Online Criminal Justice Associate Degree Programs

The Most Affordable Paths & Career Potential in Criminal Justice

If you are thinking about earning a criminal justice associate degree online, this guide can help you learn more about the field and the employment outlook. Criminal justice is a popular undergraduate major for students interested in careers in law enforcement, corrections, security, and the legal and court systems.

An associate degree in criminal justice gives you a competitive edge in the workplace and delivers salary benefits. While you may find entry-level employment without a postsecondary education, many law enforcement and government positions require at least an associate degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that positions requiring an associate degree pay a median annual salary of $52,830, more than $16,000 higher than the median salary for jobs open to high school graduates.

Quiz: Is An Online Criminal Justice Associate Program Right for Me?

If you have considered an online associate degree in criminal justice or a related field, this quiz can help delineate the specifics that set a criminal justice program apart. Discover whether the skills you can acquire in this program align with your college and career goals.

Q: Are you interested in gaining skills related to fighting crime, law enforcement, and criminal rehabilitation over studying financial or business compliance related crimes?

A: Enrolling in a criminal justice associate degree online can prepare students for many different aspects of law enforcement, public service, and protection. An associate degree serves as the minimum requirement to enter a police or fire academy and work in a correctional facility, law office, or courtroom. Majoring in criminal justice exposes you to broad lessons related to criminal behavior, laws and mandates, public protection, and legal services.

Students who enjoy working with numbers and performing in-depth analysis, who are equally interested in upholding laws and preventing crime, may find that earning an associate degree in accounting can better prepare them for careers in corporate compliance and regulatory management.

Q: Does a two-year degree program feel like the right study timeline?

A: An associate degree in criminal justice typically requires 60 credits and takes two years to complete with full-time study. However, online programs offer the flexibility to work at your own pace. Some schools offer an accelerated format that includes summer semesters and allows students to finish a criminal justice associate's degree in about 18 months.

For students interested in part-time study, an online associate in criminal justice may also provide the flexibility to work at your own pace, balancing class time with other work, family, and life commitments.

Q: Do you have prior credits to transfer?

A: Online associate degree programs in criminal justice do not require any prior experience or coursework to enroll. But some students may hold transfer credits, which can cut degree length. Ask an admissions advisor about AP credits from high school, courses taken at another college, and even military or related job experience -- these could all be opportunities to apply credit toward your associate degree program.

Q: Are you interested in eventually earning a bachelor's degree?

A: An associate degree in criminal justice provides the foundational training required for many roles within our justice system, as detailed further in the careers section of this page. However, advanced positions within criminal justice, such as judges and lawyers, require continuing education.

Learn more about earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and keep in mind that the credits earned during your associate degree may allow you to earn a bachelor's more quickly.

What Will You Learn in an Online Associate Criminal Justice Program?

While online associate degrees vary in format, you can expect to take a set of general education requirements along with core courses in criminal justice. An associate degree equips you with the conceptual foundation and applied tools to qualify for positions as police or corrections officers, parole or probation specialists, or private security professionals. This degree also provides you with the academic background to transfer directly into a bachelor's program.

Core courses typically include an overview of the U.S. criminal justice systems, criminal and constitutional law, criminal investigation, and corrections. Depending on the program focus, the criminal justice curriculum may offer classes in juvenile delinquency, victimology, alcohol and drug abuse, and forensics. The best online associate programs help students develop communication skills and acquire training in computer and technological applications.

Common Classes and Coursework

  • Icon
    Introduction to the Criminal Justice System: This introductory course required of all criminal justice students compares the roles of police, courts, and corrections. It introduces students to criminal justice principles and concepts and law enforcement terminology. The course also emphasizes the current challenges faced by criminal justice agencies and institutions.
  • Icon
    Police Administration and Operations: Students examine the principles and operational procedures of police administration and police organizations of all types. The course applies management theories and best practices to law enforcement administration. Topics include selection, training, promotion, and socialization of officers; community policing; and the conflicting roles and challenges faced by police officers in the contemporary era.
  • Icon
    Criminal Investigations: Students in this course explore the investigative process from crime scene preservation to case preparation and courtroom presentation. Students learn the fundamentals of investigation procedures, including photography, interviewing, evidence handling, and scene reconstruction, with applications to specific types of crimes. The course emphasizes the importance and legal significance of evidence.
  • Icon
    Correctional Systems: This introduction to the U.S. correctional system provides a comprehensive overview for students planning to enter positions in corrections. Students learn about the structures and processes used in jails, prisons, and federal correctional facilities. The course addresses parole, probation, capital punishment, prisoner rights, special populations, and staff and inmate safety.
  • Icon
    Forensics: This course examines the principles, theories, and practices of forensic science, the types of examinations conducted in crime scenes, and other applications of forensic science commonly used in the criminal justice system. Students gain hands-on experience in crime scene investigations, death investigations, evidence-gathering techniques, and the analysis of physical evidence in field and laboratory settings.

