Criminal Justice Degree Programs
Law enforcement and criminal justice are big industries in the U.S., and formal education can be your ticket to an upwardly mobile career in the business of fighting crime. Whether you've got no college experience yet at all or you're already educated in another discipline, campus-based and online colleges for criminal justice have got programs in place that can give you the training you need.
Depending on the concentration you choose within the criminal justice field, you may be able to earn your degree without having to commit to a schedule of appearances at a brick-and-mortar campus. Check out these National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) numbers on how many traditional and online criminal justice programs are available in each U.S. region:
|Region||No. of schools offering criminal justice degrees||No. of schools with online criminal justice degree programs|
|Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI)||257||46|
|Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO)||76||26|
|Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK)||239||73|
|Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD)||221||82|
|Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV)||599||194|
|Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI)||354||58|
|Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.)||272||54|
|New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME)||111||33|
|Total (all 50 states)||2129||566|
Entry-level criminal justice degrees
If your goal is just to get your foot in the door of the industry, an entry-level degree in criminal justice is often all you need to get started. Here's a quick primer on what you can expect from undergraduate degree plans at campus-based and online schools for criminal justice:
- Associate degrees - Criminal justice degree plans at community and junior colleges work primarily to introduce students to general concepts in the discipline, including criminal law, correctional systems, criminal investigations, evidence processing, forensic science, policing, professional criminal justice terminology and more. These programs commonly take about two years of full-time study to complete and include a full complement of general education courses along with their subject-specific work.
- Bachelor's degrees - Four-year programs at campus-based and online colleges for criminal justice allow students to look at their concepts in greater detail and help fill in the theoretical contexts for introductory information. Coursework varies from program to program, but examples include law enforcement administration, victimology, juvenile delinquency, criminal behavior, white collar crime, cybercrime, terrorism, sociology and criminal justice ethics. Some traditional or online schools for criminal justice will also allow you to specialize your study toward a certain professional field or scope of practice.
- Non-degree study - Undergraduate certificates in criminal justice can be a great way to test the waters of academia without committing to a full-fledged degree plan. Criminal justice certificates usually take between 15 and 18 credit hours of study and can be a great choice for anyone who's looking for a job in a police station or correctional facility and wants to differentiate themselves from the rest of the hiring pool.
If you're unsure about your ability to commit enough time or money to a traditional criminal justice degree program, it's helpful to remember that many of the classes taken on the road to a degree in criminal justice can be taught with equal effectiveness using digital distance education. Don't forget to look into online schools for criminal justice when you're thinking about where to enroll.
Advanced-degree criminal justice programs
Advancement to the upper levels of the criminal justice profession often requires some type of advanced education, whether it's a graduate degree, a PhD or focused non-degree work in a certain specialization. Here are some details about what you can expect from each type of program, whether you attend campus-based or online colleges for criminal justice:
- Master's degree programs - Graduate degrees in criminal justice are offered as Master of Science (MS), Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) degrees, and they tend to focus primarily on deeper explorations of subjects similar to those introduced during undergraduate study. Many institutions encourage students at the graduate level to choose a concentration for their criminal justice study common concentrations include criminal behavior analysis, crime prevention, cybersecurity and corrections & rehabilitation.
- Doctorate programs - In order to contribute to the discipline of criminal justice at the research and policy level, many students go on to finish their educations with extensive post-graduate study in the field. A vast majority of degrees available at this level are Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees, and students can expect to learn a great deal about research methods and statistical analysis alongside the continued drilling down into the core concepts of law enforcement, criminological theory, social science and the administration of the criminal justice system.
- Graduate certificates - Students who already have a bachelor's in a related field can bring some advanced criminal justice skills into their employment skillset with these non-degree study plans. Most graduate certificates in criminal justice take around 12 credit hours of study to complete, although program length does vary from institution to institution. These certificates differentiate themselves from their undergraduate counterparts by often taking a theoretical or philosophical approach to the material, rather than the more practical, actionable approach often used at the undergraduate level.
Both graduate and post-graduate degrees at can be found online at schools for criminal justice, and the digital distance education environment can be a real blessing if you're looking to move up in a career path for which you're already working full time. If you do choose to go the online route, remember to double-check that your chosen school is accredited before enrolling.
Q&A with an expert
Linda Bucci, chair of the justice studies department at Lasell College
Why would you encourage someone to pursue a degree in criminal justice?
A criminal justice degree at a practice-oriented college provides a student with both a broad skill-based education in the liberal arts with the professional exposure to advancing in the field.
What are the most common educational paths for students interested in a criminal justice career?
Criminal justice majors may pursue graduate or law school, work in law enforcement agencies or in the courts, or in other governmental agencies at the local, state and federal level. They can also pursue employment in investigative or emergency management or security work in the private or public sector.
What are some extra-curricular steps that students can take to make sure that they're getting the most out of their criminal justice degree?
Criminal justice majors get great exposure and experience by participating in internships, student clubs and teams that expose them to aspects of the field and provide exposure and work on various skills, like criminal justice clubs and organizations on campus, mock trial teams, service-learning trips, organized sports and study abroad.
What advice would you have for a student who is just beginning to consider criminal justice as a career path?
Explore and expose yourself to various criminal justice college programs, and network with professionals in the field you may know through family, friends and employers who can discuss their job choices with you. Gather as much information as you can from reliable sources and do not be afraid to talk to people in the field.
