Exploring the Major and Career Decisions of Homeland Security Students


Homeland security programs have grown dramatically throughout the past twenty years. While extensive research has been conducted to identify the need, legitimacy, and core competencies of such programs, there is a dearth of information regarding homeland security students’ education and career decisions. This exploratory study extends similar questions in criminal justice student decision-making to homeland security, examining the influencing factors and demographics of 63 homeland security students’ college major and career decisions. Findings demonstrate that homeland security students are primarily planning to work within the homeland security field, specifically in counterterrorism and emergency management roles, and preferably at the federal level. Comprehension of the type of student pursuing a homeland security degree and their goals can inform such programs on how to build on prior knowledge and better assist students in preparing for homeland security careers

Keywords: Homeland Security; Education; Characteristics of Homeland Security Students; Homeland Security Careers

*Note: Special thanks to Thomas Rzemyk, Ed.D. for his input and feedback on the development of the homeland security student survey.


In 2019, 637 of the 6,527 colleges and universities tracked through the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) offered some form of homeland security (HS) studies. This represents a 182% increase in the number of HS programs reported in 2013. Additionally, 410 of the 637 colleges and universities offered the program partially or entirely online in 2019. These numbers include graduate and undergraduate degree and certificate programs that fall within the NCES categories: Homeland Security, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Operations, Critical Infrastructure Protection, Crisis/Emergency/Disaster Management, and Cyber/Computer Forensics, and Counterterrorism. With the dramatic growth in HS college programs, it is essential to examine the circumstances impacting student decision-making in selecting such education. While extensive research has been conducted regarding the development and legitimacy of homeland security college and university programs, attention has not been applied to the factors that influence college students to select HS as a major or as a career.


Literature Review

After the events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government sought to address national security concerns and quickly developed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002. Over the years, the DHS integrated twenty-two federal agencies into the current department (Creation of the Department of Homeland Security, 2015). With the development of the DHS and focus on HS careers, colleges and universities responded by developing programs specializing in HS (Ramirez & Rioux, 2012). Subsequent to security and weather-related emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, education programs continued to respond with expanded offerings in emergency preparedness and government policy and procedure (Recca, 2012).

Homeland security programs range from certificates (undergraduate/graduate), associate, bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees, frequently housed in public administration, criminal justice, and homeland security departments. Homeland security programs include classes on Terrorism, Threats to the Homeland, Risk Management, Intelligence, Border Security, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Emergency Management, and Cyber Security, among many others (Bellavita & Gordon, 2006; Recca, 2012). Frequently, homeland security studies are offered as concentrations within a criminal justice (CJ) degree (Sloan & Buchwalter, 2017).

Through a survey of over 5,000 DHS employees, Ramirez and Rioux (2012) found that there was a demand for HS education and specifically for it to be delivered in an online format. While criminal justice and business management were the most common degrees held by the respondents, over 42% of those with bachelor’s degrees and 49% of employees with master’s degrees reported that had an HS degree been available, they would have selected it as a major (Ramirez & Rioux, 2012).

Despite the evident demand for HS professionals, the legitimacy of HS as a discipline has been questioned (Falkow, 2013; Pelfrey, 2013). Bellavita and Gordon (2006) asserted that HS was in a pre-paradigm stage, and others stated that HS lacked universal educational standards, core competencies, or accreditation, calling for curriculum reform (McCreight, 2014; Stewart & Vocino, 2013). Alternatively, Comiskey (2015) argued that HS programs had achieved consistency in core topics, curricula, and multi/interdisciplinary approaches, despite that the field itself is ever-evolving. Comiskey (2018) found that HS programs regularly teach and utilize theory throughout all levels of HS study.

While various research has been conducted to assess the variety of courses and content offered in HS programs, there has been limited research surrounding student factors.  Comparatively, a variety of research has explored similar factors in the decision-making of CJ students. For example, in a study of 400 undergraduate students, Krimmel and Tartaro (1999) found that CJ majors most often report the desire to pursue law enforcement careers, and they select their majors because they believe studying CJ to be interesting and relevant to the real world. Similar findings by Ridener and colleagues (2020) found that the degree’s interest and relevance were influential in major selection for CJ students. Lack of research regarding why HS students choose HS as a college major or career led to this exploratory study.

Current Study

The purpose of this descriptive study was to explore the characteristics of homeland security students. The study extends the research on students’ career and major decisions to the specific field of homeland security. With the permission of one of the researchers, Krimmel and Tartaro’s (1999) survey regarding criminal justice students’ decisions was adapted to inquire about general influences on student decision-making and included questions specific to homeland security.

