Online Criminal Justice Degree Overview
A bachelor's degree in criminal justice prepares graduates for an array of jobs in this field. Many become police officers, detectives, FBI agents, or correctional treatment specialists for detention facilities. By taking specific courses, some graduates may become cybersecurity analysts, homeland security specialists, or emergency managers. Others continue their education and earn master's degrees in criminal justice to become criminologists or to pursue leadership positions in criminal justice organizations.
The curriculum for an online program in criminal justice features both broad and focused topics in the field. Students gain a general overview of police procedures and the techniques for collecting evidence at a crime scene. Classes in criminology and human behavior provide a background in the psychology of criminal behavior. More focused courses such as criminal law, psychology of policing, comparative criminal justice systems, cybercrime, juvenile delinquency, justice studies, and history of law may also be included.
Students can choose from a wide range of criminal justice programs to suit their interests and career goals, and many are opting to pursue their degrees entirely online. Applicants to an online bachelor's degree program in criminal justice must have a high school diploma or its equivalent and meet other admission requirements, such as a minimum GPA. Students with an associate degree from a community college may be able to transfer credits into their program. It typically takes four years of full-time study to complete the 120-128 credit hours required to earn the degree.
Students can choose from a wide range of criminal justice programs to suit their interests and career goals, and many are opting to pursue their degrees entirely online.
Criminal Justice Courses
The courses required to earn an online criminal justice degree prepare students to work in law enforcement, court systems, corrections facilities, and more. Many online courses touch on management and administrative aspects, and students learn relevant skills, such as analysis, decision making, problem solving, and communication. Among the most common courses are:
- Criminal Law: Through this course, students gain a comprehensive understanding of the U.S. criminal justice system. By reviewing court cases, students learn the stages of a criminal trial from defense to sentencing and appeals. Additional topics may include elements of a crime, court structures, victims' rights, and offenders' rights.
- Criminology: A course in criminology offers a deeper understanding of two broad themes: the psychological and sociological factors that motivate offenders to commit crimes, and society's response to criminal behavior. Coursework will cover a number of criminological theories, social policy, criminal institutions, and technological innovations.
- Ethics in the Criminal Justice System: Students learn several analytic frameworks and ethical theories in this course, as well as the concepts of morality, justice, and duty. To prepare for ethical dilemmas they may face in the criminal justice field, students are introduced to a variety of scenarios and presented with opportunities to practice ethical decision making.
- Introduction to Criminal Justice: Typically the first course in any criminal justice program, this class explains the fundamental philosophies underpinning the U.S. law enforcement system. Students also learn about the structure of the criminal justice system. Coursework may provide a detailed look at the court system, including corrections, sentencing, and juvenile justice.
- Investigative Procedures: In an introductory course on crime investigation, students learn how to interview potential witnesses and suspects, gather evidence, process crime scenes, and examine collected evidence. Students also gain an understanding of how investigative evidence is used in court, and how evidence must be protected.
- Law Enforcement and Community Policing: This course provides students with a broad overview of the history, current state, and emerging issues of law enforcement in the U.S. Coursework includes wide-ranging topics, from theories and strategies to public safety, media relations, and excessive force.
Criminal Justice Specializations
While many schools offer general programs in criminal justice, some online criminal justice degrees offer a specialization in a particular aspect of the criminal justice system. These specializations enable students to customize their online programs in criminal justice to align with their career goals. Some of the specializations available include:
- Criminology: Criminologists work with law enforcement agencies, and their work is research driven with a focus on statistics and crime pattern identification. A specialization in criminology teaches students about compiling data, analyzing all aspects of criminal investigation, and finding methods of prevention. Many of the required courses involve hands-on training under the supervision of an experienced professional. To become a criminologist, either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree is required, along with proper licensing in some states.
- Cybersecurity: For those with an interest in both criminal justice and information technology, opting for a specialization in cybersecurity might be a smart choice. This specialization prepares graduates for a number of occupations related to protecting information systems. Cybersecurity courses may include network security, ethics and privacy, digital forensics, and cyber law. Many of these classes involve application-oriented projects.