Skills You Will Gain

Earning a criminal justice associate degree online can provide you with a comprehensive knowledge about criminal and constitutional law, law enforcement and corrections, and the court and legal systems. The best programs recognize the importance of strong written and oral communication skills with specific applications to criminal justice careers. Students planning on entering positions in law enforcement and criminal investigations must develop competencies in analytical reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving.

As the demand for specialists in cybercrime and forensic analysis continues to grow, associate degree programs offer students the technological and computer skills required to pursue these kinds of career opportunities. Because criminal justice professionals often work in challenging environments and interact with diverse groups in a variety of settings, coursework includes training in interpersonal communication, cultural sensitivity, and ethical practices.

Associate degrees give you knowledge and applied techniques that set you apart in the job market and provide the academic foundation for further study at the bachelor's level and beyond. Associate degrees require students to complete general education requirements in the liberal arts and sciences, along with core criminal justice courses. This background prepares students to move into four-year bachelor programs, serving as an important first-step for students planning to attend law school or pursue an advanced graduate degree.

Average Degree Length

Distance learning programs generally feature similar coursework and graduation requirements as traditional brick-and-mortar degrees while offering greater flexibility and convenience. Online formats may provide a more manageable path to degree completion for working professionals, adult learners returning to school after several years, and parents and caretakers who must manage their studies with childcare or other family responsibilities. Self-paced, online programs also appeal to traditional college students just beginning to explore their educational and career options.

Earning a criminal justice associate degree online or on campus requires approximately 60 credits, with two years of full-time study. Accelerated programs can lead to a degree in as little as 12-18 months. Students typically complete part-time programs in 3-5 years.

Students who enter an associate degree with advanced placement courses from high school may reduce the number of credits needed for graduation. Some schools offer academic credit for law enforcement and military experience. Keep in mind that online programs using a cohort model or featuring hybrid courses requiring in-person attendance may lengthen the degree completion time.

Career Opportunities with an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

The versatility of a criminal justice degree makes it a popular choice for students who plan to enter careers in law enforcement, corrections, probation, and parole. While many graduates become police and correctional officers, this degree also leads to entry-level placements in the courts and legal system, in private security work, and in community and social services. This section provides an overview of common criminal justice careers pursued by associate degree-holders along with salary prospects.

Potential Careers and Salaries

The versatility of a criminal justice degree and its relevance to several career paths make it a popular choice for students interested in protecting public safety and serving their communities. Employers in criminal justice-related fields increasingly prefer job applicants with an associate degree.

While specific job qualifications vary by agency, an increasing number of police departments and correctional facilities view an associate degree as the minimum educational prerequisite for new hires. In addition to law enforcement positions, an associate degree has become the entry-level credential for employment as paralegals and legal assistants, probation and parole officers, forensic specialists, cybersecurity investigators, and security guards.

Police and Detectives

Police officers protect the public in emergency and nonemergency situations, patrol communities, and make arrests. Detectives investigate crimes, interview suspects and witnesses, and gather evidence. Detectives often begin their careers as police officers before moving up in rank.

Median Annual Salary: $63,380

Parole Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists

These professionals assist parolees and probationers to fulfill the conditions of their release and develop a plan for rehabilitation. They meet with their clients regularly and connect them with support services like job training or drug counseling.

Median Annual Salary: $53,020

Paralegals and Legal Assistants

Paralegals and legal assistants work in law firms assisting attorneys preparing for trials, hearings, closing, and other legal services. They perform research, conduct interviews, collect documents, and organize paper and electronic files.

Median Annual Salary: $50,940

Correctional Officers

These professionals work in jails, prisons, and federal penitentiaries. They oversee individuals who have been arrested and supervise inmates awaiting trial or those serving a sentence. They maintain order, inspect facilities, and transport inmates as needed.

Median Annual Salary: $44,400

Security Guards and Gaming Surveillance Officers

Security guards patrol and enforce safety regulations for a variety of facilities including shopping malls, office complexes, and gambling casinos. They protect property against theft, respond to emergency situations, and monitor surveillance and alarm systems.

Median Annual Salary: $28,530

Five Criminal Justice Scholarships to Apply For

Financing a college education represents a major expense for most people. Before you enroll in any associate degree program, you should research the availability of financial aid. Many private foundations, professional associations, and honor societies offer scholarships in criminal justice and related majors. This list introduces some of the criminal justice-oriented awards available to undergraduates.

American Correctional Association Martin Luther King, Jr. Criminal Justice Scholarship

Who Can Apply: ACA offers this award to members of racial minority groups planning a career in criminal justice or a related field. Candidates must provide evidence of financial need, academic achievement, and acceptance or enrollment in a four-year undergraduate program.

Amount: $1,000

Apply for Scholarship

American Criminal Justice Association Lambda Alpha Epsilon Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This award funds undergraduate studies in law/legal services, criminal justice/law, or the social sciences. Applicants must be members of the Lambda Alpha Epsilon Honor Society and demonstrate a 3.0 GPA in their last two semesters of coursework.

