Criminal justice workers do more than walk patrol beats and keep watch on cell blocks. Well-trained and educated members of the criminal justice community are necessary for effective offender assessment, rehabilitation and other complex aspects of the profession.
Earning a criminal justice degree can give you a firm background in the concepts, theoretical perspectives and key institutional roles of criminal justice, as well as teaching the legal and ethical principles that helped bring the field into its modern state. Many programs also dive into the behavior patterns of offenders and the root causes of crime.
If you're thinking about making the switch to a criminal justice career but you're worried that your current job will prevent you from committing to a degree program, you still may be able to get the training you need. Criminal justice programs are among the most popular study plans on the online education landscape, with schools in most states providing a distance learning option for criminal justice degrees and certifications.
Online criminal justice degree programs tend to feature the same curriculum as a school's campus-based programs and are often taught by the same faculty members. Most online degrees are also just as academically rigorous as those taught in the traditional classroom, making it possible for you to earn a full-fledged degree on your own time and make the switch to the career you want.
Best Colleges for Criminal Justice Degree Programs 2019-20
We analyzed more than 1,300 institutions based on data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and other trusted sources and ranked them based on their scores in categories like affordability, flexibility, student services and more. Find out how we did it by tapping the Methodology button, and read on to learn more about the best colleges for campus-based and online criminal justice degree programs.
Student success numbers stood out at this large university in North Florida. The 94 percent retention rate shows that students tend to stay engaged with their study plans past the first year, and the graduation rate of more than 80 percent was the second-best such figure among our top ten schools. FSU also made the national top ten for its number of criminal justice degrees awarded in 2018.
Criminal justice programs at FSU: Undergraduate students here can major in criminology or cyber criminology as well as earn a general degree. A one-year Master of Science (M.S.) degree and a research-oriented Ph.D. are both available on campus. Online criminal justice programs here include both a bachelor's and master's degree.
Florida International University is one of the more flexible criminal justice schools on our list. More than 60 percent of students enrolled here in 2018 took at least some of their coursework in the virtual classroom, and weekend courses are available for busy students who prefer a traditional learning environment. Approximately 58,000 students attend FIU courses online or on campus each semester.
Criminal justice programs at FIU: There are two approaches to bachelor's-level criminal justice education at FIU: Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees in crime science or general criminal justice. An M.S. in criminal justice is available as well, and a Ph.D. in international crime and justice. All courses for the bachelor's and master's programs are available online as well as on campus.
The University of Central Florida is another top destination for online students, reporting that nearly 58 percent of the student body took advantage of distance education options in 2018. It also put up solid student success numbers, posting graduation and retention rates in the 95th percentile nationally, and the student population of more than 68,000 learners is the largest of any school on our list.
Criminal justice programs at UCF: Students who already have an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree in criminal justice can finish their bachelor's in the A.S. to B.S. program at UCF. Undergraduates also have several certificates to choose from, including online programs in criminal profiling and victim advocacy and campus-based programs in crime scene investigation and crime analysis and mapping.
Online criminal justice programs are popular in the American Public University System, which, despite the name, is a private, for-profit university. Criminal justice students make up a larger portion of the 2018 graduating class here than any other school on our list, and its retention rate placed behind just two other schools in our top ten.
Criminal justice programs at APU: This West Virginia-based school operates exclusively online, so all criminal justice programs can be completed without the need to travel to a brick-and-mortar campus. APU offers a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in criminal justice as well as the standard B.S. degree. Undergraduates in the B.A. program can choose from a list of concentrations that includes law enforcement leadership, entrepreneurship and maritime law enforcement.
Investing in academic support services like career counseling and instructional development can make a big difference to the student experience. San Diego State University was one of the top schools on our list for the percentage of its annual budget reserved for such services, and it has a graduation rate in the 97th percentile nationwide to show for it.
Criminal justice programs at SDSU: The undergraduate major in criminal justice at SDSU requires a cumulative grade point average of 2.8 or higher and encourages thoughtful exploration of the concept of justice and how systems succeed or fail at providing it. The M.S. program in criminal justice and criminology is offered jointly with the school's sociology department, bringing interdisciplinary perspectives and insight to the curriculum.
New Jersey's Rutgers University is another institution that understands the value of investing in academic services for its students. The yearly budget at this 50,000-strong university earmarks more than $10,000 per student for counseling services and instructional improvements. Rutgers alumni also report a fairly manageable amount of student debt after graduation -- only one other school on our list reported a lower average loan balance among its former students.
Criminal justice programs at Rutgers: Along with a traditional undergraduate degree, Rutgers offers an accelerated master's program that allows highly motivated students to earn both their bachelor's and master's degrees in just five years. The graduate program here is offered as a Master of Arts (M.A.) degree and focuses on preparing students for public sector leadership roles.
The University of Cincinnati is one of the hottest destinations in the country for criminal justice students, according to the numbers. The Ohio school landed among the top 25 universities nationally for the number of criminal justice degrees awarded in 2018. UC also reported one of the highest rates of student loan repayment on our list, with more than 75 percent of graduates settling their balances within three years.
Criminal justice programs at UC: UC offers a wide selection of both graduate and undergraduate certificates for students looking to specialize their knowledge and skills in a particular aspect of criminal justice. Available undergraduate certificates include correctional rehabilitation and cybersecurity, and graduates can study crime prevention and the analysis of criminal behavior, among other subjects.
Students at Pennsylvania State University, better known as Penn State, have a tendency to follow through on their degree programs to the end. Not only did this central Pennsylvania school post the highest graduation rate on our list, it also landed in the national top ten for students completing their degrees between three and six years after first enrolling.
Criminal justice programs at Penn State: No campus-based bachelor's program is available at Penn State's main University Park campus, but the institution's World Campus offers three levels of criminal justice degree. Online students can pursue an Associate in Science (A.S.) and a B.S. in criminal justice, as well as a Master of Professional Studies (M.P.S.) in criminal justice policy and administration.
Affordability is the name of the game at Southern Arkansas University Tech. This close-knit school of around 1,000 students posted the lowest tuition and fees cost of any school that made our top ten, charging just over $4,800 for a full year of instruction, and no other institution on our list reported a lower average loan balance for graduates than the $5,500 at SAU Tech.
Criminal justice programs at SAU Tech: Three undergraduate criminal justice programs are available at this southern Arkansas school. Degree-seeking students enroll in the Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree plan, which was designed to provide a smooth transfer to the bachelor's program at the SAU main campus. Smaller portions of the curriculum may available as certificate plans during specific semesters.
Florida Atlantic University sports an affordable price tag for such a large school. Nearly 30,000 students attend classes here each semester, and its average tuition and fees cost of just over $4,800 was the second most affordable on our list. Flexible program schedules are also available here — more than 44 percent of students took at least some of their courses online at FAU in 2018.
Criminal justice programs at FAU: Students in the criminal justice B.A. program at this Boca Raton school study a broad curriculum and have the option to get a jump on their master's degree by completing up to 12 graduate-level credits during their senior year. An M.S. in criminology and criminal justice is also available, as well as a bachelor's offered entirely online.
Criminal Justice Programs and Common Career Paths
Many of the entry-level positions in the criminal justice field don't require a bachelor's degree, but employers are likely to prefer candidates with at least some formal training. Education requirements for these careers can vary by state, but here are some options that graduates from criminal justice programs at various degree levels might have on the job market.
Available primarily at trade schools and community colleges, associate degrees in criminal justice focus on training students in the fundamentals of the field. They usually take around two years to complete and can typically be delivered entirely online. Courses taught in these programs include civil rights and liberties, investigations, criminal procedures and an introduction to correctional institutions.
