An online criminal justice degree has helped thousands of students take the next step to advance their careers in the fields of law enforcement, public safety, homeland security, corrections, and the justice system. Online criminal justice programs offer a comprehensive curriculum in areas such as forensic science, criminology, the American court system, foundations of corrections, theories of criminal behavior, and fundamentals of the criminal justice system.
Few entry-level law enforcement careers require a bachelor’s degree as a minimum qualification for employment, however, an undergraduate education can improve your prospects by giving criminal justice professionals the tools to stand-out among other candidates. Online criminal justice programs offer flexible schedules, which makes them a great choice for working professionals who want to become more competitive, pursue a new career, or advance within their current organization more rapidly.
Top Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs
Earning an online degree in criminal justice from one of the top schools in the country can give you the credentials and skills that will benefit you throughout your professional life. The best colleges in the U.S. offer immersive classes lead by instructors with extensive academic and professional experience in criminal justice and security, along with a curriculum that is designed to give students the technological skills to meet the requirements of modern criminal justice professions. Whether you earn an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree, you will unlock opportunities that others without a degree can’t access, and demonstrate to employers that you are a serious professional who is committed to the effort required to be a successful law enforcement officer.
Courses for an Online Criminal Justice Degree
Individuals who aspire to work in the field of criminal justice, or in a closely related occupation, must develop a strong foundation of knowledge of crime, theories of criminal behavior, crime control, and the interconnected systems of criminal justice, in order to be effective in their jobs. Students who plan to continue their education with an advanced degree such as a master’s or Ph.D. are under additional pressure to equip themselves with the right coursework if they want to succeed in their post-graduate pursuits.
Most online criminal justice programs will offer the following fundamental coursework to ensure that graduates are equipped with the knowledge to effectively serve the public.
Foundations of the U.S. Criminal Justice System
Students who major in criminal justice will likely begin their major coursework with an introduction to the fundamentals of criminal justice, which seeks to address topics such as the nature of crime and it’s impact, how crime is defined, and the structure of the U.S. criminal justice system. Focus subjects will include law enforcement theory, criminal investigations, the role of the judicial system, criminal trials, and the fundamentals of corrections.
Theories of Criminal Behavior and Crime Causation
The study of crime causation and criminal behavior requires students to utilize an interdisciplinary approach because criminal behavior and it’s related moral issues can not be explained by a single existing theory. Instead, students are asked to explore a variety of factors that influence crime, including biology, psychology, economics, sociology, and their role in various criminal activities.
Fundamentals of Criminology
The fundamentals of criminology will cover core topics such as explanations and measurement of crime, criminal law, the characteristics of criminals and victims, and the different types of crime, including white-collar, organized, property, violent, cyber, and sexual crime. The ultimate goal is for students to understand how the core concepts criminal theory are connected to criminal behavior.
Fundamentals of Law Enforcement
Students who complete a course in the fundamentals of law enforcement will have a strong understanding of current law enforcement trends, the historical role of police in America, the key differences between various police activities and services, and be able to identify how city, state, and federal law enforcement agencies interact.
Foundations of the American Court System
Students will explore the core concepts and structure of the U.S. judicial system, the role and function of territorial, state, and federal courts, the different types of government and the laws they create, and how the Constitution impacts judicial decisions.
Law and Criminal Justice
Students enrolled in a law and criminal justice course will explore the underlying philosophy and theory of law and justice in the United States. Focus topics will likely include criminal procedure, law and social order, conflict mediation, criminal law, legal research, and constitutional law. Advanced topics such as plea bargaining, prosecution and defense tactics, post-trial judicial matters, and sentencing procedures may also be included.
Ethics in the Criminal Justice System
Maintaining the public trust is a pillar of the law enforcement system, which reinforces the importance of police ethics and integrity. Students in ethics classes will evaluate the standards and codes of professional responsibility for law enforcement officers in the context of the criminal justice system. Students will further examine how societal values, ethical guidelines, and community standards influence the policies of law enforcement agencies and help guide the everyday activities of police officers.
The Court System and the Process of Prosecution
In this course, students will examine process of charging someone with a crime, evidence gathering techniques and protocol, and the different types of evidence used in court. Students who complete this course will be able to define the differences between circumstantial, forensic, digital, testimonial, and character evidence, as well as explain prosecutorial tactics that utilize these types of evidence.
Foundations of the Correctional System
The objective of courses covering the correctional system is to help students build an understanding of the underlying principles of corrections, including rehabilitation, deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation. Essential topics include the theoretical and practical causes of recidivism, and the relationship between correctional environments on family, social, and health dynamics. Students will also examine historical and modern intervention and rehabilitation strategies.
Learning Outcomes for an Online Criminal Justice Degree
Students who complete an online criminal justice program should be able to:
- Identify the core institutions in the criminal justice system and discuss the historical and present-day roles of each.
