A criminal justice associate degree acts as the entry-level credential for career tracks in law enforcement, corrections, courts, and victim support systems. Presented in compact formats with compressed graduation timelines, an associate in criminal justice offers a quick transition into the working world.
Criminal justice professions that did not traditionally require higher education now tend to prefer or demand at least an associate degree. Examples include police officers, probation and corrections officers, and social services assistants.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects strong job growth for several occupations open to candidates with an associate degree in criminal justice. For instance, the BLS projects a nationwide 17% increase in jobs for social and human service assistants and an 8% rise in private investigator jobs from 2019-2029.
This guide features a ranked review of the nation's top online associate degree programs in criminal justice. It also offers comprehensive practical information about this important and popular undergraduate study path.
Top 10 Best Criminal Justice Schools
Saint Leo University
Saint Leo, FL
Chaminade University of Honolulu
Buies Creek, NC
Maranatha Baptist University
Shoreline Community College
Featured Online Programs
Figuring out where to apply? These top, accredited schools offer a variety of online degrees. Consider one of these accredited programs, and discover their value today.
Why Get a Criminal Justice Associate Degree?
Online associate degrees in criminal justice prepare career-minded learners with job-ready credentials in shorter periods of time than bachelor's and master's programs do. Associate learners acquire versatile knowledge, equipping them to meet the challenges of entry-level roles in all aspects of the criminal justice system.
Unlike bachelor's and master's degrees, associate programs do not demand several years of study. Associate degrees especially appeal to candidates with tangible, focused goals who are seeking an expedited path to a career.
Similarly, an associate degree is a strategic learning option for students who are interested in the criminal justice field but unsure of which career to pursue.
An associate degree is introductory by nature, allowing learners to engage with many field-specific subtopics and identify which academic and professional development tracks most interest them.
Other key benefits include:
- Lower Costs
- Some entry-level criminal justice jobs require only an undergraduate degree and make little distinction between an associate and a bachelor's. Associate degrees take less time and cost less to earn.
- Increased Flexibility
- An associate degree provides a path to qualify for advanced standing in related bachelor's programs. Degree-seekers who decide to continue their studies can graduate in about half the usual time.
- Better Earning Potential
- BLS statistics from 2019 show that associate degree-holders tend to out-earn those with only high school diplomas by more than 17%.
Criminal Justice Associate Versus Bachelor's Degrees
Associate and bachelor's degrees in criminal justice show significant overlap. Given the similarities between these study tracks, many prospective students have questions about which designation they should pursue.
Associate programs cover the same content delivered in the first two years of a bachelor's. Since the more compact structure of an associate degree saves money and leads to faster graduation, an associate can be a better option for learners training for entry-level jobs in generalized career tracks.
The following chart summarizes the key similarities and differences you should know about at the program selection stage:
Comparing Associate and Bachelor's Degrees
|Criminal Justice Associate Degree||Criminal Justice Bachelor's Degree|
|Program Length||Two years||Four years|
|Credit Requirements||About 60 credits (20 courses)||About 120 credits (40 courses)|
|Typical Admission Requirements||— High school diploma or equivalent|
— Academic transcripts
|— High school diploma or equivalent|
— Academic transcripts
— SAT/ACT scores
— Personal statement
— One or more letters of recommendation
|Types of Classes||— Core/required plus electives|
— Experiential learning
|— Core/required plus electives|
— Experiential learning
— Culminating experience (capstone, thesis, or research project)
The Top Online Associate Degree Programs in Criminal Justice
Founded in 1865, Peirce College began by providing business training to returning soldiers. Since 2000, Peirce has grown its fully online degree options to more than 10, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. The 61-credit program includes courses like ethics in criminal justice, juvenile justice, and the criminal court system.
At Peirce, online students take asynchronous classes throughout the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Applicants must submit a high school diploma or GED. Transfer applicants may receive up to 30 credits for previous training, including credits for formal law enforcement training. Candidates with grades below a C average in college-level English and mathematics may need to complete a placement exam. All online students pay the same tuition, regardless of where they live.