- Emergency Management: Emergency management professionals are trained to safeguard the public and handle natural and manmade disasters when they occur. To complete a specialization in emergency or security management, students take courses in emergency planning, hazard risk assessment, crisis communication strategies, security breach management, mitigation tactics, and allocation of resources. In some courses, students may have the opportunity to apply theoretical concepts to real-world scenarios.
- Homeland Security: Online homeland security programs prepare students to protect communities by filling public safety roles in corporate, military, and governmental environments throughout the country. The curriculum for a specialization in homeland security explores fundamental topics such as the intelligence community, counterintelligence, terrorism, infrastructure protection, surveillance, and privacy.
- Law Enforcement: Graduates are prepared for careers as police officers, sheriffs, park rangers, or corrections officers. This specialization includes courses in community policing, investigative principles, criminology, victimology, and criminal law.
Accreditation for Online Criminal Justice Degrees
Students who plan to pursue an online degree in criminal justice should only enroll in accredited programs. For a college or university to earn accreditation, an independent agency approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education must determine that all of the school's programs, facilities, faculty, and student services meet high standards for quality and academic rigor. For a list of accredited online criminal justice programs, students can visit the CHEA or USDE websites.
Individual programs within a college or university can also be accredited by other USDE- or CHEA-approved agencies. There is no programmatic-level accrediting body for criminal justice programs, however, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences has certified 15 bachelor's and master's programs in the U.S. According to the ACJS, their certification standards are similar to accreditation standards.
Enrollment in an accredited program is important for several reasons. It is a requirement to qualify for financial aid, transfer college credits, and for acceptance into most graduate programs. Depending on a student's career path, it may also be needed for future licensure. Finally, attendance at an accredited school assures students that they've enrolled in a respected, credible online degree program.
Enrollment in an accredited program is ... a requirement to qualify for financial aid, transfer college credits, and for acceptance into most graduate programs. Depending on a student's career path, it may also be needed for future licensure
How to Choose an Online Criminal Justice Degree
Selecting one of the best online criminal justice programs is a complex and personal decision based on an individual's resources, preferences, and goals. Many factors need to be taken into account, some of which are related to the colleges or universities themselves. Perhaps most important is the tuition cost of a school's online programs, which may be lower than or at least comparable to in-state resident tuition rates. It's also essential to choose a school that is accredited, especially for students planning to transfer credits from an associate degree. Student services and financial aid options may also be significant factors.
Prospective criminology and criminal justice students also need to evaluate whether individual programs meet their needs. For example, students should explore the focus of each program's curriculum, the online format, the availability of specializations, faculty members' relevant work experience, and opportunities to gain real-world experience through fieldwork. Students also need to decide between a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice degree, which is often more theoretical in nature, and a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree, which is typically more technically oriented.
Students should explore the focus of each program's curriculum, the online format, the availability of specializations, faculty members' relevant work experience, and opportunities to gain real-world experience through fieldwork.
Financial Aid for Criminal Justice Degree Programs
Students who are enrolled in accredited, online criminal justice degree programs may be eligible for several types of financial aid. Scholarships or grants are the best types of aid because they do not have to be paid back. There are also student loans available, but these have to be repaid with interest. Federal and state student loans typically have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment terms than private student loans.
To apply for financial aid, students should begin by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Once their applications have been reviewed, students will be notified of their eligibility for aid, as well as the amount and types of aid they're being offered. If students have any questions about their financial aid packages, they should contact the financial aid officers at the college they would like to attend.
Online criminal justice students may also be eligible for private scholarships. The following scholarships, which require separate applications from the FAFSA, are examples of the private scholarships available to criminal justice and criminology students:
The Women in Federal Law Enforcement Foundation awards a total of $10,000 annually to students enrolled in criminal justice programs.
The Islamic Scholarship Fund provides funding for Islamic American students enrolled in fields that impact public policy, including criminal justice.
This scholarship program provides varying awards for high school seniors planning to enroll in criminal justice programs.
What Can I Do With a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice?
