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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 to 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 crime scene investigators, probation officers, correctional counselors, FBI special agents, paralegals, criminal justice professors, or police detectives.

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

In order to select which degree you need, you should first determine the 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.

Certificate in Criminal Justice

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 police and sheriff’s patrol officers, corrections officers and bailiffs, law enforcement, and security services. Due to the competitive nature of these fields, candidates are advised to enroll in specialized programs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for those in careers that typically require a criminal justice certification is between $31,170 and $60,270.1,2,3,4,5

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

Many law enforcement careers only require the applicant to possess a high school diploma. However, more and more agencies are seeking applicants with an associate degree in criminal justice due to the rising 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 professions that graduates of criminal justice associate degree programs pursue include police officer, border patrol agent, transit and railroad police, paralegal, immigration and customs inspector, bailiff, and corrections officer. The median salary earned for those in the aforementioned criminal justice jobs typically requiring an associate degree is between $31,170 and $60,270.1,2,3,5,6,7

Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice Degree

The criminal justice bachelor’s degree level not only shows potential employers your willingness to work hard, but it is also the minimum requirement for many criminal justice professions. In addition to law enforcement careers, bachelor’s degree holders can also work as fraud investigators, private detectives, DEA agents, first-line supervisors of correctional officers, probation officers, criminologists, computer forensics, information security analysts, immigration services officers, homeland security agents, fish and game wardens, 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. The median salary of these careers in the criminal justice field that usually require a bachelor’s degree is between $18,343 and $77,210.1,2,7,9,10,11,12,13,14,15

Master’s in Criminal Justice Degree

A master’s degree in criminal justice allows students to explore particular aspects of criminal justice, such as administration and leadership. These candidates are also eligible to become social caseworkers and instructors in criminal justice. Areas of study that may be included in a master’s 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 investigators, social workers, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, criminal justice and law enforcement teachers, and management of forensic science faculties. The median salary for those in the above criminal justice careers, which typically require a master’s degree, is between $45,900 and $77,210.13,16,19,20,21

Doctorate in Criminal Justice Degree

A doctoral degree in criminal justice is designed for those who have already obtained 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, academic, policy making, or governmental research position with various agencies. The most common careers for those with a doctoral degree in criminal justice include criminal justice and law enforcement teachers, criminology researchers, criminal justice process and policy, forensic psychologists, lawyers, judges or magistrate judges, and those in criminological theory. The median salary of a person in one of the above careers typically requiring a doctoral degree in criminal justice is between $58,770 and $126,930.21,22,23,24,25

Criminal Justice Degree Required for Typical Jobs

The government employment site O*Net Online provides data on the level of education of the following 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: 30% have a master’s degree, 19% have a bachelor’s degree, and 16% have an associate or professional 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 cannot receive federal student aid, credits may not be transferrable to another school, and employers may not recognize the degree. 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 2024, though in general, the outlook is that criminal justice professions are projected to grow more slowly than other professions at 4%.2. Most of these jobs require some college credits, but more and more are requiring a minimum of an associate degree, if not a bachelor’s degree. With the likelihood that criminal justice job opportunities will become more competitive over the next few years, taking the next step toward earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or even a doctoral degree will only expand your opportunities and earnings potential.

Earn a Criminal Justice Degree

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Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What can you do with a criminal justice degree?

Answer: There are many things you can do with a degree in criminal justice! Whether you have a general degree or a more specialized degree in an area such as law enforcement or forensic science, there are many criminal justice jobs available to those with expertise gained with your criminal justice degree program. Check out our Careers page for a complete list of what you can do with your degree, or search for particular jobs in your area on our Jobs page.

Question: Should I get my criminal justice degree online?

Answer: While online degrees are convenient, they are not for everyone. Getting an on-campus or online criminal justice degree depends on your schedule and learning preferences. Online degrees are ideal for those who have less flexible schedules and may be working their way through school. An online degree program will afford you the flexibility to learn on your own time and complete assignments in the comfort of your own home or office. Online criminal justice degrees also allow you to attend a criminal justice school in another state, so this could be a good option if you have your eye on a good school that is not in your area. Traditional on-campus degrees are a better choice if you prefer traditional classroom learning and a set schedule. In the end, whether you get an online criminal justice degree or on-campus one is a personal choice. Research your options by checking out our top traditional and online schools.

Question: How long does it take to get a criminal justice degree?

Answer: The answer to this question depends on three primary factors: the level of degree you pursue (certificate, associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate), the program itself (as a criminal justice degree at one school may take longer than the same degree at a different school), and whether you attend full- or part-time. As a general rule, if attending school full-time, you can expect to complete a certificate program in around one year, an associate degree in around two years, a bachelor’s degree in in criminal justice in three to four years, a master’s degree in one to two years, and a doctorate degree in two to three years.

Additional Resources

1. O*Net Online, Police Patrol Officers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3051.01
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm
3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Correctional Officers and Bailiffs: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/correctional-officers.htm
4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Security Guards and Gaming Surveillance Officers: https://www.bls.gov/OOH/protective-service/security-guards.htm
5. O*Net Online, Transit and Railroad Police: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3052.00
6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Paralegals and Legal Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm
7. O*Net Online, Immigration and Customs Inspectors: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3021.05
8. USAJobs, Border Patrol Agent: https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/443445400/
9. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Private Detectives and Investigators: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/private-detectives-and-investigators.htm
10. US Office of Personnel Management, Salary Table 2016-GS: https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries-wages/salary-tables/pdf/2016/GS.pdf
11. O*Net Online, First-Line Supervisors of Correctional Officers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-1011.00
12. O*Net Online, Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1092.00
13. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Forensic Science Technicians: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1092.00
14. O*Net Online, Information Security Analysts: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/15-1122.00
15. USAJobs, Immigration Services Officer: https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/443385200/
16. O*Net Online, Criminal Investigators and Special Agents: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3021.03
17. US Bureau of Labor Statisitcs, Occupational Employment Statistics, Fish and Game Wardens: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333031.htm
18. O*Net Online, Fish and Game Wardens: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3031.00
19. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
20. O*Net Online, Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1011.00
21. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Teachers, Postsecondary: https://www.bls.gov/oes/2012/may/oes251111.htm
22. O*Net Online, Clinical Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193039.htm
23. O*Net Online, Lawyers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/23-1011.00
24. O*Net Online, Judges, Magistrate Judges, and Magistrates: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/23-1023.00
25. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Judges and Hearing Officers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/judges-and-hearing-officers.htm