New police recruits could be fast-tracked from university into specialist roles in an overhaul of routes into the service.
Most would-be officers will be expected to complete a police degree under a proposed shake-up set out by the professional body for policing.
The planned model raises the prospect of forces moving graduates quickly into in-demand areas such as child abuse or cyber crime rather than spending long periods cutting their teeth on the beat after they join.
Candidates would gain experience of policing on the streets during practical placements as part of the new degree course, while they could also develop knowledge of specific areas by taking specialist modules during their studies.
Launching a consultation on the plans, College of Policing chief executive Alex Marshall said: "The fact that it's a practical police degree means they will have already spent a lot of time on the street in uniform with experienced officers working in local communities.
"This will allow police forces to work out what they need particularly in terms of specialisms and will allow a different make-up of the workforce and people to move much more quickly into those specialist roles."
Policing has changed a lot in recent years, he said, citing an increase in online crime and public protection work.
He added: "I have a lot of sympathy with people who ... may well say, 'well, I didn't need it when I joined, so why do they need it now?'.
"That's a view I expect we will hear in the consultation but anyone who has a good look at how police work has changed and is changing and the new skills we need I think will appreciate the reasons behind it."
Those who gain a professional degree in policing will have to fund their studies themselves in the new regime, which could yield "substantial" savings for forces.
Currently the cost of training an applicant after they are accepted is met by the taxpayer.
Bursaries, scholarships and loans could be used to help those unable to fund the costs of the course.
The college conceded that those who complete the degree course will not be guaranteed a job and will have to go through normal recruitment processes.
More than a third (38%) of those coming into policing currently have a degree or post-graduate qualification but there is no set education level nationally for any role or rank.
The college said the inconsistency "risks undermining the professionalism" of the service and called for a nationwide "qualifications framework".
Existing officers and staff would have the option of gaining accredited qualifications for the skills they have already mastered, while three new entry routes for constables would be created: an undergraduate policing degree, a conversion programme for graduates in other subjects, and a higher-level apprenticeship combining on-the-job training with studying for a qualification.
Mr Marshall said: "We know there have been concerns about academic qualifications putting off potential applicants which is why we are proposing a higher level apprenticeship where new recruits can earn while training and gaining their degree-level qualification.
"There is evidence that the status of professions can be important to people from minority ethnic backgrounds so this may attract higher numbers of people from some under-represented groups."
Graduate-level entry to policing is unlikely to be introduced before September 2019.
The Police Federation of England and Wales backed accredited qualifications for existing officers and the idea of a standardised training framework.
Chairman Steve White said: "However, we are concerned by the implication that would-be police officers might be put off joining the service because they are unable to pay the upfront costs of training.
"What would be next - fighter pilots in the RAF having to pay for their flight training?
"There is a real danger of marginalising and excluding good quality candidates from all communities by limiting the pool of potential candidates."
He added: "We have serious concerns around the idea of direct entry to specialist positions - for instance, superintendent level - because a degree is not an indication that someone will make a good police officer.
"Policing is a complex business that requires on-the-ground knowledge.
"The bedrock of the tradition of British policing is the omnicompetent officer - around the world the standard of British policing is held up as great, and we do not want to see that diluted."