Online criminal justice programs introduce undergraduates to the three arms of criminal justice in the U.S.: the courts, the corrections system, and law enforcement. This foundation prepares students for criminal justice careers, such as police or sheriff’s patrol officers, private security specialists, probation officers, and correctional officers, among other career opportunities. With additional education and training, criminal justice graduates can also assume advanced administrative or supervisory roles in law enforcement or become lawyers and criminologists.
The Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, provides additional information on these possibilities.
Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers Median Annual Salary:
Police officers and sheriffs are tasked with protecting lives and property. Among many other duties, they respond to emergency and nonemergency calls for assistance, patrol designated areas, arrest people who are suspected of committing crimes, write crime reports, and testify in court. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for police officers and sheriff's patrol officers is $70,000, and demand for law enforcement officers is expected to increase slightly over the next decade. Although it's possible to obtain a position in law enforcement with a high school diploma or some college coursework, some police departments and federal agencies require individuals to have a bachelor’s degree.
Detectives and Criminal Investigators Median Annual Salary:
Detectives and criminal investigators are both specialty careers within law enforcement. Criminal investigators are charged with investigating crime scenes, collecting evidence, and examining evidence in crime scene laboratories. Detectives work with crime scene investigators, gathering information and evidence, interviewing witnesses, and examining records. Because of the advanced knowledge needed to perform these jobs, professionals earn a median annual salary of $89,300.
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists Median Annual Salary:
Correctional treatment specialists create treatment plans for convicted offenders who have been put on probation or who have served their prison sentence and been released. Probation officers and parole officers work with these individuals on an ongoing basis, implementing the treatment plans and monitoring progress. Jobs can be found both at rehabilitation facilities and in criminal justice agencies, and the work can be stressful and possibly dangerous. The BLS reports that correctional officers and other rehabilitation professionals earn median annual wages of $55,690.
Information Security Analysts Median Annual Salary:
Undergraduates who specialize in cybersecurity can become information security analysts, who plan and execute IT security measures designed to protect organizations' systems, networks, and data. Most information security analyst jobs are found in the private sector at large companies and consulting firms, but there are also positions available in governmental agencies. The BLS states that bachelor's degree holders with cybersecurity skills earn median annual salaries of $103,590, and the need for professionals is expected to increase dramatically—by 33%—through 2030.
Private Detectives and Investigators Median Annual Salary:
Private detectives and investigators are often hired to collect evidence and search for information about people, finances, and other matters on behalf of individuals, law firms, or other businesses. Although some positions are available to those with only a high school diploma, other jobs require a bachelor's degree. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for investigators is $53,320, and the need for detectives is expected to grow by 13% over the next 10 years.
Is an Online Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice Worth It?
Those who aspire to a career in the criminal justice system might wonder if it's necessary to earn a bachelor's degree. Although a bachelor's degree is not required to become a law enforcement officer in many states, it can be a valuable asset in that career path. A degree is also a requirement for other criminal justice occupations. Before enrolling in an online criminal justice program, students need to carefully consider a number of factors and weigh some pros and cons.
- Criminal justice is a flexible major that can lead to a range of occupations with above-average salaries.
- Prospective students who consider studying criminal justice online can select from a wider pool of schools and programs without changing locations. They may also enjoy lower tuition rates and more flexible school schedules that work around other obligations.
- Criminal justice has been described as an easy major, but this may not be true for all programs. Many require a lot of reading and writing, and some science is involved. However, advanced math courses are not typically required, which may make this an easier degree for some online students.
- Some occupations in criminal justice are projected to decline or grow at a slower rate than the national average of 8%. For example, job opportunities for correctional officers and bailiffs are expected to decline by 7% through 2030.
- Many criminal justice graduates go into law enforcement, becoming patrol officers, detectives, corrections officers, and parole officers. These jobs can involve a significant amount of personal risk.
- Some online students dislike the distance learning environment because it makes them feel disconnected from classmates and instructors. They may have to devote more effort to connecting with others through discussion forums.
Students also need to examine the value of a degree in light of their own personal circumstances, such as financial responsibilities and family and work obligations. As with all bachelor's programs, earning an online criminal justice bachelor's degree requires a significant investment of time, money, and energy. Individuals must decide for themselves whether the benefits they expect to receive are worth it.
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