Trine University, founded in 1884, offers more than 75 programs across a variety of levels and disciplines. The school offers more than 20 online degrees, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. The 60-credit program includes general education, elective, and core courses. Classes include forensic psychology, criminal procedures, and criminal justice report writing. To graduate, students must maintain a minimum 2.0 cumulative GPA.
Trine's online classes run asynchronously in two eight-week sessions during the fall and spring semesters and two six-week sessions in the summer. The university offers several start dates, and learners can take one or two classes per session. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer students may earn credit for prior training or military experience. All online students pay the same tuition rate.
Founded in 1946, LeTourneau University has offered nontraditional programs for working professionals since 1989. The school has since expanded its offerings to include online programs in eight schools, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. Learners pursuing the 63-credit AS in criminal justice complete courses in justice and human rights, homeland security, and terrorism and counterterrorism.
Online classes run in three accelerated, five-week sessions each semester. Classes typically follow an asynchronous format, though some require synchronous sessions. To graduate from the program, students must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma demonstrating a minimum 2.0 GPA or the GED equivalent. Admission may also require SAT or ACT scores. Transfer applicants can receive credit for previous courses with a minimum 2.0 GPA.
Established in 1889, Saint Leo University is Florida's oldest Catholic university that enrolls more than 13,000 students. Saint Leo features more than 10 online degrees, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. During the 60-credit AA in criminal justice, enrollees complete courses including introduction to homeland defense, crime scene investigation, and criminal procedure.
At Saint Leo, online classes may run asynchronously or synchronously during the fall and spring semesters. The school offers up to six start dates per year. To graduate, learners must maintain a minimum 2.0 cumulative GPA. Applicants must submit a high school diploma or GED, and they may need to complete a placement test. Transfer applicants can transfer up to 75% of the degree's credit requirements.
Chaminade University of Honolulu
Founded in 1955 and Hawaii's only Catholic university, Chaminade University of Honolulu enrolls more than 1,000 students in over 25 programs. To extend its reach, the school introduced online programs, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. Students pursuing the 60-credit AS in criminology and criminal justice complete courses on topics like criminal justice systems and supervision and management.
Chaminade's online classes follow an asynchronous format. Programs start in the fall and spring, and full-time students can graduate in less than two years. To graduate, learners must maintain a minimum 2.0 cumulative GPA. For admission, applicants must submit a high school diploma or GED, and they may need to submit SAT or ACT scores. Transfer applicants may transfer up to 45 credits with a minimum 2.0 GPA.
Ashland University was founded in 1878 and enrolls more than 6,500 students in over 70 programs. The school offers more than 15 online programs, including three at the associate level. The online associate degree in criminal justice requires 60-63 credits, including 24-27 credits in the criminal justice concentration, which features courses like courts and justice, corrections, and policing in the United States.
Most of AU's online classes run asynchronously, with some requiring synchronous sessions. Applicants need a high school diploma or GED. They may also need to submit SAT or ACT scores. Transfer applicants can receive up to 30 transfer credits for previous training. To graduate, learners must maintain a minimum 2.0 cumulative GPA, and all online students pay the same tuition.
Founded in 1887, Campbell University enrolls more than 6,800 students, making it one of the state's largest private universities. The school offers more than 100 concentrations for undergraduate students, including over 25 available online. The 62-credit online associate degree in criminal justice covers topics like government and correctional philosophies and issues. To graduate, learners must maintain a minimum 2.0 cumulative GPA.
Campbell's online classes run asynchronously in eight-week sessions each semester, and enrollees enjoy five start dates per year. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer students can receive credit for previous training with a minimum 2.0 GPA, but they must complete at least 15.5 semester hours at Campbell to graduate. Online students can access student support resources and academic advising.
Maranatha Baptist University
Opening in 1968 with fewer than 200 students, Maranatha Baptist University now offers more than 40 programs, including a variety of online options. Learners pursuing the 64-credit online associate degree in criminal justice take courses in psychology, sociology, nature of crime, and policing and criminal investigation. The program also includes classes in biblical studies and liberal arts, along with a variety of electives.
