Criminal Justice Bachelor’s Degrees
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Learners with a passion for fairness and protecting others should consider studying criminal justice. Graduates with a bachelor's in criminal justice can work as police officers, detectives, emergency response managers, and forensic laboratory technicians. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for police officers to grow 5% from 2018-2028.
This guide covers important information for prospective bachelor's in criminal justice students, including common courses and potential careers and salaries for graduates.
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What Is Criminal Justice?
In 1916, a police officer in Berkeley, California, collaborated with the University of California to create the very first academic program in criminal justice. The officer realized a need for a formal education in order to prepare graduates to serve as expert witnesses to testify in court. The program began as a simple training program for officers and evolved into a full baccalaureate degree.
Today, universities around the country offer criminal justice bachelor's degrees designed to prepare students for a variety of careers in public safety, law, and law enforcement. Criminal justice includes more than just policing — it encompasses all sectors of the justice system including criminal prosecution and law, crime prevention, and corrections.
A vast number of people work in criminal justice positions around the country. The BLS reported 813,500 jobs in police and detective work in 2019 alone. Other criminal justice professionals may work in prisons and corrections facilities, for private investigation firms, or as paralegals in law firms.
Those working in law enforcement often report a high level of job satisfaction and feel their jobs hold high meaning. People interested in service positions may also enjoy careers in public safety and criminal justice.
Fortunately, earning a bachelor's in criminal justice provides the academic background required to begin a career in many of these fulfilling and rapidly growing fields.
Why Get a Criminal Justice Bachelor's?
Many jobs in criminal justice require a bachelor's degree. Holding a bachelor's in criminal justice provides the foundation many employers look for in job candidates and helps applicants stand out. Emphasizing skills and knowledge in sociology and psychology, this degree also prepares graduates for careers outside of law enforcement and the justice system, providing skills applicable in a variety of industries.
- Career Possibilities: Graduates from criminal justice bachelor's programs may pursue careers in a variety of fields; this degree prepares students for jobs within and outside of the criminal justice system.
- Salary Potential: Many jobs criminal justice students pursue offer comfortable and competitive salaries. Those with a bachelor's in criminal justice earn more on average than those with only an associate degree, and many government jobs in criminal justice offer competitive retirement programs.
- Job Security: The demand for qualified professionals in the criminal justice field grows each year. Jobs for police, detectives, private investigators, and probation officers continue to grow.
Criminal Justice Bachelor's Programs
It takes full-time students an average of four years to complete a criminal justice bachelor's degree, and most programs require around 120 credit hours. These numbers vary based on additional requirements, such as internships and capstones. Degree length also depends on how many credit hours each student takes per semester.
Students who value flexibility should consider an online bachelor's in criminal justice program that features asynchronous courses. These programs allow learners to complete their coursework and watch pre-recorded lectures on their own schedule. Check out our ranking of the best online criminal justice bachelor's programs.
Typically, applicants to undergraduate programs must hold a high school diploma or its equivalent and submit official high school transcripts. Generally, a minimum 2.0 GPA is required but a 3.0 and above makes an applicant more competitive.
Schools generally require first year students to submit standardized test scores from the SAT or ACT along with their application. However, many schools take a holistic approach to admissions and make their decision based on more than test scores and GPA.
Criminal justice students can bolster their applications with prior-earned college credit courses, including advanced placement and community college classes, and by providing details about any previous experience like internships, volunteer work, and jobs.
Many schools now use the Common App, a tool that allows students to fill out one application to send to multiple schools, streamlining the process.
Comparing Degree Types
Undergraduate criminal justice students can choose from a variety of degree options to fit their goals and interests. The BA and BS serve as the most common degrees that offer majors in criminal justice.
- Bachelor of Arts (BA): BA degrees emphasize a liberal arts approach to general education and major courses. A BA in criminal justice may require more courses in areas like social science and psychology. Typically, BA programs also require some competency in a foreign language.
- Bachelor of Science (BS): BS degrees in criminal justice typically explore research and science-based courses. This degree may best suit students who want to pursue clinical positions or careers in forensic investigation.
Within the BA or BS in criminal justice, many schools offer concentrations to further specialize the program. Some concentrations include homeland security, juvenile justice, and forensic investigation.
Pursuing a concentration may incur more required credits and could lengthen the overall program. However, concentrations also allow students to focus their learning toward their career goals and specific interests. Not all programs include concentration options, but many allow students to pursue a minor alongside the criminal justice major.
Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice Courses
INTRODUCTION TO THE AMERICAN CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEMIn this course, learners study the American criminal justice system's functions. Topics include citizens' rights and responsibilities and how communities and professionals play a role in preventing crime. Students also survey problems that arise in the criminal justice system and examples of possible solutions.
CRIMINOLOGYThis course examines the social and behavioral sciences in relation to the criminal justice system. Coursework covers topics like criminal history and how social structures shape crime. Students also look at various theories and case studies on reducing crime within communities.
SERVICE LEARNING IN CRIMINAL JUSTICEThis immersive learning experience addresses how citizenship and participation in public affairs help shape communities. This course often requires students to complete a set number of hours with a community service organization or public service provider.
ETHICAL DILEMMAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICEThis course examines criminal justice ethics and philosophies. Students learn about dilemmas facing law enforcement and correctional practitioners, emphasizing their ethical implications.
FORENSIC SCIENCEThis course examines the evaluation of crime scene evidence. Learners study the technologies and protocols used to examine evidence and the value of various pieces of evidence within a criminal investigation.
How Much Will a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice Cost?