Amount: $100-$400

Apply for Scholarship

Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association Scholarship

Who Can Apply: HAPCOA provides this award to high school seniors or undergraduate students from Hispanic backgrounds pursuing a career in law enforcement or a criminal justice-related profession. Applicants must demonstrate a 3.0 GPA and other examples of service or academic achievement.

Amount: $2,500

Apply for Scholarship

Melissa Linville Criminal Justice Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Crimcheck, an employment background screening service, funds this annual award for recent high school graduates or students currently enrolled in an undergraduate program working toward a career in a criminal justice field.

Amount: $500

Apply for Scholarship

Women in Federal Law Enforcement Scholarship

Who Can Apply: WIFLE established this scholarship to encourage talented individuals to enter careers in law enforcement. Applicants must attend an accredited four-year college or university or an accredited community college with the intention of transferring to a four-year degree.

Amount: $1,500

Apply for Scholarship

Educational Advancement in Criminal Justice

Many students begin an associate degree with the intention of entering the workforce after graduation but then decide to broaden their options by continuing their education in a bachelor's program. An associate degree provides you with the foundational criminal justice, liberal arts, and science requirements needed to transfer directly into a four-year program. This section describes some of the educational possibilities open to graduates with a criminal justice associate degree.

Should You Transfer to a Four-Year Degree Program?

Students often enroll in an online associate program as an affordable and convenient way to earn enough credits to transfer into a bachelor's degree. Many community colleges boast formal transfer agreements with four-year colleges and universities, enabling the seamless transfer of credits.

If you plan to earn a bachelor's degree, make sure to work closely with an academic advisor in your associate degree program to help you select courses that will transfer to your prospective school.

What Degree Paths Should You Consider?

An online associate degree in criminal justice provides a springboard to several educational avenues. The demand for specialized professionals in a variety of criminal justice fields has resulted in the expansion of bachelor degree programs. An associate degree provides a strong academic foundation for bachelor-level studies leading to different career paths that align with your personal and professional goals.

Bachelor in Forensic Science An undergraduate degree in forensic science prepares students for careers in crime-scene investigation gathering and cataloging evidence, and in laboratory settings scientifically analyzing fingerprints, body fluids, DNA, ballistics, and other evidence.
Bachelor in Cybercrime The study of cybercrime blends criminal justice with technological applications to prevent and detect criminal activity involving computers, networked devices, or networks. Coursework covers data architecture, software analysis, network security, and digital investigation techniques.
Bachelor in Criminal Justice This major explores the police, court, and legal systems with applications to a variety of careers, including law enforcement, corrections, juvenile justice, and social services. Students often choose a criminal justice degree in preparation for law school or graduate studies.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Students can take advantage of several archives and professional associations representing every aspect of criminal justice. This list provides a small sample of the kinds of resources available, including data sets for research, scholarship opportunities, and job banks.

  • Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences: ACJS represents criminal justice professionals, researchers, educators, and students. The academy administers programmatic accreditation for criminal justice degree programs and sponsors annual conferences, two online journals, and an employment bulletin.
  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences: This professional association promotes best practices in forensic science. AAFS publishes the Journal of Forensic Sciences and offers professional development opportunities and an annual conference. Student members may access job placement services.
  • American Correctional Association: This nonprofit association represents the interests of practitioners in correctional fields and sponsors conferences, employment services, and professional development courses. ACA administers the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections, ensuring that correctional facilities maintain compliance with national standards.
  • American Probation and Parole Association: APPA works to reduce recidivism by strengthening community corrections and improving correctional services and rehabilitation programs. The association sponsors online training institutes for probation and parole officers and administers certification programs.
  • American Society of Criminology: ASC promotes the exchange of information about research, teaching, and practice in the criminology and criminal justice fields. The organization offers conferences, publications, and career services to its members.
  • National Association of Police Organizations: NAPO advocates on behalf of approximately 241,000 police officers and detectives in more than 1,000 law enforcement units. This coalition of police unions sponsors three annual conferences and several continuing education opportunities.
  • National Criminal Justice Association: This nonprofit organization assists local, state, and tribal governments in areas of crime control, crime prevention, and other criminal justice issues. NCJA sponsors training sessions on strategic planning and grants administration for criminal justice professionals.
  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service: NCJRS maintains a comprehensive online archive that provides summaries of over 200,000 research studies in criminal justice, substance abuse, and juvenile justice. The website offers downloadable full-text versions of federally funded studies.
  • National Gang Center: NGC partners with practitioners, researchers, and policymakers to develop and implement effective strategies for gang prevention, intervention, and suppression. The Center offers online resources, practical tools, and statistics to help communities address gang involvement and gang violence.
  • U.S. Census Criminal Justice Statistics: This data archive covers topics like probation, parole, inmate sexual violence, inmate deaths, and criminal justice expenditures. Users of this site can access national statistics on incarceration rates.