Best Online Master’s in Criminal Justice 2020

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An online master’s in criminal justice makes you a strong candidate for a variety of law enforcement careers. Criminal justice work can be demanding and dangerous, but the field offers many opportunities for engaging, challenging work and active leadership.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports an annual median wage of $65,170 for police and detectives, and jobs in the field are projected to grow 5% from 2018-2028. A flexible online master’s in criminal justice can help you advance to lucrative positions in the field.

Advertisement is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Featured Online Programs

Explore program formats, transfer requirements, financial aid packages, and more by contacting the schools below.

This page offers an overview of online criminal justice programs, including top schools, typical courses, and salary levels for criminal justice graduates. You’ll also find answers to many frequently asked questions about pursuing criminal justice programs online.

Top 10 Online Criminal Justice Master’s Programs

Rank School Location
1 Saint Joseph's University Philadelphia, PA
2 Boston University Boston, MA
3 Xavier University Cincinnati, OH
4 Salve Regina University Newport, RI
5 Concordia University-Saint Paul Saint Paul, MN
6 Norwich University Northfield, VT
7 Lewis University Romeoville, IL
8 Michigan State University East Lansing, MI
9 DeSales University Center Valley, PA
10 University of San Diego San Diego, CA


Top 20 Online Criminal Justice Master’s Programs for 2020

  1. Saint Joseph's University

    Philadelphia, PA



    Philadelphia-based SJU offers an online master's in criminal justice that prepares graduates to serve as scholars and practitioners, employing the latest criminal justice research to execute effective criminology practice. This private college offers five concentration options: behavior analysis, behavior management, federal law enforcement, intelligence and crime analysis, and homeland security. Candidates can also pursue a customized general track, which enables them to tailor course selections to meet professional aspirations.

    Regardless of concentration, all candidates complete four core courses that build fundamental knowledge in criminal justice topics, including research methods and analysis, criminological theory, ethics and criminal justice, and professional writing for law enforcement. Along with the core curriculum, candidates complete specialized electives. All concentration tracks require 30 credits, except for the behavior analysis track, which requires 36 credits and an additional internship at an approved site.

  2. Boston University

    Boston, MA



    One of the top colleges in Massachusetts, BU hosts one of the country's best online master's in criminal justice programs. The school's master of science in criminal justice offers three concentration options: crime analysis, cybercrime investigation and cybersecurity, and strategic management. Most candidates complete the degree in 16-18 months.

    The program gives students an informed perspective on the major sectors of the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, corrections, and the judicial system. Candidates gain advanced knowledge of criminological theories and practices, exploring the application of these concepts to public policy.

    The online master's in criminal justice serves as BU's oldest online degree, and distance students benefit from a highly developed program that enables them to connect with an extensive global network of criminal justice professionals. Applicants who hold membership in the American Jail Association may be eligible to receive an application fee waiver.

  3. Xavier University

    Cincinnati, OH



    A private college based in Cincinnati, Ohio, Xavier ranks among the oldest Jesuit schools in the country and one of the top colleges in the Midwest. Students in the master of science in criminal justice program benefit from a fully online delivery format that features six annual start dates. The program emphasizes administrative practices in criminal justice, preparing graduates for mid- and upper-level management positions in the field.

    Candidates complete a minimum of 30 credits. Courses explore topics like sociology of crime and delinquency, correctional counseling, administration/leadership, and research and planning. Along with the general curriculum, candidates complete a research-based graduate thesis and a comprehensive final examination. The program typically takes 1-2 years to complete.

  4. Salve Regina University

    Newport, RI



    Salve Regina hosts a cutting-edge master of science in administration of justice and homeland security. Based in Newport, Rhode Island, this private college prepares criminal justice students for careers in intelligence, security, and threat analysis and management.

    Candidates choose from three concentration options: cybersecurity and intelligence, digital forensics, or leadership in justice. Candidates in all concentrations complete 36 credits, divided between eight core courses and four concentration courses. In lieu of a formal concentration, students can create their own concentration through electives.

