Guide to Online Criminal Justice Degrees

Graduates of online criminal justice programs work across a diverse and broad spectrum of careers. Online programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels are designed to train new criminal justice professionals, provide the ongoing education required in most criminal justice-related occupations, and offer advanced degrees for students seeking a career change or advancement to management. Some occupations that fall under the career umbrella of criminal justice include law enforcement and corrections officers, detectives, criminal forensic investigators, paralegals and legal assistants, homeland security specialists, and officers in state and federal law enforcement organizations.

Online criminal justice degree programs are offered by public and private colleges and universities, community colleges, and law enforcement academies and schools. Many programs have added courses and components that reflect the increasing popularity and interest in crime-scene investigation and forensic science. These comprehensive associate, bachelor’s and graduate degree programs are designed specifically to meet the needs of busy adults with work and family obligations. Coursework and examinations are delivered via an online format powered by tools including live video lectures, taped instructional videos, multimedia presentations, subject-matter chatrooms and conferencing. Undergraduate and graduate certificates specifically benchmark a graduate’s expertise in a methodology, specialty or research niche. Because criminal justice is considered a social science, employers and recruiters may favor the intensive, field-specific training offered in a criminal justice certificate over a generalized interdisciplinary liberal arts degree.

Note: flexible online classroom programs in criminal justice may require firm residency components such as on-site training, laboratory and field work, courtroom practice or supervised internships.

Online Certificates and Associate Degrees in Criminal Justice

Community colleges, state colleges and private schools have created self-paced, accredited online programs that build a practical and fundamental knowledge base for many career-focused students. Online criminal justice programs that lead to an associate degree (AA, AS or AAS) typically take two years of full-time study to complete and are comprised of a 60-credit hour curriculum divided into general education core classes and beginning studies in criminal justice. Some associate degree programs lead to “terminal degrees” preparing students with the minimal requirements for direct entry into their careers.

Those entering the fields of police, corrections or other law enforcement occupations may attend state, federal or regional law enforcement training academies in addition to earning their online criminal justice degree or certificate. Coursework may include online studies in legal institutions, codes and laws, crime control, investigation and criminal procedure, court reporting, paralegal studies, and legal assisting. Online undergraduate certificate programs typically take half the time of an associate degree to complete, because classes are major-focused and do not include core requirements for general education classes in the arts and sciences. Certification concentrations include forensics, criminal theory, crime scene investigation, emergency and terrorism response management, protective and security services, and corrections. Students planning to continue their studies toward completing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice should examine credit transfer programs at both their associate institution and the four-year college or university they wish to attend. Completing the core educational requirements of the associate degree can cut two years of time and tuition toward finishing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Application requirements at institutions offering online associate degrees and undergraduate certificates are usually pretty straightforward. Students typically only need a high school diploma or equivalent and proper residency documentation if they’re from another country.

Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

Four-year online criminal justice degrees combine general education courses, criminal justice courses in the major, and elective classes in the arts and sciences for a total of 120 credit hours. Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in criminal justice begin with generalized studies in the field and move on to increasingly detailed and sophisticated coursework in a concentration such as homeland security, corrections, criminology, criminal law, ethics, police theory and tactics, and legal procedures. Other occupational specialties can be completed with majors and minors in public administration, juvenile justice, law enforcement, cybercrime and computer forensics, social services, court procedure, legal assisting and paralegal studies. Students holding an online associate degree from an accredited institution may be able to transfer undergraduate general education course credits, a move which could lessen the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Course delivery systems at schools offering online degree programs in criminal justice share many of the same components: video and DVD presentations, email, multimedia lectures, dedicated chats, threaded discussion boards and teleconferencing. Schools offering criminal justice courses that require hands-on demonstrations and training, laboratory work or field examinations arrange for online students to complete short-term residencies (often weekends) on campus or at a related law enforcement facility. Depending on the program, students may also participate in focused volunteer work or practical experience such as ride-along programs with law enforcement agencies.