The data for this study was collected during the fall of 2020, primarily through course announcements at one online university and through social media posts (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn). Only students who stated they were majoring in homeland security were eligible to complete the survey. A total of 63 students from two online universities completed the survey.


Respondents ranged from 20 to 61, with a mean age of 38.  The majority (68.3%) of the respondents were male, and 31.7% were female. The majority (69.8%) of the students were White/Caucasian, followed by Black/African American (12.7%), Mixed Race (7.9%), Native American/Indian, and Pacific Islander, each 1.6%, and 6.3% of the respondents responded with Other. Additionally, 17.5% of the respondents stated they were Hispanic/Latino.

Table 1

Summary Statistics

Variable N %
     Mean:  38.37 5555
     Range: 20-61
     Male 43 68.3
     Female 20 31.7
     White/Caucasian 44 69.8
      Black/African American 8 12.7
      Native American/Indian 1 1.6
      Pacific Islander 1 1.6
      Mixed Race 5 7.9
      Other 4 6.3
     Hispanic/Latino 11 17.5
     Non-Hispanic Latino 52 82.5


Students were asked questions about other personal characteristics such as family and political affiliation. The majority of the respondents stated they were married (73%), 12.7% were divorced, 11.1% had never been married, 1.6% were widowed, and 0 students reported being separated. Most (71.4%) were parents. Over half of the students (54%) consider themselves Republican, while only 3% identified as Democrat; however, 17.5% stated they were Independent, and almost a quarter (23.8%) stated they had no preference or political affiliation.

Student Characteristics

Participants were asked several questions regarding their student status. The majority (82.5%) of the students reported Homeland Security as their major. The remaining 11 students reported majors such as Emergency Management, Criminal Justice, Terrorism, and Cybersecurity. The respondents were primarily undergraduate students (98.4%) of those, the majority (58.7%), of the students reported a Senior status, there was one master’s degree student, no freshmen, and the remaining students were 30.2% Juniors and 9.5% Sophomores. Most students reported a GPA of 3.0 to 3.9 (52.4%), 30.2% held a 4.0, 15.9% reported a 2.0-2.9 GPA, and 1.6% reported a 1.0-1.9 GPA.

Homeland Security Education

Students were asked a series of questions scaled (1=Strongly Disagree, 2=Somewhat Disagree, 3=Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4=Somewhat Agree, 5= Strongly Agree) regarding their reason for selecting homeland security as a major. Table 2 provides the statements, along with response means and standard deviations.

Table 2

Student Reasons for Choosing a Major in Homeland Security (n=60)

Mean SD
I thought the subject matter was relevant to the real world. 4.76 0.47
I thought the subject matter was very interesting. 4.66 0.51
I am majoring in Homeland Security because I want to work somewhere within Homeland Security. 4.38 0.77
I thought the subject was relevant to my current job. 4.11 1.29
I thought a college degree would increase my job status. 4.08 1.18
I was told this major was appropriate for my career goals. 3.95 1.21
I thought the course content would include less mathematics. 2.61 1.23
I thought the course content would include less science. 2.27 1.04
I was influenced by someone in the US Military. 2.19 1.41
I was influenced by somebody in the field to do so. 2.19 1.41
I was influenced by someone in the US Military that is serving in active duty. 2.19 1.41
I was influenced by a crime or military related TV show. 1.92 1.08
I was influenced by a crime or military related TV book. 1.81 1.14
I thought the course content was easier than other majors. 1.74 0.97
I was influenced by a family member to do so. 1.71 1.062
I was influenced by somebody in high school to do so. 1.44 0.842

Note: Statement choices for above questions: 1=Strongly disagree, 2=Disagree, 3=Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4=Agree, 5=Strongly Agree; 3 students are missing data.

Current Employment Characteristics

When asked about current employment, students primarily (87.3%, n=55) reported that they were employed. Of those, law enforcement (22.2%, n=14) was the most frequently reported occupational field, followed by the military (17.5%, n=11), Firefighter (7.9%), Emergency Medical Services (5%), Corrections (3.2%), Private Security/Loss Prevention (2%), and the remaining categories were each 1.6% (Academia, Disaster Preparedness, Emergency Management, Intelligence). Most of the respondents (68.3%) reported having experience in either law enforcement (27.0%) or the military (33.3%), or both (7.9%).

Students were asked to respond to a series of yes/no questions about employer incentives or support for degree completion if they were employed. Of those who responded, most reported employer tuition reimbursement (50.9%, n=53). However, most of the respondents (88.7%, n=47) reported that they were not provided time off to attend class. See Table 3 for a breakdown of incentives and support reported by respondents. Respondents were able to select more than one category.