In the 2018-2019 academic year, the average cost for undergraduate tuition and required fees at a public, four-year institution was $9,212 for in-state students and $26,382 for out-of-state students.
Online versus in-person learning, school prestige and reputation, public versus private institutions, and in-state versus out-of-state residency can all influence the total cost of earning a degree. Prospective criminal justice students should also consider additional costs to earning a degree such as books and materials, room and board, and technology costs.
Fortunately, students can take advantage of a variety of funding and financing options for their criminal justice degree. All students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to help their school determine their financial need and aid eligibility. Scholarships, fellowships, and grants provide funding that doesn't require repayment. Student loans, both private and federal, require repayment upon graduation.
Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice Career Outlook
Bachelor's in criminal justice graduates can join a workforce of passionate individuals ready to protect others. Those who prefer behind-the-scenes work should consider becoming forensic science technicians. Graduates who love coordinating and function well under pressure might work as emergency management directors. Finally, aspiring professionals who want to work on the frontlines may pursue careers as police officers with this degree.
Regardless of their professional aspirations, criminal justice professionals benefit from job security. For example, the BLS projects the need for forensic science technicians to grow by 14% from 2018-2028, much faster than the national average for all occupations.
What Jobs Can You Get With a Criminal Justice Bachelor's Degree?
Graduates with a criminal justice bachelor's degree can work in diverse roles, such as forensic science technician and police officer. We cover several common roles and potential salaries for graduates below.
Forensic Science Technician
Analytical people excel in this career, which involves collecting and studying evidence to aid criminal investigations. Forensic science technicians typically work in labs and must possess a strong understanding of chemistry and biology. These professionals usually need a bachelor's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $58,230
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 14%
Clinical Laboratory Technologist and Technician
This career involves the analysis of body fluids, tissue, and other substances. These professionals work in hospitals or diagnostic laboratories, performing tests and collecting samples for criminal investigations. Most laboratory technologists need a bachelor's degree. Some states also require special licensure.
Median Annual Salary: $52,330
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 11%
Probation officers work with law offenders in custody or on parole to help them rehabilitate and successfully transition back to life outside of prison or jail. They may test clients for drugs and offer substance abuse counseling, write reports and maintain case files, and connect probationers and parolees with community resources. These professionals typically need a bachelor's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $53,020
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 3%
Emergency Management Director
These professionals prepare plans and protocols for responding to and recovering from emergencies. This lucrative job typically requires a bachelor's degree and significant relevant experience.
Median Annual Salary: $74,420
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 5%
Police and Detective
Police officers and detectives serve the public by responding to and preventing crimes. Police officers mainly work to protect citizens and their properties, while detectives collect facts and evidence to reach conclusions about crimes. Becoming a police officer or detective requires additional training, plus a college degree.
Median Annual Salary: $63,380
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 5%
Choosing the Right Criminal Justice Program
Although our rankings list offers a great place to start, choosing the best criminal justice bachelor's program for you involves careful research and consideration. Prospective criminal justice students should consider the factors below.
All of the schools featured in our rankings hold regional accreditation, meaning the academic programs at those schools meet rigorous academic and quality standards set by a regional accrediting body. In addition to looking for accredited programs, learners may also consider schools that hold programmatic accreditation for criminal justice; which is most commonly provided by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.
Attending a program as an out-of-state student could mean substantially higher tuition rates. However, some online programs offer flat-rate tuition options for distance learners. Students should consider tuition costs related to school location.
Students with prior earned college credit, including those with an associate degree, should consider how much additional time it would take to complete the bachelor's degree in criminal justice. First-year students might consider whether they want to enroll part or full time in order to complete the program within a set time frame.
Learners who want to focus their degree may want to consider criminal justice programs that offer concentrations or specialization options.
Should You Get Your Degree Online?
In 2018, nearly seven million college students enrolled in at least some form of distance education. Most schools offer a variety of programs partially or fully online, providing flexible and accessible learning options for distance learners and nontraditional students.
Online criminal justice bachelor's programs offer learners the opportunity to maintain their careers while they earn their degree. However, online learning may not suit all learners, and prospective students should consider whether the platform fits their needs.
Online learning requires a great deal of focus, organization, and time management. Learners must self-start, as many schools offer programs asynchronously with no set class times. Some students may find online learning isolating; however, most online programs provide students with opportunities for connection and networking.
Criminal justice students may benefit from the flexibility of online learning as they pursue outside careers or internships. Online learning also offers nontraditional students the convenience of completing coursework on their own schedule.
Online learning continues to evolve and become more technologically advanced. Distance learning programs provide the same rigorous, quality education as their on-campus counterparts.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can I do with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice?
Graduates with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice can work in roles such as police officer, detective, and forensic technician. They can also pursue jobs as emergency responders, probation officers, and emergency management directors.
How many years does it take to earn a bachelor's in criminal justice?
On average, it takes four years of full-time study to complete a bachelor's in criminal justice. Part-time study may extend the degree by one or two years. Some programs feature accelerated programs that allow students to expedite graduation.
How do I get a bachelor's in criminal justice?
Students must first apply to prospective programs. Application requirements vary by institution but typically include letters of recommendation, transcripts, SAT or ACT scores, and a resume. After gaining admission to a program, students complete general education courses, covering topics like math and English, before advancing to criminal justice coursework.
What are the highest-paying jobs for graduates with a bachelor's in criminal justice?
Emergency management directors rank as some of the highest-paid professionals in this field, earning $74,420 per year, on average, while private detectives and investigators earn $50,090 per year.
How many credits do I need to earn a bachelor's in criminal justice?
Bachelor's in criminal justice programs typically comprise 120 credits of general education, major, and elective courses.
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