MBU's online classes follow eight-week sessions in the fall and spring semesters, and summer courses last 6-7 weeks. Most classes run asynchronously, with real-time sessions sometimes available. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer applicants can receive credit for previous training. Candidates may also need to submit SAT or ACT scores.
Since its founding in 1971, Liberty University has grown from approximately 150 students to more than 15,000. In 1985, the school introduced a distance education model that evolved into the online programs it offers today. The 60-credit online associate degree in criminal justice comprises courses in three core areas: law enforcement, court system, and corrections system.
Liberty's online classes run asynchronously throughout eight-week sessions. Enrollees can start during any of the semesters and complete the program in as few as 18 months. To graduate, learners need to maintain a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma with a minimum GPA of 2.0 or the GED equivalent. Transfer applicants can receive up to 75% of the required credits via transfer.
Shoreline Community College
Since its 1964 founding, Shoreline Community College has grown to offer more than 100 programs to over 10,000 students. Shoreline offers more than 30 online programs, including five degrees. The 90-quarter-credit online associate degree in criminal justice requires courses in administration of justice, constitutional law, and principles of investigation. It also features an internship, only available during some terms.
Shoreline's online classes run asynchronously in the fall, winter, spring, and summer terms. The college prefers applicants to start in the fall, but it also offers winter and spring start dates. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED, along with placement test scores. To graduate, they must demonstrate a minimum 2.0 GPA. Non-resident online students pay higher tuition rates than state residents, but online tuition rates cost less than on-campus rates. Distance learners can access academic and career support services.
Pamlico Community College
Established in 1962, Pamlico Community College offers more than 15 programs, including a variety of online options. The 67-credit online associate degree in criminal justice features courses on topics like writing and inquiry, law enforcement operations, and victimology.
PCC's online classes run mostly asynchronously during the fall and spring semesters. Program applicants need a high school diploma or GED, and they may also need to complete a placement test. Online learners can access the school's career, student, and academic support services.
Founded in 1881, Concordia University-Wisconsin enrolls more than 8,000 students in over 70 programs. To accommodate working professionals and distance learners, the school offers online programs, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. This 64-credit AA in criminal justice includes general education, elective, and major courses. The major covers topics including constitutional law, forensic investigation, and procedural criminal law.
Online programs at CUW run asynchronously for the most part, with some requiring synchronous sessions. Classes typically follow eight-week sessions in the fall and spring semesters, but summer courses last 3-6 weeks. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer applicants must demonstrate a minimum 2.0 GPA. All online students pay the same tuition, no matter where they live.
Eastern Kentucky University
Founded in 1906, Eastern Kentucky University offers a variety of programs and delivery methods to more than 16,000 students each year. The school features over 25 online degrees, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. Learners in this 64-credit program take courses in contemporary police strategies, social forces and policing society, and ethical decisions. The degree also includes professional preparation training.
Online classes at EKU run in eight-week sessions, featuring six start dates each year. Online classes follow an asynchronous format, and students can complete their degrees entirely online. For admission, applicants must hold a high school diploma or GED and submit SAT or ACT scores. Transfer applicants may receive up to 49 credits for prior undergraduate training or formal law enforcement training. Online learners benefit from a flat tuition rate, and military professionals receive tuition discounts.
Roger Williams University
Founded in 1956, Roger Williams University enrolls approximately 4,000 undergraduates across more than 45 programs, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. The 60-credit AS in criminal justice includes core courses in constitutional law, juvenile justice, and policing in America. RWU also offers add-on certificate options to complement the degree.
Most online classes run asynchronously, with some synchronous sessions available. Courses take place during the fall and spring semesters. In the summer, classes may run for three, five, or 10 weeks. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer applicants can receive credit for prior undergraduate courses and assessments, plus up to 26.5 credits for prior police academy training. All online students pay a flat tuition rate.
