Associate degree in homeland security

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What is homeland security?

In response to the devastating 9/11 attacks, the United States government enacted the Homeland Security Act in 2002. A year later, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed. It is the third largest cabinet department and consists of over 240,000 employees at the state, local and federal levels, including:

  • border, maritime and aviation security
  • emergency response and management
  • criminal justice and law enforcement
  • information and economic security
  • cybersecurity
  • intelligence and counterterrorism
  • security technology research and development

The DHS includes over 20 subordinate agencies, including:

  • U.S. Secret Service
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • Customs and Border Protection
  • Transportation Security Administration
  • Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

Homeland security is focused on the prevention and detection of, response to and recovery from terrorist attacks, public health crises and natural and human-made disasters. Non-profits and private companies also employ professionals in this niche.

If you are passionate about keeping American citizens safe, then a career in this multifaceted profession may be for you. Earning a 2-year associate degree in homeland security is the first step many high school graduates take to:

  • acquire working knowledge of homeland security fundamentals and ethics
  • develop the skills and competencies required to pursue entry level positions
  • build an adequate foundation to earn their bachelor degrees
  • gain real life experience for career advancement

Military or personnel working in other fields may also choose to pursue their associate degree for educational and career advancement.

Admission requirements

Most colleges require a minimum GPA of 2.0, an official high school transcript and SAT or ACT scores. In some cases, letters of recommendation are also required. For candidates who want to transfer credits from a related associate degree, a minimum amount of transferable credit units or hours may be mandatory.

Military or law enforcement personnel are usually required to provide proof of service. Be sure to check the precise requirements of your chosen program. If applicable, also inquire whether or not credit transfers and relevant work experience are accepted.

On campus

On-campus programs are usually ideal for students who can commit to their studies full time and earn their associate degree in the usual 2-year time period. It also allows them to network with fellow students, teachers and other professionals.

Online

It is also possible to earn your degree online or study part time. Online programs are typically asynchronous, meaning the coursework is available to complete at any time and students are not held to a specific schedule to attend lectures.

With this range of learning modalities, it is possible to complete this degree at your own pace. Some students finish their associate degree in as little as 18 months, while others spend as long as 3 years. Online degree programs are usually more flexible, making them a good choice for students with prior commitments. Most programs require 60 to 64 credit hours to earn this degree.

Average costs

Precise degree costs depend on various factors. These include your school, program format and whether you study part time or full time. Online programs are generally more affordable than on campus programs and out-of-state students usually pay higher tuition than in-state students.

The average tuition and fees at a 2-year institution for full time students per academic year are estimated as follows:

  • $4,444 at a public in-state institution and $8,516 out-of-state
  • $15,397 at a private non-profit and $15,244 at a private for-profit institution

Scholarships and financial aid

Advancing your education can be expensive. Fortunately, various forms of financial aid opportunities are available from the government, educational institutions and private organizations. The majority of students get help to pay for school, with 59% of community college students receiving some form of financial aid in the 2015/2016 academic year. This typically includes federal and institutional grants, scholarships and study loans. At 2-year colleges and universities, 78% of full time students were awarded financial aid in the 2017-2018 academic year.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a good place to start when looking for financial aid.  

Coursework

Coursework for an associate degree in homeland security varies by program. Every program will include classes on foundational topics like disaster management, emergency response, law enforcement and terrorism.

Some programs may offer elective courses such as cybersecurity or criminal justice administration. Others may provide fieldwork or internship opportunities. Completion of a capstone project may also be required. Some common courses included in this degree are listed below.

Fundamentals and ethics of homeland security

This course explores U.S. homeland security, including organizational development, historic and current legal policies, and best practices. Students also learn about human rights, codes of conduct, and ethical principles.

Introduction to terrorism

Students examine the various types of terrorism, known terrorist groups and other probable threats to U.S. homeland security in this course. They also explore counterterrorism strategies, techniques and resources.

Weapons of mass destruction

This course presents students with an overview of biological, nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Additionally, students learn about potential security threats due to the development and terrorist use of WMDs and how to prepare for such threats.

Disaster preparedness

This course focuses on the required actions and personnel tasked with terrorism incidents, disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Students also gain an understanding of critical infrastructure, national response programs, crime scene operations and fiscal recovery.

Terrorism response operations

This course teaches students about the tactical response protocols, areas where agencies overlap and the efficiency of such operations. It also examines the required proactive and protective measures to mitigate the impact of terrorist incidents.