Table 3

Employer Incentives or Support (n=53)

Yes No
Salary increase 17 36
Promotion/Career advancement 22 31
Employer tuition reimbursement 27 26
Shift-adjustment/time off to facilitate attending class 6 47


Homeland Security Careers

Table 4 displays results related to why students chose a career in HS. Most students agreed (82.5%) they were majoring in homeland security because they intended to work in the field, 17.5% neither agreed or disagreed, while no students disagreed.  Students most frequently reported that they intended to work in Counterterrorism (33.3%) or Emergency Management (23.8%), followed by Cyber Investigations/Crime (9.5%), Law Enforcement (9.5%), Disaster Preparedness (6.3%), Investigations (4.8%) Government Affairs (3.2%), Immigration (1.6%), and Surveillance (1.6%). Most respondents (57.1%) indicated they sought to work at the Federal level, with 20.6% stating they wanted to work at the State level, 9.5% at the County level, and 12.7% at the Local/Municipal level.

Table 3

Student Reasons for Choosing a Career in Homeland Security (n=60)

Mean SD
I seek a position where I can help people solve problems. 4.63 0.581
I seek a position where members are treated equally. 4.57 0.722
I seek a position where I can protect the Constitution. 4.42 0.787
I seek a position where I can excel (be promoted). 4.39 0.871
I seek a position where I can protect people from oppression. 4.35 0.777
I seek an exciting position. 4.30 0.809
I seek a secure position. 4.25 0.914
I seek a position with benefits. 4.22 1.027
I want to make a decent salary. 4.13 1.040
I seek a career or position that instills patriotism. 4.12 0.904
I seek a position where I can meet lots of people. 3.78 0.922
I want to arrest bad guys. 3.60 1.224
I seek a position where I can carry a gun. 3.22 1.106
I seek a career that aligns with my military career in the civilian sector. 3.18 1.490
I want to have status in the community. 2.93 1.118
It will be easy to find a job in this field. 2.90 0.877
I seek a position where I can wear a uniform. 2.82 1.142

Note: Statement choices for above questions: 1=Strongly disagree, 2=Disagree, 3=Neither Agree nor Disagree, 4=Agree, 5=Strongly Agree; 3 students are missing data.


This study has provided a descriptive overview of the education and career decisions made by students majoring in homeland security. Despite dialogues regarding the best curriculum for homeland security, it has found a place in higher education in the U.S. Students are drawn to the major due to its relevance to the real world and their current jobs and the interesting subject matter. Survey respondents reported no influence by media (books or TV shows), nor family, friends, or military members.

This study demonstrates that an overwhelming majority of students majoring in homeland security intend to work in the field, with a third planning on careers in Counterterrorism and nearly a quarter in Emergency Management. These outcomes differ from a prior study, which found that most students majoring in CJ plan for law enforcement careers (Krimmel & Tartaro, 1999; Yim, 2009). This finding was particularly interesting as almost a quarter of the currently employed students were working in law enforcement careers, not to mention that most of the students reported experience in law enforcement. Also of note, most students planning to work in homeland security are aiming for federal-level positions.

Finally, students report seeking a homeland security degree because of the desire to help others by solving problems and protecting them from oppression and protecting the Constitution. They also indicate that job qualities such as exciting and secure positions with earning potential and benefits are motivations for selecting homeland security careers.


This study was limited by small sample size. Due to a low number of responses, the opportunity for higher-level analyses is limited. Additionally, since only online students completed the survey, it may be difficult to generalize to students in more traditional programs which potentially contain fewer students already employed in the field.

Future Research

Future research on homeland security education and careers should focus on obtaining a larger sample. Sufficient samples sizes are determined by the type of analyses conducted. For example, the rule of thumb for regression models are 30 observations for simple regression, adding 10 more observations for each additional variable of interest (Verma, 2019). Including online, face-to-face, and hybrid programs would allow for comparisons between students’ motivating factors by program type. Additional comparative studies could include data from both homeland security and criminal justice majors, as they are often viewed similarly to identify if there are significant differences in the students’ education and career goals.


This paper presents the first exploratory study to examine the influential factors for homeland security students. Just as educators strive to align homeland security curriculum with the demands of the field, it will also benefit them to address the desires of their students. By identifying the influential factors on homeland security students’ major and career decisions, programs can assist in preparing students for those careers. Additionally, by identifying that many students come to a homeland security program with military and professional experience, educators can also develop courses that build on prior foundational knowledge.



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Sherah L. Basham, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social, Cultural, and Justice Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has over 20 years of experience in the criminal justice field in the areas of administration, investigations, campus security, and higher education. She holds a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from Walden University, an MSA in Criminal Justice from the University of West Florida, and a BS in Criminal Justice from Pensacola Christian College. Her research interests include policing, campus law enforcement, and education.

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