Criminal Justice Degrees: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a criminal justice program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of associate and bachelor's degrees and potential careers.
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Studying Criminal Justice: Degrees at a Glance

Criminal justice is part of the protective services field, which employs people dedicated to protecting individuals and upholding laws. Academic programs in criminal justice can prepare you for careers in law enforcement and correctional administration, although it's important to remember that some positions require substantial on-the-job training.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that employment for private detectives and investigators would increase by 21% between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than average. In contrast, the BLS projected that the job outlook for correctional officers, police and detectives (those not working privately) would be slower than average. The number of employed first-line supervisors of police and detectives wasn't expected to change much during the same decade.

Associate Bachelor's
Who Is This Degree For? Individuals interested in law enforcement and public safety jobs People preparing for law enforcement roles, administrative positions or enrollment in master's programs
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Police officer ($54,000)*
- Bailiff ($39,000)*
- Private investigator ($44,000)*
- First-line supervisor of police and detectives (requires additional experience ($78,000))*
- Correctional treatment specialists ($49,000)*
- Same as with an associate degree
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 4 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements No additional requirements beyond core coursework and general education classes Internship
Prerequisites High school diploma or GED - High school diploma or GED
- SAT or ACT scores
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

Associate programs in criminal justice are often designed for aspiring law enforcement professionals. Some programs can prepare you for certification as a police officer. If you're currently employed in the field, earning an associate degree may enhance your career prospects. Many schools also allow you to transfer credits into bachelor's programs.

Pro and Cons

Pros

  • If you're interested in law enforcement, police officers earn above-average salaries (median annual wages of $54,000 as of 2011)*
  • Online programs are widely available
  • Competitors in the job market may only have high school diplomas

Cons

  • Even with an associate degree, aspiring police officers need to complete training academy programs
  • Police and detective positions are projected to see slower-than-average growth (7% from 2010-2020)*
  • High risk of on-the-job injury

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Course Requirements

In most programs, you study state and federal laws, criminal behavior, policing techniques and the U.S. penal system. General education classes are required as well, and some programs culminate in an internship. Additional topics of study can include investigative procedures, criminal profiling and social issues.

Online Degree and Course Info

As a student of criminal justice, you have the option of completing an associate degree program online or taking some classes via distance learning. Your online studies may be similar to those of on-campus programs, and you can usually interact with professors and classmates through online discussion boards. For programs with an internship requirement, you may be able to work with a local law enforcement agency or organization in your area.

Stand Out with This Degree

Good communication skills and an understanding of how people think are essential to law enforcement careers. Taking courses in communications or psychology may help you stand out when applying for a job in the field. It's also beneficial to have some basic knowledge of a foreign language; police officers may interact with people from different ethnic communities.

Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice

Bachelor's programs often explore the criminal justice field in more depth than associate programs. Most degree programs offer minors and concentrations, allowing you to specialize your degree and gain more knowledge in the specific field you plan to enter. Bachelor's programs usually take four years to complete.

Many law enforcement and administration positions are open to those who hold either an associate or bachelor's degree. However, some careers do require completion of a bachelor's program, like those of correctional treatment specialists and federal law enforcement agents. If you're interested in the research side of this field, bachelor's-level work can prepare you for enrollment in criminal justice master's programs.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Some federal enforcement positions offer extensive travel opportunities
  • You can qualify for positions that involve helping people and saving lives
  • Concentrations are available, giving you the ability to customize your studies in the criminal justice area that most interests you

Cons

  • To qualify for police work or other applied positions in the field, additional training is usually required
  • Some jobs demand a high level of physical fitness
  • Licensure is required for private detectives and investigators

Common Courses and Requirements

In a criminal justice bachelor's program, you learn why people commit criminal acts, how to prevent illegal activity and how to make ethical judgments in the field. You may explore topics similar to those of associate programs, including criminology, the court system and criminal law. However, bachelor's programs also allow you to choose a concentration, such as juvenile justice, security administration or law enforcement. In addition, internships or field experiences are often required; you might find opportunities with local, state or federal agencies.

Online Degree and Course Info

Bachelor's programs in criminal justice are available in fully online and hybrid formats. Similar to online associate programs, you can view lectures, submit assignments and interact with classmates through course management systems. Online learning might be a good choice if you are employed or have an otherwise busy schedule that prevents you from taking classes on campus. You can expect to cover the same material as campus-based programs.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Joining student organizations or participating in campus activities may give you an edge on the competition. For example, you might join the Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honor Society; membership benefits can include access to industry job postings and professional conferences. You may also consider attending guest lectures or job fairs hosted by your school's criminal justice department.

Strong computer skills are important for many careers in this field, so think about taking information technology or computer science electives. If you're interested in working as a private investigator, gaining familiarity with surveillance equipment can give you a leg up on other job seekers.

Other Degrees to Consider

If you're more interested in forensic work, a bachelor's program in forensic science could be a better choice. These programs include some of the same courses as criminal justice programs, like criminal law and justice administration. However, lab-based classes in forensic technology, evidence analysis, chemistry and biology are a central part of the curricula.

Earning a bachelor's degree in forensic science may prepare you for work as a crime scene investigator or forensic science technician. These professionals gather evidence, analyze samples, consult with other specialists and document their findings. According to the BLS, the number of employed forensic science technicians and crime scene investigators was expected to increase by 19% from 2010-2020, which is higher than the outlook for police officers.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate: Criminal Justice
      • AAS in Criminal Justice and Criminology
      • AAS in Public Safety and Security
      • Associate: Fire Science
  • Online Programs Available
    2. American InterContinental University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Keiser University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate of Arts - Criminal Justice
      • Associate of Arts - Homeland Security
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • A.S. Criminal Justice
      • A.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Excelsior College

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • AS in Science in Criminal Justice
  • Marquette, MI

    Northern Michigan University

  • Blue Ash, OH

    University of Cincinnati

  • Kokomo, IN

    Indiana University

  • Youngstown, OH

    Youngstown State University

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • Associate: Criminal Justice
  • AAS in Criminal Justice and Criminology
  • AAS in Public Safety and Security

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American InterContinental University

  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice

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Keiser University

  • Associate of Arts - Criminal Justice
  • Associate of Arts - Homeland Security

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Indiana Wesleyan University

  • A.S. Criminal Justice
  • A.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice

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Excelsior College

  • AS in Science in Criminal Justice

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