Online degree programs in criminal justice provide a flexible higher education to students who need balance – with work, family commitments and education. Top online programs offer not only flexible schedules, but also great teachers, tremendous resources and student support to rival their on-campus counterparts. The following page helps aspiring criminal justice majors move their college and career forward in two ways. First, it provides a quick and easy way to search for online CJ programs from top colleges and universities across the country. This includes programs at multiple levels, and from myriad types of institutions. Second, it dissects the various higher educational journeys available in the field, from earning an associate degree online to seeking an advanced credential in the field. Find colleges and learn more about online degrees.
For those who are interested in entering a career that maintains the safety of others, an online degree in criminal justice is a good first step. As more schools provide online criminal justice degree programs, narrowing down the options can be overwhelming. To help along this process, we have created this list of the top online criminal justice programs based on our methodology. See who made our 2018-2019 rankings here.
The criminal justice field includes three main sectors: law enforcement, corrections and security. Numerous professions fall within these areas, such as forensic scientist, police officer, paralegal, probation officer, security guard, loss prevention specialist, teacher and many more (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics). Many careers in the field require some type of post-secondary education, from vocational training through advanced degrees. Traditional and online institutions across the country offer criminal justice degree programs via distance learning. Some schools offer an online criminology degree rather than one in CJ specifically. Criminology is a comparable major with a similar program. Let’s begin by examining the most common types of online criminal justice degrees in higher education:
Karla Lant is a retired criminal defense attorney and an adjunct professor for Northern Arizona University’s Master of Administration program. She teaches students working in law enforcement routinely as they study administration and leadership. During her years as a trial attorney her specialty areas included forensic science and medical and scientific evidence.
Now more than ever, students with high-quality training in criminal justice are crucial to the reform and support of our justice system. Criminal justice as a field has grown, and is a robust area of study. The days of simple experience being enough for criminal justice professionals are in the past; today even officers working the streets need sophisticated technology, well-informed theory, and an intellectual strength to excel.
The path to a career in criminal justice varies by student. For those interested in the field, but perhaps unsure about their direction, it’s important to have as much information as possible. To simplify the investigative process, the timeline below identifies the educational options available from an associate degree to a doctorate and examines the important considerations involved in pursuing each of these degrees online.
An online associate degree in criminal justice provides students with the knowledge and skills necessary for an entry-level career in the field. All students must take a certain number of general education courses in addition to courses in law enforcement, corrections and criminology. Some schools allow students to declare a concentration in one of these three areas.
Students who earn an online associate degree in criminal justice can transfer to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree. Many students find this to be a cost-effective route to a four-year credential. Before deciding to follow this path, students should meet with the academic advisor at their two-year college to determine which credits will transfer over to a four-year institution. It is also helpful to speak with an academic advisor at the college or university they plan to transfer to find out the specific requirements because — this can simplify the transfer process later on.
The online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice serves as the benchmark for students entering the field by expanding on concepts introduced at the two-year level. Students prepare for future careers by examining crimes and their effects on communities, as well as methods of promoting community safety. Courses help students clarify their career aspirations by identifying specific areas of interest. The following coursework is typical of years three and four in an online criminal justice degree curriculum:
Criminology: Focuses on explanations and measurement of crime, characteristics of criminals and victims. This includes property, white-collar, organized, violent and sexual crimes.
Courts and the prosecution process: Covers the purpose and function of criminal courts, including organization, jurisdiction and staffing. Other subjects include prosecution, adjudication and sentencing of offenders.
Policing: Examines police organizations and operations in the United States. Topics discussed include the impact of police on crime, disorder and social issues; police culture and public support; and community policing.
Corrections: An overview of the punishment and treatment of sentenced offenders. Students develop an understanding of correctional institutions and how they are organized, including staffing, inmates and subcultures among correctional institutions.
Other primary courses:
It usually takes two years of full-time study, after the bachelor’s degree, to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice. During that time, students gain knowledge and develop leadership skills that prepare them for supervisory or administrative careers in law enforcement management and the judicial courts. With a master’s degree in the discipline, graduates can also pursue careers in academia as instructors, although likely at the community college level. Visit our detailed page on online master’s programs in criminal justice to learn more.
A doctoral program in criminal justice explores the theories and legal framework of crime and criminal behavior, focusing on areas such as prevention, intervention and effective consequences. Coursework investigates theories of crime and criminal behavior, criminal laws and ethics. Students in an online criminal justice PhD program must research, write and defend a dissertation in an area of specialization, such as behavioral science, juvenile justice or organizational leadership. Graduates may pursue careers at organizations such as the CIA, FBI and secret service in positions that do not require fieldwork. Explore other career options, find top programs, and dive deeper into the timeline on our guide to online PhDs in criminal justice.
Students interested in studying criminal justice can enroll at online community colleges, state and private schools, and for-profit institutions. No matter where an online criminal justice education resides, there are specific qualities that identify a high-caliber program.
All online criminal justice degree programs should be fully accredited. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes six regional accreditation agencies as well as the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). Students should avoid any program without one of these forms of accreditation. Some programs are also accredited by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), which promotes high-quality higher education, research and policy analysis for both educators and practitioners within the discipline.