- Differentiate between various theories of crime, victimization, and criminalization and apply critical analysis to contemporary crimes.
- Describe the realities of victims, criminals, and those working in the justice system, including how society perceives each of them.
- Apply appropriate theoretical knowledge and investigative techniques to assess a criminal pattern of victimization
- Communicate effectively and appropriately through the legal system and with a diverse population
- Apply ethical reasoning, analytical skills, and knowledge of psychology to scenarios of injustice or to advance justice.
Cost of Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs
One of the most significant factors influencing a prospective student’s decision between an online college or a traditional, campus-based program is the cost. Higher education has never been more expensive than it is now, and trends do not indicate that pricing will be decreasing anytime in the foreseeable future.
According to the Department of Education, the average total cost of a private four-year college, including tuition, living expenses, and other costs, will exceed $50,000 for a single year in 2020 and over $20,000 per year for an in-state, public university. So, it makes sense that one of the biggest questions asked by students is whether online learning is a less expensive alternative to a traditional college.
The general answer to this question is yes. Distance education from an online college will be a less expensive, more cost-effective, and viable alternative to a traditional brick-and-mortar college or university due to lower operating costs, overhead, and by eliminating additional expenses such as on-campus housing and transportation. There are always exceptions, as every institution has different cost structures, and attending an online college is still a significant investment. However, it’s important to note that people searching for a high-quality, affordable option can find a program online to suit their needs.
Benefits of an Online Criminal Justice Degree
A degree from an online criminal justice program is a practical choice for students who know they want to work as a law enforcement officer or as a part of the broader criminal justice system. A degree can open doors to better employment opportunities, career advancement, higher pay, and unlock skills that will benefit you throughout your career. As you weigh your higher education options, consider the following benefits of earning a degree.
Better Employment Opportunities
Graduates with a criminal justice degree enter the workforce with skills and knowledge that can be applied in virtually any industry or workplace setting. Every employment sector deals with crime on some level, but more importantly, every employer needs qualified people with critical thinking, problem-solving, and technical skills. A four-year credential demonstrates your commitment to personal development and to the effort required to be successful after graduation.
Opportunities for Promotion & Career Advancement
Working in law enforcement is attractive to many because you can break into the field with only a high school diploma, and still experience the rewards of a serving the community in a respected profession while earning a good salary. However, there may come a time in your life when you find the physical demands of being a patrol cop to be wearing. As you progress in age and in life, you may want to maximize your earning potential and get promoted into management or other more responsible positions which require education and skills exceeding the entry level. If you have your heart set on eventually seeking employment above the entry level, consider earning your degree first.
Having a degree can help you boost your earning potential significantly from the start and help you transition from police officer to a higher position where an educational background in criminal justice is required. A degree is more than just a piece of paper that proves that you have successfully completed college-level courses. A degree will obviously boost your knowledge of the field, but it also equips you with the tools to perform at a higher level in ways you may not be aware of, such as leadership skills, good judgement, improved written and oral communication skills, and improved conflict resolution skills.
Advanced Investigative and Technical Skills
Virtually every job in the criminal justice industry requires some level of investigative skills, or the underlying abilities that make an investigator effective. Students who graduate with a degree in criminal justice are equipped with a solid foundation in the law, as well as how to conduct investigations. They learn the basics of how to detect crime, how to collect evidence, how to apply the law, and how to use modern devices in an investigation.
Gain a Competitive Advantage
There are many professions within criminal justice, public safety, and security that do not require a degree. You can get an entry-level job in law enforcement or security with only a high school diploma, however, a university degree in criminal justice will provide you with a competitive advantage to get the job you want and to advance within your chose field more rapidly.
Don’t forget, it’s also essential that you consider your long term career goals before making a decision about higher education. Federal law enforcement agencies like the DEA or Homeland Security typically require a bachelor’s degree for employment and many state-level organizations will only consider applicants with a bachelor’s degree for supervisory positions.
Develop Crisis Management Skills
Protecting the public and exercising good judgement in extreme circumstances requires leaders who are trained to effectively plan for the unexpected and respond to crisis situations. Students who enter a criminal justice program will have the opportunity to specialize in areas such as emergency and crisis management, which equip them with the necessary skills to address threats to public safety and coordinating strategy for unexpected events of all types.
A Deeper Understanding of Human Psychology
For many students, the ultimate goal of bettering society begins with diving deep into the human psyche to understand the causes and effects of crime. Understanding the roots of criminality and utilizing the science of the mind is a gateway to careers that assess and solve crimes. Criminal justice programs typically provide students with the opportunity to study how the criminal justice system intersects with mental health and human behavior. For example, a forensic psychology concentration will study mental health issues and the mental processes that might cause a person to be more likely to commit a crime.