    Students can complete the degree entirely online, but Salve Regina also offers a hybrid format that blends online courses with evening campus sessions on the school's Newport and Warwick campuses. Most candidates complete the online master's in criminal justice in 18-24 months.

  5. Concordia University-Saint Paul

    Saint Paul, MN



    Part of the Concordia University System, a national network of Lutheran liberal arts colleges, CSP hosts one of Minnesota's best online master's in criminal justice programs. This fully online degree features accelerated seven-week courses, with a highly flexible format designed to accommodate working students. CSP reports that 95% of students receive a job offer within one year of graduation.

    The master of arts in criminal justice leadership includes a total of 36 credits, offered in a sequential format that builds on previous knowledge with each new course. Candidates complete nine courses, covering topics such as research methods in criminal justice, legal and legislative issues, applied ethics in criminal justice leadership, and correctional design.

    The program concludes with a criminal justice capstone, which requires students to compile and present a portfolio of their best work. The capstone offers space for self-assessment and reflection, building a bridge between students' education and professional goals.

  6. Norwich University

    Northfield, VT



    A private college based in Northfield, Vermont, Norwich offers a master of science in criminal justice that explores global criminal behavior and response in the context of the government, industry, and the military. This unique program emphasizes an international approach to criminal justice, highlighting the challenges of global law enforcement and the role of international law.

    The 30-credit program comprises five intensive courses, including two core courses in law enforcement administration and contemporary issues in the criminal justice system. Students fulfill the remaining course requirements with electives, with available options including international terrorism by nonstate actors, international response to transnational terrorism, cybercrime, and cyberlaw.

    While most coursework occurs online, all students must visit the Norwich campus for a weeklong residency at the end of the program. The residency includes in-person class sessions and workshops, networking opportunities, and academic recognition and commencement ceremonies.

  7. Lewis University

    Romeoville, IL



    Lewis' master of science in criminal justice builds on the experience of trained law enforcement professionals, offering advanced skills in organizational and management theory. Based in Romeoville, Illinois, this private college uses a fully online delivery mode, enabling students to complete their degree without visiting campus.

    Candidates complete 36 credits total, divided among core courses, concentration courses, and electives. The 15-credit core introduces major topics including applied research methods, criminal procedure, and criminal law. The 12-credit concentration section focuses on specialized knowledge in either criminal justice or homeland security. The nine-credit elective section enables students to explore topics such as police civil liability, comparative justice systems, and white=collar crime.

    Applicants to Lewis' online master's in criminal justice must currently work in the criminal justice field or hold an undergraduate degree in social or behavioral science. Candidates who lack these prerequisites must complete two foundational criminal justice courses along with the regular program curriculum.

  8. Michigan State University

    East Lansing, MI



    One of Michigan's top public colleges, MSU offers a fully online master of science in criminal justice. This interdisciplinary program emphasizes the analytical skills and knowledge necessary for leadership in varied criminal justice settings, including corrections, law enforcement, and corporate security.

    The 30-credit degree includes six core courses and four electives. The program core introduces essential topics including criminal justice management, policy analysis, and design and analysis in criminal justice research. Elective options include comparative criminal justice, globalization of crime, and foundations of homeland security.

    Unlike many online criminal justice programs, MSU's degree does not require applicants to hold an academic or professional background in the field. Candidates must simply hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited college in any academic subject with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Applicants must also submit a personal statement and three letters of recommendation. Candidates with a GPA below 3.2 need to submit GRE scores.

  9. DeSales University

    Center Valley, PA



    Based in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, DeSales offers an online master's in criminal justice with five concentration options: counterterrorism, digital forensics, homeland security, investigative forensics, and leadership. The school provides a 20% tuition discount for currently employed criminal justice professionals.

