A Comprehensive Guide to an Online Criminal Justice Degree

Graduates with degrees in criminal justice, from the associate to the doctoral level, gain the education and background needed to assume a wide range of careers in fields that include law enforcement, the judiciary and corrections systems, and forensics. Individuals who possess compassion, a strong ethical code, and the desire to help improve their communities can earn an online criminal justice degree to help jumpstart their career.

job growth rate for all legal occupations in the United States will increase by 9% between 2016 and 2016, while employment within protective services will grow by 5%

While criminal justice has always been a popular area of study — a report by Georgetown University found that criminal justice and fire protection majors make up the vast majority of all law and public policy students — these professionals are always in demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the job growth rate for all legal occupations in the United States will increase by 9% between 2016 and 2016, while employment within protective services will grow by 5%. Job seekers may choose to earn a criminal justice degree online, which qualifies them for employment both of these important and growing industries.

Prospective students often find that earning a criminal justice degree online provides many advantages over the traditional route of attending a brick-and-mortar institution. These benefits include improved accessibility and flexibility, the ability to attend schools outside of a student’s geographical area, and opportunities to connect and network with a diverse body of classmates and faculty from around the world.


Online criminal justice programs give students the ability to access lectures and course materials from anywhere and at any time. This freedom makes earning a degree possible for learners who have busy schedules with work and/or family obligations. Nontraditional students may not be able to attend classes on a fixed schedule at a traditional campus; instead, they may require remote access to classes in order to earn their degree.


Students who choose to earn a criminal justice degree online may be able to select from multiple program start dates throughout the year, picking the one that is most convenient; this contrasts with traditional learning environments, many of which use stricter term schedules. Distance learners can further tailor their educational experience to fit their unique needs.

School Options

Students in online criminal justice programs have the option of attending schools across the country. Individuals pursuing the conventional route of going to class on campus are limited by their ability to relocate, whereas online students can attend programs outside of their immediate geographic vicinity.


Individuals pursuing an online criminal justice degree come from many different backgrounds and hail from across the country and around the world. The freedom to select from a variety of online programs enables students to network with classmates with an array of ideas and perspectives.


Technological advancements have improved the quality and ease of online interactions. This allows students earning their criminal justice degrees online to more readily collaborate with their classmates and professors. Individuals in these programs may participate in forum discussions and virtual meetings, in addition to submitting assignments and taking exams online.

Prospective students interested in earning criminal justice degrees online can pursue many different levels of education in this field. As with most areas, holding a more advanced degree typically leads to better opportunities after graduation in terms of career options and earning potential.

Individuals who earn a criminal justice associate degree online usually take about two years to graduate and can work as law enforcement officers, legal assistants, and forensic technicians. Alternatively, an online criminal justice bachelor’s degree generally requires 120 credits and four years of study. There is significant overlap in the careers that associate and bachelor’s degree holders qualify for in the field of criminal justice, although professionals with bachelor’s degrees tend to earn more.

Students may also opt to attend graduate school and earn an online criminal justice master’s degree. Graduates of these programs have higher salary potentials and lower unemployment rates than those with associate or bachelor’s degrees. Finally, individuals can also earn a doctoral online criminal justice degree, which is accompanied by additional dissertation requirements. Individuals with this degree qualify for high-level administrative jobs, as well as academic and research careers.

Median Salary for Criminal Justice Graduates by Degree
Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice $54,000
Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice $70,000

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

Students interested in earning a criminal justice associate degree online typically need a high school diploma or GED certificate, with a minimum GPA that varies depending on the school. Some programs also require individuals to submit standardized test scores, such as the SAT or ACT.

Criminal justice associate degree online programs typically consist of about 60 credits, take two years to complete, and cost an average of $15,000-$20,000. Graduates with this degree qualify for entry-level positions in the field, such as police officers, detectives, legal assistants, paralegals, probation officers, and correctional treatment specialists.

Many graduates with an associate degree in criminal justice choose to further their studies and earn a more advanced degree in the field. A higher level of educational attainment usually translates to increased employment opportunities and a higher earning potential. Associate-level studies at most programs lay the groundwork for entry into a bachelor’s program in criminal justice.

Example Courses:

Criminological Theory

This course teaches students fundamentals related to the study of crime, including psychological and sociological theories that purport to explain the factors that contribute to the incidence of crime. Understanding the basics of crime is essential for any career in law enforcement or forensic science.

Quantitative Methods in Criminal Justice

A course in quantitative methods in criminal justice covers the research techniques that criminologists use to collect and analyze data to understand and predict criminal behavior.

Criminal Justice Ethics

Criminal justice ethics coursework prepares students to avoid many of the common pitfalls encountered while navigating complicated issues in management and de-escalation of conflict.

Introduction to Forensic Science

This course teaches students about the history and development of forensic science as an industry. Learners study how methods and technology have advanced to refine the skills of professionals in the field, enabling workers to successfully collect and analyze data and investigate crime scenes.


Students in a victimology course learn about the experiences of victims moving through the criminal justice system. Coursework may focus on victimization patterns and the role victimization plays in the origin of criminal behavior.

Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Prospective students who want to pursue an online criminal justice bachelor’s degree usually need a high school diploma, or the equivalent, with a minimum GPA. Some schools also require foreign language proficiency and/or standardized test scores.