Founded in 1939 with just over 100 students, Bismarck State College now enrolls more than 4,000 students in over 90 academic disciplines. Bismarck's online associate degree in criminal justice prepares learners for entry-level criminal justice careers. The 60-61-credit program allows students to customize their degree based on their interests, choosing from concentration options in courts, law enforcement, and corrections and security.
BSC's online courses may run asynchronously or synchronously in the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Some classes run only during specific semesters. For admission, applicants must hold a high school diploma or GED and submit SAT, ACT, or placement test results. Transfer applicants can receive credit for previous training.
Keiser University-Ft Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Founded in 1977 as a school for nontraditional learners, Keiser University has grown into one of the state's largest nonprofit universities, educating approximately 20,000 students. The university now offers more than 100 programs at various levels, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. Learners pursuing this 60-credit AA in criminal justice complete core courses in corrections, criminal investigations, and writing and communications for criminal justice professionals.
At Keiser, online students take one course at a time every four weeks. Classes typically run asynchronously. Learners can start classes in the fall, winter, or summer semester. Applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer applicants must demonstrate a minimum 2.0 GPA for general admission and transfer credits. Online learners enjoy access to the school's career services and academic support resources.
Founded in 1939, Endicott College offers more than 80 programs to over 5,000 students. Nontraditional students can choose from more than 35 online programs, including an online associate degree in criminal justice. The 66-credit AS in criminal justice includes courses in police process, career foundations, and technology applications in criminal justice.
Online classes at Endicott may run asynchronously or synchronously. Learners can study full- or part-time to accommodate their schedules. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer applicants can receive credit for previous courses demonstrating a minimum 2.0 GPA. Online students gain access to career services, academic advising, and tutoring services.
White Mountains Community College
White Mountains Community College offers 48 undergraduate programs, including certificates and associate degrees. The online associate degree in criminal justice combines the flexibility of online courses with on-campus sessions every other week. The 62-credit AS in criminal justice and homeland security features courses on topics like law and forensic science.
Most of WMCC's online courses run asynchronously, but some feature synchronous sessions. Classes run during the spring and fall semesters. Program applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer applicants may receive credit for previous courses. Learners who wish to pursue bachelor's degrees may opt for WMCC's dual-degree pathway.
Founded in 1873, Shorter University offers five online associate programs. The online associate degree in criminal justice features foundation courses, electives, and a criminal justice core. The 60-credit AS in criminal justice includes core courses in police systems, judicial systems, and procedural law. To graduate, learners must maintain a minimum 2.0 cumulative GPA.
At Shorter, online courses run asynchronously in eight-week terms. Enrollees can choose from six start dates each calendar year. Flexible course schedules allow students to customize their course loads based on their schedules. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED. They may also need to submit SAT or ACT scores. Transfer applicants must demonstrate a minimum 2.0 GPA to receive transfer credit.
Virginia Beach, VA
Established in 1978, Regent University offers more than 135 study areas. The school's online associate degree in criminal justice requires at least 64 credits. Learners take classes on topics like homeland security, criminal procedure, and criminal justice systems. To complete the AS in criminal justice, students must maintain a minimum cumulative 2.0 GPA.
Online courses run in eight-week sessions during the fall, spring, and summer terms. For admission, applicants need a high school diploma or GED. Transfer applicants may receive credit for previous undergraduate education. Online students pay the same tuition rate regardless of location, and they enjoy less expensive tuition than on-campus learners.
Jobs for Associate in Criminal Justice Graduates
In most job markets, an associate degree is the minimum credential for career paths with advancement potential. As their careers develop, many professionals elect to upgrade their education to qualify for more meaningful roles with higher pay rates. Associate degrees are ideal for candidates seeking to balance rapid career readiness with future flexibility.
Job qualification standards in the criminal justice field vary among U.S. jurisdictions. The following summary illustrates some of the common career tracks typically open to candidates with associate degrees:
Corrections officers work in jails and prisons, creating a safe environment and securing inmates as they await trial or serve their sentence for a conviction.