    The 30-credit program includes 18 credits of core courses and 12 credits of concentration courses. Core courses cover key topics such as advanced criminology, policing in America, and ethics in criminal justice. Concentration courses build specialized knowledge that prepares students for different professional pathways. Investigative forensics students, for example, complete courses including forensic anthropology, forensic toxicology, and forensic psychology.

    Online learning at DeSales uses a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous elements, with some courses requiring live meetings with designated class times. Other course components allow students to log in whenever it suits their schedule, making the program convenient for working criminal justice professionals.

  10. University of San Diego

    San Diego, CA



    Developed collaboratively with law enforcement agencies, USD's master of science in law enforcement and public safety leadership stresses leadership skills for criminal justice professionals, training students for management roles in the field. The degree boasts a 100% online format and special tuition discounts for law enforcement, public safety professionals, veterans, and active-duty military personnel.

    The 31-credit program includes 10 courses and a one-credit capstone. Required courses include budget and finance for law enforcement leaders, management and conflict resolution, best practices in community engagement, and public safety law in a dynamic world. During the culminating capstone course, students compile a portfolio of their most representative work and reflect on their overall learning throughout the program.

    USD's online master's in criminal justice program does not require applicants to hold a specific undergraduate major, though candidates should hold professional experience in law enforcement, public safety, military, or a relevant field.

What Is a Criminal Justice Master’s Degree?

An online master’s in criminal justice builds comprehensive knowledge in law enforcement theories and practices, often focusing on management and administrative strategies. Nearly all programs include a core/foundation component that builds broad knowledge on topics such as criminology and the role of policing in society. Most programs also cover criminal justice research and statistics, giving professionals the tools needed to understand data and evaluate the effectiveness of law enforcement practices.

Many programs offer concentrations that enable students to explore key areas of criminal justice practice, such as cybercrime, homeland security, forensics, or leadership. Concentrations build specialized skills that can help graduates distinguish themselves in a competitive job market. Many programs also include an experiential component, such as an internship or practicum, which applies course learning to professional practice.

An online master’s in criminal justice offers many advantages for working professionals. Flexible enrollment options, asynchronous courses, and few required campus visits typically make it easier for students to balance work and school obligations. Most programs span about two years, though many schools offer flexible part-time options that require fewer courses each semester but take longer to complete.

What Can I Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?

An online master’s in criminal justice prepares you for careers in law enforcement, public safety, and government service. The list below outlines six popular career paths in the field, including typical duties and required skills.

  • Law Enforcement Supervisor

    One of the most common careers for criminal justice graduates, law enforcement focuses on protecting lives and property in communities across the country. While not typically required to advance in the field, a master’s degree provides skills and training that can make it easier for law enforcement professionals to move into managerial and supervisory positions.

    Law enforcement officers are typically promoted after gaining experience on the job, and nearly all advanced positions require professional experience in addition to education. However, candidates with a graduate degree typically find it easier to assume leadership positions, such as sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. These roles include more responsibility for management tasks, such as training staff and coordinating investigations.

    Along with increased responsibility, supervisors typically command increased pay. The BLS reports that first-line supervisors of police and detectives earn a median annual wage of $94,950.

  • DEA Agent

    Working to disrupt the flow of illegal drugs and dismantle drug trafficking operations in the United States, DEA agents perform valuable work that benefits from the knowledge and skills gained in a graduate criminal justice program. These agents pursue the groups and individuals who manufacture and distribute illegal drugs, both in the U.S. and abroad, attempting to destabilize their organizational and financial structures.

    DEA agents perform many of the same tasks as other law enforcement professionals, including investigations, surveillance, and undercover work. They often work alongside local and federal law enforcement officials to collect evidence, analyze crime scenes, interview witnesses, arrest suspects, and write investigation reports.

    While a master’s degree is not required for all DEA positions, it can help agents advance to leadership roles with greater responsibility. Specialized skills in areas such as information technology, accounting, engineering, and foreign languages can also be highly useful to DEA agents.

