Criminal Justice Degree & Career Guide

What to expect from a criminal justice degree program

A criminal justice degree offers a versatile and dynamic educational path, preparing students for various careers in law enforcement, legal studies, and administration. The field is projected to see steady demand over the next decade, with salaries often exceeding the national median.

At the associate level, graduates can begin their careers as police officers or paralegals. A bachelor’s degree provides opportunities for higher-level positions in law enforcement and legal professions, while master’s and doctoral degrees offer the necessary education to obtain leadership roles in criminal justice, policy analysis, and academia.

Whether on the frontlines as a police officer or contributing to systemic change in policy development, a criminal justice degree offers many diverse and rewarding career trajectories.

Types of criminal justice degrees

Associate degree

An associate degree in criminal justice is ideal for those seeking quick entry into law enforcement or related fields. Programs often include coursework on foundational legal principles, criminal procedures, and investigative techniques. Many foster the development of practical skills by incorporating hands-on experiences or simulations, enhancing critical thinking and decision-making abilities. Graduates are prepared for entry-level positions, like police officers, correctional officers, or security specialists.

  • Degrees available: Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Minimum credits: 60
  • Average length of program: 2 years full-time

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is designed for students seeking in-depth knowledge of legal systems, criminology, and law enforcement. These programs often include core courses covering criminal law, forensic science, and sociology. Students can typically choose specializations such as cybercrime, juvenile justice, or homeland security to center their studies around their intended career. In addition, field experiences and internships are standard components, offering practical insights into the criminal justice system.

With a curriculum emphasizing critical thinking and research skills, graduates are well-prepared for roles as police officers, detectives, probation officers, or legal analysts.

  • Degrees available: Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Minimum credits: 120
  • Average length of program: 4 years full-time

Master’s degree

A master’s degree is tailored for seasoned professionals seeking further education in law enforcement, criminology, and criminal justice administration education. For individuals who have earned a bachelor’s degree, the curriculum explores specialized areas such as policy analysis and research methodologies. Many programs incorporate capstone projects or internships, ensuring the practical application of theoretical knowledge. Upon graduation, many students pursue leadership roles in criminal justice administration, policy analysis, or consulting.

  • Degrees available: Master of Science (MS), Master of Arts (MA), Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) 
  • Minimum credits: 36
  • Average length of program: 2 years full-time

Doctorate degree

Designed for practiced individuals and leaders aspiring to shape the future of criminal justice, doctorate degrees in criminal justice provide high-level coursework in criminological theory, advanced research methodologies, and policy analysis. Doctoral students often engage in original research, culminating in a dissertation contributing to the academic understanding of criminal justice issues. The program typically involves comprehensive exams and mentorship, fostering a deep understanding of the complexities within criminal justice systems.

Graduates are prepared for leadership roles in academia, research institutions, or influential positions in government.

  • Degrees available: Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Doctor of Criminal Justice (DCJ)
  • Minimum credits: 60
  • Average length of program: 4 years full-time

Specialization options

Considering the field’s versatility, many institutions encourage students majoring in criminal justice to choose a specialization to tailor their education to their interests further. This list of common specialization options spans the field’s spectrum, from exploring the intricacies of law enforcement and legal studies to examining the nuances of juvenile justice, corrections, and homeland security.

  • Law Enforcement: A popular choice, this specialization prepares students for roles in policing and maintaining public safety. Students often go on to careers as police officers, detectives, or federal agents, building positive relationships within the community and working collaboratively to improve public safety.
  • Corrections: Ethical students who are enthusiastic about cultural competence and conflict resolution may do well specializing in corrections. This field studies corrections systems, rehabilitation, and inmate management, which is ideal for those interested in becoming correctional or probation officers.
  • Criminology: Analytical, academic individuals may prefer to concentrate on criminology. This field explores the causes and consequences of criminal behavior, studying crime patterns and societal factors. Many graduates pursue careers as criminologists or criminal profilers.
  • Homeland Security: Detail-oriented students possessing strong communication skills excel in homeland security. This field focuses on protecting the nation from domestic and international threats and prepares graduates for roles as homeland security officers or border patrol agents.
  • Cybercrime: Tech-savvy students with an investigative mindset may enjoy specializing in cybercrime, addressing the growing challenges of cyber threats, digital forensics, and internet-related crimes. Graduates typically seek roles as cybercrime investigators, digital forensic examiners, or information security specialists.
  • Legal Studies: Logical individuals with a solid moral compass often thrive in a legal studies specialization, exploring legal principles and procedures relevant to criminal justice. Many pursue careers as legal analysts, paralegals, or court administrators.
  • Juvenile Justice: Patient, tolerant students with a passion for advocacy may be well-suited for a concentration in juvenile justice. This field focuses on understanding and addressing youth-related issues in the criminal justice system. Individuals typically pursue careers as juvenile probation officers, youth counselors, or social workers.