Students pursuing online criminal justice degrees benefit from the option to choose from multiple specializations or concentrations. For example, students who wish to pursue a career in academia can specialize in Teaching for Higher Education. Students interested in working in jails and prisons in administration can specialize in Corrections and Case Management. Other concentrations include Homeland Security, Public Safety Leadership, Forensics, Public Administration and Health Policy and Management. Many of these concentrations train graduates for careers in one of the hundreds of departments within the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ.gov) or the U.S. Secret Service (Secret Service.gov), a federal law enforcement agency headquartered in Washington, D.C., with more than 150 offices throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Flexibility is one of the top reasons students are attracted to online criminal justice degrees. Therefore, a quality program should have round-the-clock access to tools and technology such as digital libraries, communication software, tech support and other materials. The curriculum should also have a strong technology component. According to “The State of Criminal Justice 2012,” a report by the American Bar Association, the rates of violent crimes are declining, yet cybercrime is on the rise. Experts in the field need to be trained in advanced technology in order to combat this rising problem.
Students need the opportunity to build relationships with faculty members who are subject matter experts with years of hands-on experience. They also benefit from an internship program that allows them to associate with experts in the field. Additionally, a strong alumni network is essential for finding a job after graduation.
Online criminal justice degree graduates should have the knowledge skills to seek and obtain entry-level positions in law enforcement, corrections and security. By developing a broad understanding of criminal law, the justice system, and the legal structure, students are able to graduate with a strong understanding of the nature of crimes, ethics in criminal justice and the ability to identify and analyze social problems and develop solutions. According to multiple studies by PayScale, the top six careers for criminal justice majors are police officer, paralegal, probation officer, detective, security officer and loss prevention manager.
Although professional certifications are not required for most positions, those who hold them display a high level of education and experience in their specialty area. The professional programs below are examples of designations available to experts in the criminal justice field by various organizations. Requirements vary be certification.
ACA Corrections Certification: The American Correctional Association sponsors the Corrections Certifications Program, which offers credentials for experts working in adult corrections, juvenile justice, security threat groups and corrections healthcare.
Certified Jail Officer: The American Jail Association recognizes those jail officers with superior knowledge, skills and abilities, as well as a commitment to the corrections profession on a national level, with the Certified Jail Officer Program.
Certified Criminal Justice Specialist: The National Association of Forensic Counselors offers several certifications. Several of the programs, including the Certified Criminal Justice Specialist program, are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.
Certified Security Consultant: Experts who display a high level of professionalism, knowledge and integrity as professional security consultants can earn Certified Security Consultant certification through the International Association of Professional Security Consultants.
Certified Law Enforcement Analyst: The International Association of Crime Analysts awards the Certified Law Enforcement designation to experts with high-level crime analysis, intelligence analysis, geographic profiling, police research and planning skills.
IAI Crime Scene Certification: The International Association for Identification manages the Crime Scene Certification Program, which is comprised of four separate designations: Certified Crime Scene Investigator, Certified Crime Scene Analyst, Certified Crime Scene Re-constructionist, and Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst.
The best way to discover the pros and cons of earning an online criminal justice degree is by listening to people who have already experienced it. Students and alumni can provide unique insight into the complete educational path, from the application process to finding a job. Let’s take a look at how Kerry Bush viewed his online program experience.
1. How did you get started with your online criminal justice degree education?
I knew I wanted to go into law enforcement from an early age because my father and uncles were on the police force while I was growing up and I always looked up to them. But even though I knew I would major in criminal justice, I was concerned about paying for a four-year education. I ended up enrolling in an associate degree program online while working full-time in retail, saving money for tuition. Then after I got my two-year degree I transferred to Florida State University to get my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice online. I think it was a smart decision because I saved a lot of money on tuition expenses.
2. How was the transfer process? Did your credit transfer without a problem?
Actually, since I knew I would transfer before I even started with my associate degree, I was able to meet with an advisor before choosing my courses and we mapped it all out so that it was a simple process. Most of the courses in a two-year program are general education courses similar to those at all colleges so it wasn’t that big a deal.
3. You mention that you wanted to follow in your family’s footsteps in law enforcement. Did you always plan on finding a position in a police department?
I thought I would become a police officer after graduation, but I ended up changing my path a bit. I decided to try volunteering in my community while earning my two-year degree because I thought it would help me when it came time to apply to four-year schools. I volunteered with the police department and a staff member who was active in Meals on Wheels encouraged me to give the program a try. I really enjoyed working with the elderly population in a way I didn’t know would happen. I still try to put in a few hours a month.
4. Were you happy with your online undergraduate education?
Definitely. There were so many benefits to doing the program online. I had the same courses as students on-campus and received the same diploma. But I had so much flexibility. In fact, I was able to continue working and volunteering once I got started. I didn’t have to go to campus for any courses at all, so it turned out to be even better than I expected. The faculty was amazing and I always felt supported- every step of the way.
5. What kind of technology was used in your distance learning program?
A few of my courses used videotapes but mostly I had to log in for discussions and lectures. Most of my courses allowed me to work on my own schedule. That was actually tricky in the beginning. I was handed these assignments and activities and a week to get them done. It can be difficult to get your own regular schedule without waiting until the last minute to get everything done. But I picked it up quickly. Everyone gets assigned an Academic Coordinator who keeps you on task.
Myriad postsecondary institutions offer criminal justice degrees at varied levels as part of their online learning options. Many of these programs have numerous qualities an online student may be looking for, such as asynchronous classes or a good value for cost, though only some may have the student support and financial assistance they may want. The search tool below will provide a quick and helpful list of online criminal justice programs that have all the qualities a student desires.