  • Emergency Manager

    Focused on strategic preparation for disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and pollution events, emergency managers work to coordinate public response between various agencies and first responders to ensure public safety. In the criminal justice field, emergency managers may plan and supervise the response of law enforcement agencies to various disaster scenarios, facilitating interactions with other agencies and the general public.

    Emergency management emphasizes effective planning and communication, as managers must adequately prepare for potential disasters and coordinate communication strategies to reach the public. The profession calls for strong organizational and leadership skills, as emergency managers must oversee complex response measures that may include the distribution of equipment, transportation, and emergency response personnel.

    Some criminal justice programs include emergency management concentration options, while other specializations, such as homeland security, may include elements of emergency management for specific situations, like terrorist attacks.

  • Counterterrorism Agent

    Demand for counterrorism professionals in the U.S. has grown significantly since 9/11, and today many criminal justice graduates pursue careers in this important field. Counterterrorism works to predict and prevent terrorist threats against U.S. interests, both at home and abroad, attempting to disrupt terrorist networks and develop adequate response strategies to terrorist attacks.

    Counterterrorism agents may work for many U.S. agencies, including the FBI, CIA, and DHS. Their work typically combines principles of homeland security and criminal justice. Counterterrorism professionals may investigate and research the activities of terrorist groups; report their findings to various government agencies; and work to actively pursue, apprehend, and prosecute terrorists.

    Criminal justice students interested in counterterrorism often pursue programs with counterterrorism or homeland security concentrations. They also need knowledge of global politics and current events.

  • Cybersecurity Specialist

    Widespread use of technology has created new opportunities for cybercrime and other forms of digital threats. Cybersecurity specialists work with law enforcement and other agencies to investigate digital crime and maintain the security of important computer networks. Broadly, cybersecurity focuses on assessing digital threats, implementing security strategies, and analyzing and investigating various types of cyber incidents.

    Students interested in pursuing this career often complete a criminal justice program with an information security or cybercrime concentration. Cybercrime professionals typically need strong knowledge of computer networks, digital forensics, and cyber defense.

    Given the prevalence of digital networks in almost every aspect of modern life, careers in cybersecurity are expected to grow much faster than most other criminal justice careers. The BLS projects careers for information security analysts to grow 32% from 2018-2028, a rate far above the national average for all occupations.

  • CIA Officer

    The CIA’s primary function is to collect intelligence in the service of U.S. national security. Most officers work to gather and evaluate information from a variety of sources, coordinating with other agencies and departments to assess and deter security threats. CIA officers can pursue many paths within the agency, including science and technical, analytical, national clandestine, and support services.

    Most CIA careers require a bachelor’s degree at minimum, and many advanced positions require a master’s. Given the agency’s international focus, knowledge of a foreign language is a prerequisite for many positions, and agents who speak other languages fluently may find it easier to advance within the agency.

Salary Potential

Even as crime rates fall, demand for law enforcement and criminal justice professionals is projected to persist. The BLS projects jobs for police and detectives to grow 5% from 2018-2028, amounting to 37,500 new jobs.

The BLS reports an annual median salary of $65,170 for all types of police and detectives, though salary levels can vary by location, education, experience level, and industry. For example, high-level positions, like criminal investigator and detective, command higher pay levels, with the BLS reporting an annual median salary of $83,170 for these professionals. A master’s degree in criminal justice can often help law enforcement professionals advance to high-paying roles.

Salary levels also vary by industry. Officers employed by the federal government earn a median salary of $88,060. Professionals employed by state agencies earn an annual median salary of $68,610, while those employed at local agencies earn $63,410.


  • Is a degree in criminal justice an MA or MS?

    Students can pursue an MA or MS in criminal justice. However, given the professional focus of the field, more schools offer MS degrees.

  • What is a master's degree in criminal justice?

    A master’s degree in criminal justice is an advanced degree that builds specialized knowledge in criminal justice practices, often focused on management and administration.

  • What can you do with a master's in criminal justice?

    A master’s degree in criminal justice prepares you for a variety of roles in the field, including management and other leadership positions.

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