Online Graduate Programs in Criminal Justice

Many criminal justice professionals are required to earn annual continuing education credits to maintain licenses or credentials. It’s common practice to pursue an accredited online graduate certificate that meets educational requirements while at the same time prepares professionals to advance to middle administration or upper management roles in law enforcement, justice, forensic sciences, organizational structure, and disaster preparation and response. Online Master of Arts and Master of Science degree programs typically take two years of full-time study to complete and require earning approximately 30 credit hours. Degree requirements often include completion of an advanced research project in a criminal justice specialty, an internship, and a passing grade on a comprehensive examination. Research work, field studies and related projects may require online students to attend sessions on campus or at another qualified facility. The online Master of Science degree in criminal justice can include studies in research methodology, criminological theory, public safety, corrections, homeland security, criminal law, organizational behavior and public safety.

The online doctorate degree in criminal justice represents the pinnacle of academic attainment in the law enforcement and other criminal justice-related professions. Students of these online programs typically include professionals and scholars seeking credentials to work as university professors, security and law enforcement consultants, research directors, and ranking officials in governmental and nonprofit organizations. Online criminal justice Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs can take between two and four years to complete and require a minimum of 60 graduate credits to be earned. In addition to a Ph.D. in criminal justice, students can earn a Ph.D. in human services, a Ph.D. of business administration degree in criminal justice, and a Ph.D. in homeland security, public policy and administration, or social work.

Doctoral candidates, whether engaged in online or on campus study, must complete comprehensive examinations, perform research, and write and defend a scholarly dissertation in the field. Application requirements at graduate schools vary by institution and type of degree. Common requirements include completion of an undergraduate degree, scores from the Graduate Record Examination entrance test, all official transcripts from previous post-secondary work, an admissions essay of academic goals and accomplishments, and letters of recommendation from former professors, co-workers, mentors, and employers.

Online graduate certificate programs in criminal justice are designed for professionals seeking advanced scholarship in fields including criminal behavior, police administration, criminal law and procedure, executive decision making, forensic psychology, intelligence-led policing and juvenile justice administration. Certificate programs vary in length from one year to 18 months. Elements that require an on-site component may be arranged on weekends. Post-master’s certificate programs are also available from a limited number of institutions. Programs include criminal justice specializations in federal law enforcement, corrections, probation and parole, crime analysis and intelligence.

Evaluating Online Criminal Justice Programs

Schools and colleges that offer online criminal justice degrees and certificates should demonstrate a level of academic support, professional accreditation, and relationships with state, regional or national law enforcement and legal organizations. Before choosing a program, beginning students and experienced professionals seeking ongoing training should examine the online criminal justice degrees at each intuition, starting first by evaluating the institutional accreditation.

Accreditation

Voluntary accreditation by an independent, unbiased agency is the process by which a school or college establishes and protects the academic value of its degrees and certificates. Junior colleges and universities offering undergraduate and graduate-level criminal justice programs online typically hold accreditation from one of six regional organizations recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Other accrediting organizations include the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). Online schools may also participate in accreditation programs from the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). Accreditation can apply to the entire institution or for a specific college degree program.

Student Assistance and Technical Support

Students evaluating programs at online criminal justice colleges should ask to take an online course demonstration to determine if the delivery system is effective and that the interface is easy to use. Does the program promote email or voice contact with instructors and peers to assist with questions about the subject matter? Equally important, does the school offer 24/4 technical support for students having problems with the digital blackboard?

Track Record and Professional Relationships

It’s important to evaluate the school’s record and how it is regarded in the professional community. Is the prospective online criminal justice degree or certification program willing to share transparent figures on its number of graduates and a breakdown on hiring rates or degree completion percentages? Does the college or university offer ongoing career counseling and job assistance services for both current students and graduates? Finally, does the coursework keep pace with state laws and codes affecting criminal justice and emergency services?

Interview with a Criminal Justice Professional

Jessica works as a paralegal for the real estate law practice where she began as a legal assistant four years ago. One of the conditions of her employment was that she enroll in a legal assisting or paralegal degree program. After graduation, her duties changed and her attorneys were so pleased they encouraged her to enroll in an online a post-graduate certificate program and become a certified paralegal.

  • Jessica M., paralegal, Michigan.
    What drew you to enrolling in an online advanced certificate program?

