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Criminal Justice Degrees

There are two big reasons why criminal justice degrees are currently so popular. One, they can serve as a launching pad for a wide range of careers. Two, more and more, law enforcement agencies are requiring some college credit in order to qualify for a given position. Criminal justice programs cover everything from research methods and statistics to corrections and criminal law and give students a working knowledge of how the courts, corrections institutions and law enforcement agencies function. Those who earn a degree often go on to accept jobs such as a crime scene investigator, probation officer, correctional counselor, FBI special agent, paralegal, criminal justice professor or police detective.

Top Criminal Justice Degrees

Question: Is this a good time to enter the field of law enforcement?

Answer: This is probably the best time to become a police officer. -Sue Rahr, former King County Sheriff (Seattle, WA)

Degrees by Level

Selecting from the various degrees needed is determined by what profession you intend to pursue. Some occupations require a two-year associate degree, while others require the more rigorous course of study offered by a master’s degree program. As you browse the associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree pages on this site, you’ll learn about some of the jobs you’ll be qualified to apply for after earning each respective degree.

The most basic degree that can be earned in the criminal justice field is the Criminal Justice Certificate. Students are typically awarded a certificate with the completion of a specialized training program. Certificates can be used in a specific criminal justice career, such as crime scene photography, or as a stepping stone for a more advanced degree. Other types of careers that can be obtained with a certification in criminal justice include corrections, probation, law enforcement, immigration, security services, and homeland security. Due to the competitive nature of these fields, candidates are advised to enroll in specialized programs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for careers with criminal justice certification is between $31,500 and $52,100.

Associate’s Degree
Many law enforcement careers only require the applicant to possess a high school diploma. However, more and more agencies are seeking applications with an associates degree in criminal justice due to the raising complexity of the criminal justice system. A criminal justice associate’s degree typically focuses on law enforcement, theories of crime causations, court systems, corrections, and crime control policies. Common professionals that graduates of criminal justice associate degree programs include police officer, computer forensics specialist, border patrol agent, bailiff, corrections officer, and fish and game warden. The average salary earned for those with an associate’s degree in these criminal justice fields is between $32,250 and $77,500.

Bachelor’s Degree
The criminal justice bachelor’s degree level not only shows potential employers your willingness to work hard, but is also the minimum requirement for many criminal justice professions. In addition to law enforcement careers, bachelor degree holders can also work as fraud investigators, private detectives, accounting jobs, DEA agents, probation officers, criminologists, computer forensics, paralegal, and FBI agents. Most government and federal agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and the Secret Service, require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Average salary of careers in the criminal justice field with a bachelor’s degree is between $31,900 and $119,000.

Master’s Degree
A master’s degree in criminal justice allows students to explore particular aspects of criminal justice, such as administration. These candidates are also eligible to become social caseworkers, instructors in criminal justice, and officers in courts. Areas of study that may be included in a chosen criminal justice program may include forensic behavioral analysis, psychology, criminology, and sociology, issues in juvenile crime, criminal law, and criminal justice theory. Possible career opportunities for a master’s degree include criminal investigation, correctional administration, attorney at law, and management of forensic science faculties. The average salary for those who have obtained a masters degree in criminal justice is between $36,186 and $135,750.

Doctoral Degree
A doctoral degree in criminal justice is designed for those who have attained a master’s degree and would like to advance their career. Opportunities for those with this highly-regarded degree are able to obtain a leadership, private, academia, policy making, or governmental research position with various agencies. The most common careers for those with a doctoral degree in criminal justice include criminology research, criminal justice process and policy, forensic psychology, and criminological theory. The average salary of a doctoral degree in criminal justice is between $68,400 and $115,720.

The government employment site O*Net Online provides data on the level of education of criminal justice professions:

  • Bailiffs: 53% have a high school diploma, 32% have some college, and 13% have a post-secondary certificate.
  • Correctional officers and jailers: 57% have a high school diploma, 22% have some college but no degree, and 15% have a post-secondary certificate.
  • Court reporters: 41% have a post-secondary certificate, 34% have an associate’s degree, and 10% have some college but no degree.
  • Criminal investigators and special agents: 42% have a high school diploma, 24% have some college but no degree, and 16% have a post-secondary certificate.
  • First-line supervisors of correctional officers: 78% have a high school diploma, 11% have some college but no degree, and 7% have an associate’s degree.
  • Fish and game warden: 74% have a bachelor’s degree, 9% have a high school diploma, and 9% have an associate’s degree.
  • Immigration and customs inspectors: 39% have a high school diploma, 27% have a bachelor’s degree, and 14% have some college but no degree.
  • Information security analysts: 65% have a bachelor’s degree, 19% have a post-bachelor’s certificate, and 10% have a post-secondary certificate.
  • Paralegals and legal assistants: 44% have a bachelor’s degree, 30% have an associate’s degree, and 12% have some college but no degree.
  • Police detectives: 45% have a high school diploma, 21% have an associate’s degree, and 16% have some college but no degree.
  • Police patrol officers: 42% have a high school diploma, 24% have an associate’s degree, and 22% have some college but no degree.
  • Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists: 86% have a bachelor’s degree, 7% have some college but no degree, and 7% have a master’s degree.
  • Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs: 55% have a high school diploma, 21% have a post-secondary certificate, and 19% have an associate’s degree.
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors: 28% have a bachelor’s degree, 23% have a high school diploma, and 16% have some college but no degree.
  • Transit and railroad police: 80% have an associate’s degree, 8% have a post-secondary certificate, and 4% have a high school diploma.
Police Career Advice: “Another piece of advice I would pass on to aspiring officers, is to always strive to learn, attend additional training, and complete some form of higher education. As someone who holds a master’s degree in Homeland Security Management, a higher education opens doors within a department, and will continue to do so in the future.”
-Joe Gamaldi, Board Member of the Houston Police Officers’ Union

Finding Accredited Criminal Justice Programs

An important factor to consider when researching criminal justice programs is whether the school is accredited by a US government approved accreditation body. There are a small number of national and regional accreditation bodies that have been approved by the US Department of Education to evaluate whether a school meets minimum standards in quality. If a school has not received accreditation from one of these agencies then students can not receive federal student aid, credits may not be transferrable to another school, and employers may not recognize the diploma. You can find a school’s accreditation status with the US Department of Education’s searchable database.

Is a Criminal Justice Degree Worth It?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, many entry-level criminal justice jobs will be available through 2014. Most of these jobs require some college credit, if not an associate’s degree. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that police and sheriff’s patrol officers will be one of the 20 fastest growing, highest earning occupations through 2014. Most of these jobs require only a two-year associate’s degree for employment. While this is good news for those seeking an associate degree, taking the next step toward earning a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree will only expand your opportunities and earning potential.

Earn a Criminal Justice Degree

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Additional Resources

20 Jobs You Can Get With a Criminal Justice Degree
10 Jobs You Can Get With a Master’s in Criminal Justice Degree
Is a Criminal Justice Degree Worth It?

Page Edited by Charles Sipe.