- Required Education: Associate degree or higher preferred; candidates must also complete a specialized vocational training program
- Job Outlook (2019-2029): -7%
- Median Annual Salary: $45,300
Private investigators work for independent companies. They investigate criminal, civil, commercial, and domestic matters on behalf of individual clients.
- Required Education: Associate degree or higher preferred; professional licensure also required
- Job Outlook (2019-2029): +8%
- Median Annual Salary: $50,510
Police officers respond to civilian calls for assistance, investigate crimes, issue fines and citations, maintain public order and safety, and arrest individuals wanted for criminal offenses.
- Required Education: Varies by jurisdiction; associate or bachelor's degree generally preferred
- Job Outlook (2019-2029): +5%
- Median Annual Salary: $65,170
These social service professionals work with individuals, families, and communities negatively impacted by crime. They act as liaisons between people in need of services and the government agencies and nonprofit groups that provide them.
- Required Education: Associate or bachelor's degree preferred
- Job Outlook (2019-2029): +17%
- Median Annual Salary: $35,060
What To Expect From Associate in Criminal Justice Programs
Schools usually structure their associate in criminal justice programs to lead to graduation in about four semesters of full-time study. Programs usually assign a value of three credits per course, with associate programs usually consisting of approximately 60 credits or 20 individual classes.
At the associate level, schools rarely offer concentrations or specializations. One noteworthy exception applies to homeland security. A growing number of institutions offer targeted associate and bachelor's programs in this subject, which is widely considered part of the criminal justice and law enforcement purview.
Associate programs also tend to focus mainly or solely on essential theories and foundational concepts. Learners interested in niche or advanced applications of program content tend to pursue more advanced degree tracks.
The Admissions Process
Associate degrees act as educational gatekeepers to entry-level roles in career-oriented job tracks. Thus, most schools aim to maximize their accessibility. Colleges tend to maintain more inclusive admission standards for their criminal justice associate degrees.
In many cases, applicants need only a high school diploma or equivalent to receive consideration. They must also fill out a general institutional application and submit transcripts from all previous secondary and postsecondary schools. Some schools request SAT or ACT scores and documents such as personal statements and letters of recommendation, but these more commonly apply to those seeking entry to bachelor's programs.
Degree and Concentration Options
Most students graduate from two-year criminal justice programs with an associate of science (AS) or associate of arts (AA) degree. Programs leading to an AS degree in criminal justice generally place a stronger emphasis on statistics, quantitative analysis, and research. AA programs usually delve deeper into theory and qualitative skills.
Learners can also consider two adjunct subject areas: criminology and homeland security. Criminal justice programs focus exclusively on social and systemic responses to crime. Conversely, criminology studies crime and criminality from academic, theoretical, and research-driven perspectives.
Homeland security offers emerging professionals the opportunity to specialize in a vital and impactful branch of law enforcement. Associate programs in homeland security equip learners with essential tools for launching careers. Professional practice areas include disaster relief, intelligence and counterterrorism, border protection, and other functions included in the Department of Homeland Security's mandate.
Popular Criminal Justice Courses
Most associate degrees in criminal justice offer a similar progression of courses. However, exact classes vary among schools and also depend on the degree's focus. An associate of science degree in criminal justice may cover courses not included in an associate of arts program, and vice-versa.
The following sample curriculum covers typical courses you can expect to encounter as you work toward your criminal justice associate degree:
Intro to Criminal Justice
Most programs deliver this required course in the first semester. This class provides a survey-style introduction to criminal justice institutions. Learners also examine the constitutional and legal statutes and procedures governing the justice and corrections systems. The course provides foundational knowledge for more specialized learning units.
Essentials of Criminal Investigation
Programs tailored to law enforcement make this course a core requirement, while others offer the class as an elective. Content covers the fundamental aspects of criminal investigation, including crime scene response and security, witness interviewing, and interrogations. Enrollees may study specific branches of crime, such as assault, robbery, or homicide, in detail.
