Is a Criminal Justice Degree Worth It?

Even those who have a passion for topics in criminal justice may question whether the time and expense of pursuing a criminal justice degree is worthwhile. As media outlets report on the rising cost of education nationwide, the question is far from academic. However, the evidence overall shows that those with a college education may be better qualified and therefore better compensated than those without, though the choice to pursue higher education remains an individual decision.

Weighing the Costs of Attending School

Whether for a two-year associate's degree or a four-year bachelor's degree, college has its costs. Many students finance education through a combination of scholarships, personal savings, and student loans; these loans average between $7,130 for an associate's degree and $24,000 for a bachelor's degree, though the actual amount of debt can vary widely based on a particular school's tuition and other factors.2

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the higher the level of degree earned, the higher the salary graduates can demand; a recent study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found this to be true across all major disciplines.3 In the criminal justice field in particular, CollegeMeasures, a collaborative effort led by the American Institutes for Research, reports that individuals in Arkansas (one of few states with comprehensive graduation data currently available) with a technical certificate or associate's degree in criminal justice or police science earn $10,000 more per year in the first year following graduation than those with a proficiency certificate alone.4

Did You Know?: Prior to 1960, less than 5% of law enforcement officers in the United States had any college experience. Today, it is estimated that more than half have a college degree.1

Increased Demand for Officers with Degrees at Law Enforcement Agencies

A recent report published by the RAND Corporation found that 79% of police agencies experienced either “some” or “much” difficulty finding qualified applicants.5 This suggests an unmet demand in law enforcement for candidates with the high-quality education in criminal justice and similar fields that builds the requisite skills and foundation for law enforcement work.

Furthermore, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2004, the latest year for which complete data is available, 98% of local police departments nationwide had education requirements for new recruits.6 Of these, 8% required some college, 9% required a two-year degree, and 1% required a four-year degree.6 The average requirements also tended to be higher for departments serving larger populations. Moreover, the BJS noted that the overall training requirements even in smaller departments were seeing significant increases.

A college education can provide a candidate with an advantage when applying for a law enforcement position. Many police supervisors value a degree because it indicates that the candidate possesses qualities like initiative, the ability to learn, and discipline. Additionally, the increasing complexity of police work, including the utilization of technology, calls for an educated police force.

Salary and Job Outlook for Criminal Justice Professionals

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting positive job growth for most criminal justice careers. Job growth for police and detectives, who make an average of $60,720 per year, is predicted at 4% between 2014 and 2024.7 Due to revised sentencing guidelines and a greater emphasis on rehabilitation rather than incarceration, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, with an average salary of $49,360 per year, will also be in demand with similar job growth of 4% projected during the same period.8

Those with criminal justice degrees are not limited to working directly for law enforcement agencies; there are various disciplines with positive outlooks where a criminal justice degree is helpful in a support role. These include paralegals and legal assistants, who make an average annual salary of $48,810 with an anticipated job growth rate of 8% through 2024, and forensic science technicians, who make an average annual salary of $56,320 with an anticipated job growth rate of 27% through 2024.9,10

Taken together, these trends in education and employment suggest that a criminal justice degree can be highly beneficial for graduates. Since the demand for professionals with higher education is on the rise, a criminal justice degree may be the right choice for those who are considering these career paths.

Police Quote: “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
Police Quote: “I would suggest to young adults that education is very important and being truthful in every way and always be positive.” -Gene Ballance, Vice President of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association
Police Quote: “Get a college education before you get into police work.” -Marc Povero, Detective assigned to the Gang Section and General Director of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association
Police Quote: “Continue your education and the development of you police skills. Be open and flexible, think and grow.” -David Couper, former Chief of Police of the Madison Police Department (retired) and author of the book Arrested Development.
Occupation Current US Employment Average Salary
Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers 653,740 $61,270
Correctional Officers and Jailers 427,790 $45,320
Paralegals and Legal Assistants 271,930 $52,390
Detectives and Criminal Investigators 106,580 $79,620
First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives 100,370 $85,810
Forensic Science Technicians 14,070 $60,090

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2015.12,13,14,15,16

1. Bagley, Paul. The Everything Guide to Careers in Law Enforcement. Avon: Adams Media, 2007. Print.
2. Fox Business:
3. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce: Certificates – Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees:
4. American Institutes for Research – College Measures:
5. Rand Corporation:
6. Bureau of Justice Statistics:
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives:
8. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists:
9. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Paralegals and Legal Assistants:
10. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Forensic Science Technicians:
11. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2015 Occupational Employment and Wages, Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers:
12. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2015 Occupational Employment and Wages, Correctional Officers and Jailers:
13. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2015 Occupational Employment and Wages, Paralegals and Legal Assistants:
14. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2015 Occupational Employment and Wages, Detectives and Criminal Investigators:
15. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2015 Occupational Employment and Wages, First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives:
16. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2015 Occupational Employment and Wages, Forensic Science Technicians:

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