Types of criminal justice careers
Studying criminal justice can put you on track for career advancement in legal careers in areas such as law enforcement, public administration and more. Here are a few careers criminal justice degrees can qualify you for, along with some employment and salary data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics:
|Occupation title||National mean annual salary
|Projected job growth
|Total U.S. employment
|Probation officer||$53,360||4 percent||91,700||Bachelor's degree|
|Police detective||$80,540||4 percent||108,720||Bachelor's degree|
|Substance abuse or behavior disorder counselor||$41,870||22 percent||94,900||Bachelor's degree|
|Private investigator||$52,880||5 percent||34,900||Bachelor's degree|
|Criminologist||$78,810||No change||2,600||Master's degree|
|Criminal justice teacher, postsecondary||$61,750||21 percent||17,400||Master's degree|
Common misconceptions about criminal justice degrees
The effects of criminal justice may be in the news more often than those of other academic fields, but that doesn't mean it's better understood by the general public. Make sure you're not working with any of these mistaken notions in mind as you take steps toward your own criminal justice education:
Misconception: You don't need a degree to make a career out of criminal justice.
- Fact: Some positions in law enforcement and the penitentiary system are available to non-degree candidates, but advancement can be difficult without formal education. Degrees in criminal justice are like physical therapy degrees in that way, or like degrees in early childhood education, which is to say that it's possible to find an entry-level job in the field without them but progress up the career ladder often requires the degree.
Misconception: Criminal justice graduates all end up in the same type of jobs.
- Fact: Law enforcement and social service organizations are a fairly diverse bunch, particularly once you get to the administrative level. Combining your criminal justice degree with some marketing training could get you a job doing public relations for a city police force, for example, or adding criminal justice skills to a nursing degree might lead to a position in health advocacy for prison populations.
Misconception: Degrees from online colleges for criminal justice aren't respected by employers.
- Fact: Thanks to a job market flooded with online degrees in computer programming, education, business, health care and other fields, it's increasingly the case that your employer cares more about the school where you earned the degree than whether or not you attended classes in person. As long as you can show that you've gained the knowledge and skills taught in the degree program, today's campus-based and online degrees are functionally the same.
How can I enroll in an online criminal justice degree program?
The first step toward enrollment at any college or university is to get in touch and find out first-hand from the admissions department how to proceed. Check out the listings we've provided below, choose a few schools that have what you're looking for and get in touch to find out what it takes to officially get on the path to your degree.
- School pages, accessed February 23, 2016: Criminal Justice Degree Classes, Remington College, http://www.remingtoncollege.edu/criminal-justice-as-training-courses/; Associate of Science: Criminal Justice, Colorado Christian University, http://catalog.ccu.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=22&poid=4730; Associate Degree in Criminal Justice Program Curriculum, Ashworth College, https://www.ashworthcollege.edu/associate-degrees/criminal-justice/curriculum/; Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice, Southern New Hampshire State University, http://www.shsu.edu/programs/bachelor-degree-in-criminal-justice/; Online Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice, Strayer University, http://www.strayer.edu/degree/bachelors-degree/criminal-justice; Online Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice, University of Maryland University College, http://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/bachelors-degrees/criminal-justice-major.cfm; Criminal Justice - Bachelor of Arts Degree, Law and Justice Specialization, University of Nevada, Reno, http://www.unr.edu/degrees/criminal-justice/ba-law-justice ; Undergraduate Certificate in Criminal Justice, Liberty University Online, http://www.liberty.edu/online/certificate/criminal-justice/; Criminal Justice Undergraduate Certificate, Boston University, http://www.bu.edu/met/programs/undergraduate/criminal-justice-certificate/; Criminal Justice Master's Degree Program, saint Joseph's University, http://online.sju.edu/programs/criminal-justice-masters.asp; Master's in Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, http://cjonline.uc.edu/; Online Master of Criminal Justice, Boston University, http://www.bu.edu/online/programs/graduate-degree/master-criminal-justice/; Doctoral Program in Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/doctoral-program-criminal-justice; Ph.D. in Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University, http://www.shsu.edu/graduate-catalog/2013-2015/criminal-justice/doctorate-of-philosophy-in-criminal-justice.html; Online PhD in Criminal Justice, Walden University, https://www.waldenu.edu/doctoral/phd-in-criminal-justice; Criminal Justice Administration, Graduate Certificate, University of South Florida, http://www.usf.edu/innovative-education/programs/graduate-certificates/criminal-justice-administration.aspx; Online Certificate of Completion/Degree Specialization in Criminal Justice Leadership, Colorado State University Global Campus, https://csuglobal.edu/graduate/programs/certificates-completion/criminal-justice-leadership; Graduate Certificate in Criminal Justice and Criminology, Ball State University, http://cms.bsu.edu/academics/collegesanddepartments/online/academics/programs/graduate/certificates/criminaljustice/requirements
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed February 23, 2016: Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/Probation-officers-and-correctional-treatment-specialists.htm; Police and Detectives, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm; Substance Abuse and Behavior Disorder Counselors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm; Private Detectives and Investigators, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Protective-Service/Private-detectives-and-investigators.htm; Sociologists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/sociologists.htm; Postsecondary Teachers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm
- Police Detectives, Occupational Information Network, accessed February 23, 2016, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3021.01
- May 2014 National Occupational and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed February 23, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm