The Ultimate Guide to Online Criminal Justice Degrees

Working in criminal justice is more than a career: it’s a vocation. If working in the justice system, in law enforcement, or in corrections is something you feel drawn to, then now’s the time to pursue your dreams. In recent years, online criminal justice programs made it possible to learn from highly regarded faculty members while earning your degree from respected institutions while still balancing work, life, and family responsibilities.

The field of criminal justice covers areas as diverse as social work, payroll and probation, and policing. A degree in any of these areas opens the door to a career that lets you contribute to public safety and make a real and positive difference for our society. You can choose from associate degree programs, bachelor of science degree programs, certification programs, and master of science programs that match every interest, focus, and specialization. Careers in criminal justice offer many rewards, including solid salaries and benefits in a field that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will see growth over the next ten years.

What Is an Online Criminal Justice Degree?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 3.3 million students pursuing higher education opted for exclusively online programs in 2018, and that number is increasing as more accredited programs become available, including those dedicated to the study of criminal justice.

Though criminal justice education has long been offered in traditional brick-and-mortar settings, the availability of online degrees has opened the field to students with full-time jobs and family responsibilities that preclude in-person attendance. Programs are offered fully online as well as in hybrid modes that combine web-based coursework with a smaller percentage of classes requiring students to be present for hands-on, in-person training.

There are multiple online criminal justice degrees available, including:

  • Master’s degree programs that provide managerial knowledge and prepare graduates for leadership positions in law enforcement, security agencies, government organizations and more. These programs generally consist of 50-60 credits.
  • Bachelor’s degree programs in subject areas including crime scene investigation, forensic psychology, homeland security, juvenile justice, law enforcement, and corrections. These programs generally consist of 180 credits.
  • Associate degree programs in subject areas including criminal justice, criminology, public safety and security. These programs generally consist of 90 credits.
  • Certificate programs available to those who already possess either an associate or bachelor’s degree within the criminal justice field. These certificates are available in subject areas including corrections, management of criminal justice, crime scene procedures, private security, and more.

What Can I Do with an Online Criminal Justice Degree?

Criminal justice covers a broad range of services including security and emergency management, law enforcement, the courts, and corrections, and within each of those areas, there are rewarding and meaningful careers. From becoming police officers and crime scene investigators to probation officers and youth correctional officers, these diverse professions share a common goal of making sure that our criminal justice system is upholding the laws in a way that is fair.

Choosing to complete an online criminal justice degree allows you to pursue a career in public, private or government agencies and organizations, conducting research into how better to serve the public, preventing crime or responding to it, or actively engaging with those who have committed crimes or whose lives have been affected by it.

How Much Do Criminal Justice Graduates Make?

The range in incomes that can be earned with a degree in criminal justice is as varied as the careers that the degree prepares you for. Here are a few potential careers that result from an online degree in criminal justice, along with the average median income that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says you could potentially earn.

  • Police and detectives – $65,170
  • Criminal justice, corrections, and law enforcement administration educators – $72,980
  • Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists – $54,290
  • Private detectives and investigators – $50,510
  • Forensic science technicians – $59,150
  • Correctional officers and bailiffs – $45,300
  • Federal agent – $115,295
  • Immigration officer – $66,937
  • Criminologist – $44,988

Online Criminal Justice Degree Job Projections

Though most careers go through highs and lows of demand, criminal justice professionals are always needed to ensure that the public is protected and that the accused are treated fairly. While impossible to guarantee the availability of a job or of long-term job security, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 5% growth in the demand for police officers and detectives over the next ten years. The need for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists is expected to rise by 4% and the field of forensic science technology is expecting a 14% uptick in demand.

In addition to the traditional law enforcement careers, social justice and rehabilitation have gained increased attention as our society reviews its policies around incarceration. Graduating with a degree in criminal justice policy is likely to provide increasing opportunity as attitudes around crime and punishment shift and the need for professionals able to facilitate reentry into society grows.

Online Criminal Justice Degree Careers

Graduating from an online criminal justice program prepares you for career paths in law enforcement, corrections, working within the court systems, and working with accused and convicted offenders as they navigate the justice system. Here are some of the most popular career choices available, as well as the median salary that they command and the projected demand for the position.

Police and Detectives

Median Salary: $65,170 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 5%

While police officers and detectives work in the same environment, they have different job responsibilities. While police officers protect lives and property, detectives are criminal investigators who gather facts and evidence in order to determine what happened during criminal activities.

Correctional Officers

Median Salary: $45,300 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): -7%

Correctional officers work within jails and prisons, enforcing rules and supervising activities of inmates. They are responsible for searching for contraband, ensuring the whereabouts of inmates, escorting prisoners between institutions and outside facilities, and keeping the inmate environment safe and secure.

Forensic Science Technicians

Median Salary: $59,150 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 14%

Forensic science technicians work with law enforcement during the course of crime scene investigation. They analyze evidence that is provided to them for analysis in the laboratory.

Private Detectives and Investigators

Median Salary: $50,510 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 8%

Private investigators do work similar to that of police detectives, but they do so for private clients. They gather information through computer searches, surveillance, and interviews and present the information that they gather to their clients.

Earning an Online Criminal Justice Degree

Choosing to pursue an online degree in criminal justice is a commitment to service and the truth. Whether your interest lies in police work and law enforcement, the justice system, social work or policy, or corrections, a degree in criminal justice will teach you the importance of preserving liberty and in ensuring that citizens are protected, that their rights are preserved, and that they are treated fairly.

Prospective students can choose from many different criminal justice degree options, both in terms of the amount of time required to complete a program and in the subject matter covered. No matter which program or degree you choose, you can be sure that you’ll be provided a high level of knowledge and critical thinking skills that will enhance your professional abilities.

Types of Degrees in Online Criminal Justice

With so many different careers and types of degrees to choose from, criminal justice offers those who want to enter the profession the choice of quick entry through an associate degree or the more extended paths provided by baccalaureate programs enhanced by lessons in theory and policy and master’s degree programs that provide lessons in organizational leadership and management.

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

An online associate degree in criminal justice generally takes just two years to complete and offers the quickest way to enter the field. These programs provide both an overview of the field, exploring its possibilities and responsibilities, and the ability to develop foundational skills. Many programs offer credits for on-the-job training or experience. associate degree programs prepare graduates for entry-level jobs including:

  • Business security
  • Corrections
  • Court administration
  • Dispute resolution
  • Law enforcement
  • Victim advocacy

Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

An online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice provides you with a strong foundation of professional skills in a particular area of interest along with broader knowledge that supports the application of knowledge thoughtfully. Most programs require the completion of 120 semester credit hours but offer the ability to transfer eligible credits earned at accredited institutions and credit opportunities for work and life experiences and eligible professional certifications.

Depending on which school you choose, you’ll have the option to pursue diverse concentrations including crime scene investigation, forensic psychology, homeland security, juvenile justice, and law enforcement and the opportunity for careers in:

  • Crime scene investigation
  • Counterterrorism
  • Detention
  • Fraud investigation
  • Homeland security
  • Juvenile justice
  • Law enforcement
  • Parole and probation
  • Prisons
  • Private investigations
  • Public safety

Graduate Degrees in Criminal Justice

Online graduate degrees in criminal justice provide in-depth knowledge and research capabilities while helping graduates build managerial skills related to specific areas of interest. Graduates leave the program ready to take on leadership roles in criminal justice work settings including:

  • Homeland security and emergency management
  • Public administration
  • Human resource development
  • Organizational behavior
  • Public safety and security
  • Government organizations
  • Law enforcement
  • Communications
  • Academics

Coursework In Online Criminal Justice Programs

Each specialty area within criminal justice has its own unique knowledge base, but even with the many differences in potential work environments and direction there are shared principles that will be reflected in their curriculum. A typical online criminal justice program is likely to include courses addressing:

  • Criminology I
  • Introduction to the Criminal Justice System
  • Applied Criminal Justice Ethics
  • Psychology for Law Enforcement
  • Cultural Awareness in Criminal Justice
  • Case Management
  • Family and Domestic Violence
  • Public Safety
  • History of Corrections

Skills Learned In An Online Criminal Justice Program

Though different occupations within criminal justice require different technical skills and abilities, those are frequently learned on the job. The most important things taught in an online criminal justice program – and the ones that will make you a highly valued employee and contribute most to your success — are the ones that apply universally to all environments that criminal justice professionals will encounter and work within. Those important abilities include:

  • Upholding ethical standards in the application of the law. Your education will take you beyond learning rules and ensure that you understand the reasons behind them and how to apply them fairly, even in the most challenging situations.
  • Communication skills, including listening carefully, speaking clearly, composing reports that are easily understood and presenting information in a coherent way are all essential abilities.
  • Research skills, from analysis of evidence to learning the background of an individual, from understanding the reasons why certain policies are in place to analyzing data in support of your own proposals.
  • The ability to use technical tools from assembling databases to conducting thorough research via the internet.

Other important skills you will learn while earning your degree include critical thinking, collaboration, decision making, leadership, project management, prioritization, and time management.

Choosing the Best Online Criminal Justice Degree

When choosing the best online criminal justice degree program for you from among the many fine options available, the distinguishing elements are very different from those considered by students considering on-campus degrees. While students always need to base their decision on whether a specific area of study is available, the reputation of the program, the cost and availability of financial aid, and the quality of their faculty, online programs differentiate themselves by different factors, including

  • Flexibility of their schedules.
  • Whether they award credit hours for on-the-job experience or certifications.
  • Whether previously-earned credits from accredited programs are accepted and applied to credit hour requirements.
  • Availability of internship opportunities and networking channels.
  • Whether they require students to spend any time on campus, and if so, how much.

No matter which program most appeals to you and best fits your interests and needs, make sure that their curriculum is accredited so that you and any future employers can be certain that your education meets the highest standards and that you will be fully prepared to take on any challenges you face.

Online Criminal Justice Degree Specializations

When considering an online criminal justice degree, you must decide between a general criminal justice degree that touches upon all of the areas of potential interest or a specialization in a particular area or work environment. Criminal justice degree specializations include:

  • Policing and Law Enforcement
  • Corrections
  • Criminology
  • Forensic Science
  • Homeland Security
  • Emergency Management
  • Public Administration

Online vs. On-Campus Degrees

With the ready availability of both high-quality, accredited online criminal justice degrees and high-quality, accredited on-campus criminal justice degrees, how should a potential student decide is which the better choice for them?

There are a lot of tangible and intangible aspects of both types of education to be considered. In-person classes present the challenge of accountability: Students have to be there, dressed and ready to engage and participate and be accountable, while online students may be able to take their classes on-demand, or at the very least with the ease and comfort of being in their own home.

There is no comparison between the level of engagement between student and teacher in an in-person setting and online, no matter how much of an effort the online student or professor makes to bridge that gap. However, online students have the freedom to continue working full time, supporting their family or their fiscal responsibilities and gaining valuable real-world experience in a way that on-campus students are not able to match.

Choosing which is the right option for you is a highly individual personal choice. The good news is that both types of degrees will prepare you for the criminal justice career that you’re working towards.

Criminal Justice Accreditation

It’s tempting to think that every online criminal justice degree program is roughly equivalent, but that is far from true. Before weighing the differences in concentrations and curriculum, faculty and flexibility, it’s essential that you check to make sure that every program you’re evaluating has accreditation from one of the independent accrediting agencies.

These agencies use peer reviews and statistical analysis to assess the quality of each school’s coursework, faculty expertise, resources and more. When a school is accredited it provides you and your potential employers with confidence that the education you’ve received meets national standards. Students who attend schools that have not been accredited are not eligible for federal student aid or to sit for state licensing exams.

There are both national accreditation agencies and regional accreditation agencies, with the former largely assessing private colleges and the latter assessing public universities. The seven regional accreditors are:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Higher Learning Commission
  • Northwest Association of Schools and of Colleges and Universities, Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges

Applying To Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs

There are few processes that evoke more anxiety than applying to schools, and that is true whether your goal is an associate degree program, a baccalaureate program, or an advanced degree program. Instead of viewing the admissions application as a chore or challenge, consider it your opportunity to show each program your value and how you will contribute to their campus.

As for the application itself, each school has its own requirements, but more than 900 have adopted the Common Application, a completely digitized application that allows you to prepare your materials once and then easily send the completed package to every program you’re interested in. Other programs have continued with their own, unique requirements. Work towards a high level of organization while sending in each required. Creating a calendar and checklist indicating the deadlines for each school will help you stay on top of the process and give you a greater sense of control.

Admission Requirements for Online Criminal Justice Programs

Once you’ve identified the online criminal justice programs that you want to apply to, it’s a good idea to assemble a checklist of all of their requirements, noting the deadlines for each item so that you can stay on top of it. There are many different pieces that the schools want to review while they’re assessing whether you’re a good fit for their program. Here is a rundown of the most common elements you can expect to send in:

The Application Form

Many schools now use what is referred to as the Common Application, but others require that you use their proprietary form. The application form generally covers your biographical information including your name and address, the schools that you’ve attended, the extracurricular activities that you engaged in, any jobs you held and awards you’ve received.

Test Scores

Most schools will require that you take standardized test scores such as the SAT or ACT for undergraduate degrees or the GRE for graduate school programs. You are not able to provide these to the schools yourself. The testing organization will send schools your scores upon you requesting that they do so.

Letters of Recommendation

If a school requests letters of recommendation you will need to identify the individuals you will ask to do this for you and provide them with self-addressed stamped envelopes to make their task easier. Make sure that the person you have requested letters from is aware of the deadlines and follow up with them to ensure that it has been sent in time.

Personal Essay or Statement

Some schools will provide you with a prompt and others will permit you to write on the topic of your choice. No matter what the requirement, make sure that you follow instructions carefully, adhering to the word-count requirement and taking time to proofread your submission before sending it.

Transcript

This will be generally be forwarded directly by your school to the program to which you are applying.

Online Criminal Justice Career Resources

As you embark on your journey into the world of criminal justice, there are several organizations available to provide you with additional resources. These include:

FAQ

Question Answer
Can I take criminal justice classes online? Yes. There are many high-quality, accredited programs available for earning associate, baccalaureate and advanced degrees in Criminal Justice.
How long does it take to get a criminal justice degree online? The amount of time that it takes to earn a criminal justice degree online will depend upon the type of program you choose and the amount of time that you can dedicate to it. If pursued full-time, an associate degree generally takes two years, a bachelor’s degree takes four years, and a master’s degree takes one-to-two years.
How much does an online criminal justice degree cost? The costs of an online criminal justice degree will depend upon the type of program that you choose. The average total tuition cost for an online associate degree in criminal justice is $7,230.00. The average total tuition cost for an online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is between $38,496 and $60,593 on average depending upon whether the student is in-state or out of state and whether the school is public or private.
How much do criminal justice graduates get paid? There are a wide range of careers available to those who have criminal justice degrees, and each carries its own compensation. Entry-level positions in law enforcement get paid an average median salary of $65,170, while those with advanced degrees working in leadership command higher salaries.