Usually featured as an elective in the program's upper semesters, this course focuses on the unique causes of youth crime and the specialized rehabilitation needs of young offenders. It also examines the root causes of juvenile delinquency across the sociopolitical and cultural spectra. Many schools recommend this course for degree-seekers working toward careers in the youth criminal justice system.
Commonly offered in both campus-based and online associate degree programs in criminal justice, this field placement affords learners the chance to further develop their skills in real-world settings. Participants can intern with law enforcement and homeland security agencies, correctional facilities, and social service providers. Students often form valuable professional networking connections by participating.
How Much Will an Associate in Criminal Justice Cost?
Tuition and fees for criminal justice programs usually align with prevailing averages for associate degrees. Data published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicates that the typical cost of attending a two-year institution has followed a downward trend since the 2015-16 academic year. In the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, NCES reported that tuition, room, and board cost $10,704 per year on average.
Online associate degree programs in criminal justice can offer significant savings, since distance learners avoid the costs of on-campus room and board. Even without factoring these savings in, associate programs offer major cost advantages since learners can complete them in about half the time it would take to earn a bachelor's degree.
Even so, many prospective students face challenges in covering the costs of their schooling. For financial assistance, look into scholarships, fellowships, bursaries, grants, and other forms of non-repayable aid. Learners who need loans should look into federal programs first, and reserve private loans as a last resort.
Choosing the Right Criminal Justice Program
Would-be students often use rankings lists as launching points for their program research. Competitive rankings deliver valuable insights into the core features and reputations of various programs, but they do not tell the whole story. Learners should also prioritize their own preferences, learning objectives, and career goals when seeking the ideal criminal justice associate degree.
To this end, consider such factors as:
- Curricular support for the area of professional practice you wish to concentrate on
- The availability of practicums and internships that match your career aspirations
- The program's culture and pedagogical mission: For example, some criminal justice programs have stronger orientations toward emerging alternatives to standard policing and criminal corrections models
- Networking opportunities and alumni resources
- Transferability of credits toward advanced standing in a four-year program
Finally, always verify an institution's accreditation standing before spending time and money on your application. Reputable schools always hold accreditation from a recognized national or regional agency. Endorsements from respected third-party organizations like the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences also boost a program's credibility.
Why You Should Get Your Associate Degree Online
Convenience and cost savings comprise two of the most widely cited advantages of studying online.
Most online criminal justice associate degrees use asynchronous delivery formats that liberate learners from rigid schedules.
Instead, students sign in at convenient times to access pre-recorded lectures and course content.
Asynchronous formats provide a superior school-life balance, and they also empower degree-seekers who choose to work while studying. The ability to keep working while in school eases the financial burden of higher education, but online programs deliver additional financial benefits. Virtual learners do not need to commute or relocate, nor do they require costly room and board.
Keep in mind that these advantages come with some trade-offs. Not everyone makes a good candidate for online learning, which demands much more independence and self-direction. Some learners simply prefer the traditional classroom experience, making campus-based programs a better option.
No matter which delivery format you select, remember that experiential components like internships and field placements require an in-person presence. Should you elect to enroll in an online program based at a faraway school, check in advance to see how this may affect experiential learning opportunities.
Frequently Asked Questions
An associate degree in criminal justice is the minimum education required to launch most careers in the field. Many professions that previously required only a high school diploma now demand or prefer candidates who possess at least a two-year degree.
Associate programs usually take the equivalent of four semesters of full-time study to complete. Learners who attend summer classes can graduate in as little as 16 months. Most finish their degrees in 20-24 months.
An associate in criminal justice qualifies degree-holders for entry-level jobs in law enforcement, victim advocacy, the judicial system, and the criminal corrections system. Graduates can also proceed into bachelor's programs with advanced standing.
Regional and municipal jurisdictions have varying educational requirements for probation officers. An associate degree may suffice in some areas, but a growing number of employers prefer candidates with at least a bachelor's degree.