Jobs in criminal justice and law enforcement are typically well compensated, because they provide important services, require specialized skills, and include an element of danger. Earning a college degree, whether it is a bachelor’s master’s or Ph.D. will open doors to even better paying and higher skilled jobs within the field of criminal justice – jobs that individuals with only a high school diploma may not qualify for.
How to Decide on the Right Online Criminal Justice Degree Program for You
While each student will make a college decision based on their own set of unique professional and personal goals, there are a few factors that every student should consider as they pursue online degree programs. To help you navigate your online school options we detail several of the most important factors that influence overall academic quality and distinguish the best schools from the rest.
Academic quality and the long-term success of students who attend online programs are important factors that every student should consider. Accreditation is the process of evaluating whether a college or university meets the standards for academic quality, along with other general standards, such as the reputation of faculty and services offered to students.
Students who earn degrees from colleges who have been validated through the accreditation process are more likely to obtain gainful employment in the occupation for which he or she studied or in a closely related profession. This too is a very important factor that students must weigh as the make a college choice. Companies want to know that you have received a quality education when they hire you, so accreditation enables employers and recruiters to easily recognize the difference between an institution that is accredited and those that are not.
To verify the accreditation credentials of a school you are considering, the best resource is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA certifies the quality of other higher education accrediting bodies and is recognized as a national advocate for academic quality.
High Academic Standards
The academic standards that define a college or university program impact everything from the course curriculum, to the educators, how student success is measured, and how student achievement is fostered. High academic standards have an important place in the decision-making process of a prospective student because they speak to how well a student will be prepared for life after graduation. Modern criminal justice professions are complex and demanding, which places even greater emphasis on the importance of quality education.
An important indicator of academic excellence is the faculty who provides instruction. The best schools employ professors who are experts in the field and have demonstrated competency in the various subject areas that they teach. For instance, you would expect someone leading a forensic psychology course to have professional and academic experience in this area. Students will gain a significant advantage from the insights and training provided by someone who has hands-on experience doing the job they are teaching. A person without professional experience may not be as capable.
School Reputation – A Proven Track Record of Graduate Success
There are very few schools of criminal justice that can advance a student’s career based on prestige and reputation alone, however, it is widely accepted that building a foundation of knowledge from an established program with a proven track record will produce long-term benefits for you throughout your professional life. The bottom line is that departments, hiring managers, and recruiters in the private and public sectors are looking for candidates who demonstrate a commitment to their career and a strong foundation of skills and knowledge. Attending a program from a well-known online college or university is a strong signal that you possess these traits.
Return on Investment
Every student considering their higher education options should consider return-on-investment (ROI) as they weigh the benefits of attending college. Return-on-investment is a measure of the cost to earn your degree relative to the future earnings from a given level of degree and your prospective career. To make this calculation, students will compare the costs of tuition, living expenses, and other costs against the expected payoff for their investment in higher education.
Elective Course Options
In addition to empowering practical skills and experience in areas outside your field of study, elective courses can help students uncover hidden talents and interests. While the primary focus of an online criminal justice program is to develop an in-depth understanding of your specific area of study, taking classes in other areas of specialization will give you insights into subjects you may not have considered before and help make you a better consumer of information. If it is your goal to become a “well-rounded” student, consider the elective options offered by your college or university as a way to take your goals to the next level.
For example, a student who wants to work as a police officer may take specialized electives in subjects such as organized crime or conflict management to bolster their resume. A student considering a career with Homeland Security would be smart to enroll in classes that examine domestic terrorism or cybersecurity.
Internships and Externships
One of the most challenging hurdles for students who are transitioning from school into the workforce is earning valuable experience that helps them advance their future careers. Employers typically rely heavily on a candidate’s resume to communicate relevant work experience, whether it’s actual job experience, volunteer work, or an internship. Criminal justice programs that assist students with internship or externship opportunities really set themselves are apart since a practical work background carries such major significance for graduates who are just getting started in the job market.
Ask an admissions advisor if the school partners with local law enforcement departments, public safety organizations, or security agencies. The opportunity to shadow working professionals or work for a local police department is an invaluable experience that will benefit you greatly.
Job Placement and Financial Aid Services
Finding a job after college and figuring out how to pay for your education are two of the biggest concerns experienced by any person considering their higher education options. To learn more about available job placement programs and financial aid offers, ask admissions officers from your list of prospective schools to discuss the support they extend to online learners. Many online institutions do not have the same institutional aid offerings as traditional, campus-based programs, so it is important to thoroughly investigate your options before committing to something you can not afford.
Additional Resources & Organizations for Criminal Justice Majors
American Society of Criminology
Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS)
National Criminal Justice Reference Service
International Association of Women Police (IAWP)
Alpha Phi Sigma: TheNational Criminal Justice Honor Society