Bachelor's degrees are usually structured as four-year study plans, although students who already hold an associate degree will usually only need two more years of classes to qualify for graduation. Depending on the institution, you may be able to customize your degree with a specialization in crime scene investigation, forensic psychology, homeland security, juvenile justice or another sub-discipline.
Graduate degrees in criminal justice come in many forms and typically offer a variety of concentrations for students hoping to specialize their study in one aspect of the field. Common concentrations include behavior analysis, fraud management, homeland security, law enforcement leadership and public administration. Online options are also common for degrees at this level.
If you're looking to take your career in criminal justice in an academic direction and conduct research to help advance the discipline as a whole, you'll definitely want to think about a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program. Some programs concentrate on educating high-level teachers of criminal justice, while others focus heavily on research methods and statistical techniques.
Criminal Justice Specializations
- Crime scene investigation. Real-life CSI may not have all the drama that it has on television, but learning how to locate, collect and analyze crime scene evidence can help you land a career at the intersection of justice and science.
- Homeland security. Undergraduates and graduate students alike may be able to learn how to keep America safe from terrorist threats by specializing in homeland security.
- Intelligence and crime analysis. Graduates of these programs have the skills to interpret raw data on strategic, tactical and operational intelligence and use their findings to inform crime prevention policy.
- Criminal justice leadership. Students hoping to move up through the supervisory ranks in a law enforcement organization can gain the skills and knowledge necessary to rise to the top in leadership-focused programs.
Criminal Justice Program Accreditation
Accreditation may not be easy to understand in full detail, but it's important to make sure the school you choose is accredited before enrolling in a criminal justice program. Accreditation ensures that the education you receive will meet the accepted standards of employers and admissions boards at other accredited schools, helping you avoid any undue hardship when transferring credits or applying for jobs. Here's a list of regional accrediting agencies:
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC)
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
Criminal Justice Certification and Licensure
Most positions in criminal justice and law enforcement don't require state licenses or industry certification, beyond what's earned when graduating from a police academy or other mandatory job training program.
Certain specialties at higher levels may provide the option of earning certification from industry groups. Criminal justice students specializing in forensic psychology may be able to become certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), and crime scene investigators can apply for membership in the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA).
For more information about criminal justice certification and other details of individual criminal justice occupations, check out our pages for these specific criminal justice careers:
Career Outlook for Criminal Justice Majors
Certain careers have more favorable job growth projections than others, and knowing which jobs are the hottest can help you plan wisely for the future. Take a look at these employment statistics for some top criminal justice careers.
Financial Aid and Scholarships for Criminal Justice
Student aid programs can go a long way toward helping you afford your criminal justice degree. Most grants and scholarships specifically designed for criminal justice students are offered at the regional or institutional level, although some general federal financial aid may also be available. Here's a quick list of available programs.
Renewable in some specific cases on the basis of outstanding achievements.
Professional Organizations for Criminal Justice
To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific subject being ranked.
- Offer an undergraduate degree (either associate or bachelor's) in that subject.
- Have awarded at least one degree or certificate in that subject in the most recent year of IPEDS data available.
Based on those criteria, we ranked all 2-year and 4-year schools in IPEDS that reported data for all of the following points. Ratings are calculated on a 10-point scale:
- In-state undergraduate tuition & fees
- Median debt
- 3 year loan repayment rate
- Graduation rate
- Retention rate
- Institutional spending
- Instructional and academic support expenses per full-time enrolled student
- Instructional and academic support spending as a percentage of all expenses
- Percent of students enrolled in DE
- Evening and weekend programs
- Academic and career counseling
- Total number of degrees conferred for particular CIP codes
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2017-18, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2017-18, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
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- Scholarship directory data is copyrighted material which is reproduced on this website by permission of Wintergreen Orchard House, a division of Carnegie Communications. Copyright © 2017-18 by Wintergreen Orchard House. All rights reserved.
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