently launched “College Scorecard” which functions similarly to College Navigator. Log on to to find and compare schools by programs, degrees, geographic location, size, or name. You can also do advanced searches in the type of school, its specialized mission (religious affiliation, men’s, women’s, Asian, Hispanic, Black, etc.). Other sections of the Web site cover financial aid, calculating aid, GI Bill benefits, schools with lower tuition costs, graduation rates, and other data.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a college-related Web page defined as “a work in progress,” but, if you are a veteran, you will learn about programs and schools.  Log on to and enter your military status, which GI Bill you are considering using for your education, your cumulative post-911 active duty service, whether you will be taking classes online or in class, and the name of a school you are considering. Other pages and links include how to choose a school, the degree you want, how well the school supports veterans, and financing your education.

Also for veterans is the US Department of Defense “Tuition Assistance DECIDE” tool about schools and programs. It is particularly focused to part-time students.  Presently, it compares about 2600 schools. Log on to and click the tab at the top for “Tuition Assistance DECIDE.”

Stephenie Slahor, PhD, JD, is a writer in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at