    Actually, the law firm where I work said one of the quickest routes to the better jobs would be a post-graduate paralegal certificate that builds on what I learned in my A.A. program. And unlike a B.A., you don’t have to take courses unrelated to the field.

    What other online degree options did you consider?

    There were four-year bachelor’s degrees online, but it would take two years to finish my degree after transferring the A.A. credits. The post-grad certificate took less than a year to complete.

    How did the program mesh with your work and family schedule?

    My bosses insisted that I spend some part of my billable day studying. But the curriculum was demanding enough I had to put in time nights and weekends. My family understood it was only for a little while.

    How would you rate the academic quality of the online school you attended?

    Awesome. They allowed me to use my workplace for internship credit and the coursework I was doing on case studies plugged right into daily research.

    What additional advice would you give a new online student?

    Over-budget yourself on time for classwork. Like I said, it’s only for a little while.

Online Criminal Justice Program Directory

Criminal justice is one of the most popular online programs available today. Although some aspects of the field require hands-on training, others are primarily academic and involve reading, research, discussion and examination, all conducive to online learning. The following colleges offer some of today’s top online criminal justice degree programs.

Colorado State University

CITY: Greenwood Village
STATE: Colorado
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 4.8%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice And Law Enforcement Management

Dallas Baptist University

CITY: Dallas
STATE: Texas
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 6.9%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Arts And Sciences in Criminal Justice
MASTER'S:
  • Master of Arts in Professional Development (Mapd) - Criminal Justice

Florida State University

CITY: Tallahassee
STATE: Florida
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 5.8%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Science in Public Safety And Security in Law Enforcement Intelligence
  • Bachelor of Science in Public Safety And Security in Law Enforcement Operations
MASTER'S:
  • Master of Science in Criminology in Criminal Justice Studies

Indiana Wesleyan University

CITY: Marion
STATE: Indiana
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 6.1%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
ASSOCIATE:
  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice
  • Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice

Maryland University of Integrative Health

CITY: Laurel
STATE: Maryland
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 1.8%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
ASSOCIATE:
  • Associate in Applied Science in Criminal Justice Programs - Pgcc
  • Associate in Arts in Paralegal Studies - Carroll Cc
  • Associate in Arts in Legal Studies - Carroll Cc
  • Associate in Applied Science in Paralegal - Pgcc
  • Associate in Applied Science in Law Enforcement - Bccc
  • Associate in Arts in Forensic Science - Pgcc
  • Associate in Applied Science in Forensic Science - Pgcc
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies - Umuc

National University

CITY: La Jolla
STATE: California
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 7%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
ASSOCIATE:
  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice Administration
  • Associate of Arts With Concentration in Criminal Justice Administration
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration
MASTER'S:
  • Master of Criminal Justice
  • Master of Forensic Sciences

Southern New Hampshire University

CITY: Manchester
STATE: New Hampshire
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 6.8%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
ASSOCIATE:
  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Science Criminal Justice - Homeland Security & Counterterrorism
  • Bachelor of Science Criminal Justice - Legal Studies And Advocacy
  • Bachelor of Science Criminal Justice - Police Administration And Operations
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice - Criminology
  • Bachelor of Science in Forensic Accounting & Fraud Examination
MASTER'S:
  • Master of Science in Accounting - Forensic Accounting

University of Florida

CITY: Gainesville
STATE: Florida
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 3.6%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
MASTER'S:
  • Master of Science in Veterinary Medical Sciences - Forensic Toxicology)
  • Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences - in Forensic Science
  • Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences - Forensic Science
  • Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences - Forensic Drug Chemistry
  • Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences - Forensic Dna And Serology

University of Massachusetts Amherst

CITY: Amherst
STATE: Massachusetts
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 5.6%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice Concentrations
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
MASTER'S:
  • Master of Arts in Criminal Justice

University of Wisconsin

CITY: NR
STATE: Wisconsin
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: 4.5%
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
BACHELOR'S:
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice

University of Wisconsin-Platteville

CITY: Platteville
STATE: Wisconsin
LOAN DEFAULT RATE: NR
ONLINE PROGRAMS:
MASTER'S:
  • Master of Science in Criminal Justice (MSCJ).