The Best Criminal Justice Degree Programs

This list features some of the best criminal justice degree programs in the U.S. The schools on this list are non-profit, accredited institutions, either public or private, with high standards for post-secondary education.

We evaluated each degree program on tuition costs, faculty, reputation, and student resources as well as admission, retention, and graduation rates. We also compared our picks to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications, including U.S. News & World Report. Using this data, we calculated an Intelligent Score for each program on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Online Associate Degrees

Online Bachelor’s Degrees

Online Master’s Degrees

What Can I Do With a Degree in Criminal Justice?

A degree in criminal justice offers a multitude of career paths, empowering students to contribute to public safety, law enforcement, and legal systems. Graduates can pursue roles such as police officers, detectives, or correctional officers, ensuring community well-being. Opportunities as paralegals and legal analysts are available for those interested in pursuing legal avenues. They can build an excellent foundation for those seeking a law degree. Advanced degrees can lead to criminal justice administration, policy analysis, or academic leadership positions.

The following occupations are expected to be in steady demand over the next decade and offer lucrative salaries:

Police Officer

Median annual salary: $69,160
Job outlook: 3% increase through 2032

Police officers are on the front line of public safety, enforcing laws, responding to emergencies, and maintaining order within communities. Their duties encompass patrolling designated areas, conducting investigations, and ensuring the security of individuals and property. With a constant focus on crime prevention, police officers engage with the community, enforce traffic regulations, and respond to incidents ranging from accidents to criminal activities.


Median annual salary: $59,200
Job outlook: 4% increase through 2032

Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, play a vital role in the legal field by supporting attorneys in various tasks. They assist with legal research, document preparation, and case management. Paralegals often organize and maintain legal files, draft legal documents, and help prepare for hearings and trials. They may also conduct investigations and liaise with courts and other legal professionals. Paralegals provide essential support, enabling legal practices to operate efficiently.

Criminal Justice Professor

Median annual salary: $78,980
Job outlook: 8% increase through 2032

Teaching at the university level, criminal justice professors design and deliver lectures, develop curricula, and assess student performance through assignments and examinations. Beyond teaching, they often engage in scholarly research, contributing to the academic understanding of criminal justice issues. Through education and research, these professors are crucial in shaping the next generation of criminal justice professionals and contributing to advancements in the field.

Student Resources and Organizations

Beginning your educational pursuits in criminal justice is a significant decision that requires careful consideration. To assist you with your research, we’ve compiled this list of articles that offer insights and perspectives on different facets of the field.

High school students considering pursuing further education in criminal justice should seek out criminal justice or future law enforcement clubs to help navigate their early interests and explore networking opportunities. Pre-professional organizations like SkillsUSA offer yearly competitions for students developing their criminal justice skills, which can cultivate hands-on experiences.

While a degree is beneficial, entering law enforcement without one is possible through avenues like police academies, where intensive training covers essential skills. Some agencies may only require a high school diploma or equivalent, providing aspiring officers an alternative pathway to kickstart their careers in law enforcement.

Frequently Asked Questions: Criminal Justice Degrees

Should I get a criminal justice degree in person or online?

Deciding between an in-person or online criminal justice degree depends on your preferences and circumstances.

In-person programs offer face-to-face interaction, networking opportunities, and a structured schedule conducive to hands-on learning. However, they may require more time than online programs and be less flexible for working professionals. On the other hand, online programs provide the flexibility and convenience that in-person programs typically lack and can be ideal for those with full-time jobs or other responsibilities — like parenting or caretaking. They offer self-paced learning and accessibility but may lack the in-person networking and immediate instructor feedback found in traditional settings.

Ultimately, this choice will hinge on your preferred learning style, time constraints, and career goals, with both options offering a high-quality education suitable for different needs.

Is a criminal justice degree worth it?

Yes, a criminal justice degree can be worth it for those enthusiastic about the field, offering opportunities for impactful careers in law enforcement, corrections, or legal professions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts steady demand over the next decade, with salaries often exceeding the national median. Considering these factors, the Return on Investment (ROI) is favorable, with the potential for job stability and opportunities for advancement.

How much does a criminal justice degree cost?

The cost of a criminal justice degree will vary depending on the school, location, and degree level. Tuition prices can fluctuate significantly due to the school’s reputation, program duration, and residency or military status. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, recent data shows undergraduate tuition averaging $26,903 for the 2021-2022 academic year, while graduate tuition averaged $19,749 for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.