Program concentrations

If your goal is to work in a particular homeland security niche, then it may be beneficial to choose a specific concentration. Some specializations include the following:

Cybersecurity

The majority of homeland security professions require technological experts in information security. This specialization introduces techniques involved in the identification, investigation and mitigation of cyber threats as well as responses to and recovery from such attacks. 

Criminal justice

An associate degree in homeland security focused on criminal justice can prepare students for positions in various law enforcement agencies. These include police departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Emergency management

A curriculum focusing on emergency management prepares students for roles in government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other organizations tasked with protecting citizens from human-made or natural hazards.

Accreditation

Accreditation ensures that your chosen school or program maintains high quality standards regarding faculty qualifications and student learning outcomes. It also affects financial aid eligibility, course credit transferability and career prospects.

Reputable universities and colleges voluntarily undergo accreditation. This is carried out by higher learning and industry-specific agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education (CHEA).

There are not any industry specific accreditation agencies for homeland security studies. However, it is still crucial that an approved authority accredits your chosen program or school. You can check whether a postsecondary education program or institution is accredited by searching the CHEA database.

Career pathways

Homeland security associate degree holders have a broad range of career opportunities. Some choose to find employment in law enforcement agencies such as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), while others pursue roles in private security. Some popular career options are listed below.

Police officers protect their communities. While not typically required, having an associate degree in homeland security can give you an advantage over other candidates.

An associate degree in homeland security can benefit your career growth as a police officer, as many officers climb the ranks or take roles in specialized units. It is important to note that some police academy training programs require a minimum amount of college credits for admission.

When considering the education norms in police work, the majority of police officers do not get a college degree with 14% on average earning their associate degree and 15% holding a bachelor’s. Officers starting their careers have an average salary of $48,000 and this figure rises to $64,000 and above for their more experienced peers.

Some states only require police officer applicants to have a high school diploma. Regardless, an associate’s degree in homeland security can hold you in good stead for career advancement.

These professionals perform searches at security checkpoints in airports. They’re usually employed by the TSA and hold a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. Transport security officers also identify hazardous or illegal materials and determine whether travelers require additional screening.

Candidates with an associate’s degree in homeland security often have a competitive edge over other applicants. Comparing education levels, 19% of transportation security officers hold a high school diploma, 23% hold an associate’s degree and 38% hold a bachelor’s degree. The average hourly rate of transportation security officers starts at $16.09 and increases to $19.69 with more than 10 years’ experience.

Information security analysts can work for government or private organizations and are tasked with the protection of a company’s or agency’s network and systems. These professionals must stay up to date with the latest cyber attack trends and create contingency plans to mitigate security breaches.

Although many employers require candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree, candidates can find junior- or entry-level positions with an associate degree. The majority of information security analysts have a college degree, with 75% holding a bachelor’s degree. The average annual salary for these professionals ranges from $60,000 for entry level analysts up to $82,000 for those with more than 5 years’ experience.

An associate’s degree in homeland security focusing on cybersecurity may qualify you for junior positions in this field. However, a bachelor’s degree is more commonly required.

Continuing education

After earning their associate degrees, students can enhance their earning potential and pursue a bachelor’s degree in specialized fields, such as:

  • criminology
  • criminal justice
  • cybersecurity
  • homeland security
  • counterterrorism

It is worth noting that a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for some specialized positions in homeland security. Candidates with this qualification can pursue roles such as mission support specialists, emergency management directors and criminal investigators.

Homeland security professionals with senior level, leadership, administrative or advanced research career goals can then pursue their master’s or doctoral degrees. These qualifications can dramatically boost earning potential.

There are also various continuing education programs and certifications available from law enforcement agencies and organizations. While not mandatory, they demonstrate the skills and knowledge required to fulfill certain security positions. Popular options include:

  • Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
  • EC-Council Certified Security Analyst (ECSA)
  • Certified Homeland Protection Professional (CHPP)
  • Certified Homeland Protection Associate (CHPA)
  • Disaster Information Specialist Training

Why should you get this degree?

Earning an associate degree in homeland security builds a foundation for you to enter the workforce and get experience in your chosen field. It also lays the groundwork for earning your bachelor’s degree and certifications. Whether you are a high school graduate or a professional changing careers, this degree offers many opportunities for growth.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) provides information on homeland security careers, including podcasts and frequently asked questions.

The Global Society of Homeland and National Security Professionals provides professional development resources and global security news and information.

The National Homeland Security Association (NHSA) sponsors an annual conference. Each year, security professionals attend to learn about the latest in intelligence and information sharing, cybersecurity and counterterrorism.