Studying the field of criminal justice can put students on the path to one of a wide range of jobs including public safety staff members, attorneys and appointed public defenders, judges, court staff, police and probation officers, and some educational positions. People in these varied careers share a dedication to upholding the system of law enforcement and its contributions to criminal court cases and punitive action. Students can earn an associate, bachelor's, or master’s degree in this field. Many criminal justice professionals work as police officers or investigators, enforcing laws at the federal, state or local levels. Within local police departments, some officers learn specialized skills as members of SWAT (special weapons and tactics) or narcotics teams. Certain highly specialized law enforcement roles require additional expertise gained through years of on-the-job experience, or by completing a higher college degree program in criminal justice. Students aspiring to work as local police investigators or federal agents such as FBI agents, DEA agents, or U.S. Marshalls will be required to complete a college degree as a part of their eligibility requirements for these roles.
Associate Degrees in Criminal Justice
A graduate with an associate degree in criminal justice might typically become an officer or agent with a local, state or government agency. However, criminal justice graduates can also find career opportunities in fields such as business security, court administration, dispute resolution, and victim advocacy. Associate degree programs in criminal justice require students to hold a high school diploma. Some schools may grant incoming students credit towards their degrees for any professional experience or training. The degree curriculum introduces students to a broad base of theories, issues, and concepts in criminal justice. For example, students may take courses such as introduction to criminal justice, criminal law, ethics and criminal justice, judicial administration, correctional systems, and introduction to security. Associate degrees in criminal justice usually require 60 credits of coursework and take about two years to complete.
Bachelor's Degrees in Criminal Justice
A bachelor's degree in criminal justice can provide a strong foundation for a career within the field. Although government agencies train entry-level police and corrections officers in their own academies, many aspiring and current law enforcement professionals seek degrees in criminal justice for access to a broader range of career growth opportunities. Bachelor's students can choose from multiple emphasis areas including Criminal Behavior, Forensics, Clinical Psychology, and Public Administration. A bachelor degree in criminal justice typically takes about four years to complete, but can vary depending on previous coursework and experience. Tuition for these programs averages about $80 per credit hour.
Master's Degrees in Criminal Justice
Most career positions associated with criminal justice require students to complete a minimum of a bachelor's degree before qualifying for training in a more specialized field. However, it is becoming more common for employers to require prospective job applicants to have earned a master's degree. Classes offered in a master's degree program will focus on topics directly relevant to the field such as web-based crime, criminal procedure, forensics, calculus, general chemistry, social theory, criminology, restorative practice, and juvenile justice. Many colleges and universities will grant transfer credits to students with previous experience and training in criminal justice and thus shorten the amount of time needed to complete a degree. Master's and PhD programs in criminal justice aim to prepare graduates for agency leadership or teaching positions at a college or university level. Tuition for a master's program can range from $400-$500 per credit hour.
Criminal Justice Accreditation
Students looking for an associate, bachelor's, or master’s degree program in criminal justice can choose from a broad array of colleges and universities. Although there is no single body that accredits criminal justice programs, a school’s overall accreditation status can be an indicator of the quality of its criminal justice program. Aspiring criminal justice students should give strong preference to associate degrees offered by schools holding regional accreditation, as this helps to ensure that credits earned can be transferred to other four-year degree programs. Bachelor's level students should also take accreditation status into consideration if they plan to do advanced study in criminal justice, as some graduate schools will require applicants to hold a degree from an accredited university. Employers will often give preference to job candidates holding degrees from regionally accredited colleges and universities. Applicants can look for a school’s accreditation status on the school department’s homepage, and should also confirm the the school's listed accreditations by going to The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs on the U.S. Department of Education website.