Students in online criminal justice bachelor’s degree programs typically earn 120 credits over four years in order to complete their degrees. Some programs also require students to complete a capstone project and/or an internship in a field related to criminal justice.

Graduates with a bachelor’s in criminal justice can enter the job market and assume positions such as police officers, detectives, paralegals, legal assistants, forensic science technicians, probation officers, and correctional treatment specialists. Those who opt to continue their education find that this degree gives them the foundation needed for advanced study at the master’s or doctoral level.

Example Courses:

Introduction to Criminal Justice

A course meant to provide students with a basic framework for continued studies in the field, this introductory class focuses on the philosophical underpinnings of criminal justice and the complexities of tackling crime.

Ethics and Diversity

An ethics and diversity course teaches students about evolving ethnic demographics and how to incorporate cultural awareness into the ethical practice of law enforcement in increasingly diverse communities.

Law and Court Procedures

Courses in law and court procedures familiarize students with the basic legal procedures followed prior to the commission of a crime. Students learn about arrest, detention, due process, and court proceedings.

Global Terrorism

This course analyzes the trends in the behavior and objectives of major terrorist groups, as well as the ramifications of terrorist activity at the local, national, and international levels.

Comparative Criminal Justice Systems

A comparative criminal justice systems course examines various criminal procedures across the world and evaluates their relative historical origins, trends, and rates of efficacy.

Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Individuals who choose to earn an online criminal justice master’s degree should already hold a bachelor’s degree. Most schools also require a minimum GPA in undergraduate coursework and many ask students to submit standardized test scores, such as the GRE. Additionally, particular degree tracks in some programs require work experience in the field prior to admission.

Master’s students complete their programs in approximately two years while taking about 36 credits. Some criminal justice online degree programs also require students to undertake a capstone project or internship. Many schools offer grad students the choice of a degree concentration or specialization. These may include homeland security, cybercrime investigation and cybersecurity, and forensic technology.

An online criminal justice master’s degree enables graduates to pursue careers as law enforcement officers and detectives, paralegals, and postsecondary teachers. Master’s degree holders enjoy lower unemployment rates and higher salaries than those with associate and bachelor’s degrees.

Example Courses:

Criminal Justice Research Theory and Methodology

This course trains students about the methods used to conduct original research as well as the role of new findings in the evaluation of policy making. Students also learn about common missteps that can occur in criminal justice research.

Juvenile Justice System

A course in the juvenile justice system emphasizes the unique priorities and challenges of this population. Students focus on relevant policies, programs, and agencies.

Sentencing and Corrections

A sentencing and corrections course engages students in debates regarding the relative roles of punishment and rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. This class examines the benefits and drawbacks of different sentencing philosophies.

Seminar on Race, Ethnicity, and Criminal Justice

This seminar course teaches students about theories of racial injustice as well as the effects of social and governmental policy on inequality. Students learn about racial and ethnic minorities as victims and perpetrators of crime.

Drugs and Crime

A drugs and crime course focuses on the origins of drug addiction and its relationship to crime. Students analyze drug policy as well as drug treatment and prevention programs.

Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice

Students who pursue a doctoral degree in criminal justice choose to earn the most advanced degree in the field. Programs at this terminal level are designed for students who have already earned a master’s and/or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a similar field. These students tend to be mid-career professionals with substantial experience in the field.

Doctoral candidates in online criminal justice programs typically earn their degrees in two to four years by completing 50-80 credits of coursework. Students also finish accompanying dissertation requirements. Graduates with a doctoral degree in criminal justice often seek positions at the highest level of law enforcement administration. They may also choose to pursue academic or research-related jobs.

Degree holders at this level of the criminal justice field benefit from higher salaries and lower unemployment rates than their counterparts with less advanced degrees.

Example Courses:

Philosophy of Law, Justice, and Social Control

This course teaches students about the framework of the criminal justice system. Learners engage in peer discussions related to the demands put on the system and how it should evolve to meet the needs of the community.

Race and Ethnicity in Crime and Criminal Justice

A course on race and ethnicity in crime and criminal justice examines the sources of bias and inequity in law enforcement and judicial procedures.

Qualitative Research Methods

Students taking a qualitative research methods class work with case studies and focus groups to evaluate relevant research methods. This course emphasizes the value of conclusions drawn from research and how they can be applied to improve law enforcement theories and techniques.

Policy and Analysis in Criminal Justice Systems

This course provides students with an understanding of how criminal justice policy is shaped. Areas of focus include policing, corrections, sentencing, and juvenile justice concerns.

Leadership - Putting Theory into Practice in Criminal Justice Administration

Leadership courses like this teach students about current and foreseeable problems in the criminal justice system and how skills such as reflective thinking and collaboration can aid in the resolution of these concerns.

Criminal Justice Concentrations and Specialties

In many instances, students earning a criminal justice online degree have the option of narrowing their focus to a particular concentration or specialty. This allows learners to acquire the educational background and training necessary to secure employment in a career of their choice. A degree specialty can also make a job applicant more desirable to employers. Examples of concentrations in the field of criminal justice include forensic science, corrections, homeland security, law enforcement, criminology, and emergency management, although the offerings will vary depending on the program.

Forensic Science

A forensic science specialty teaches students how to process and analyze crime scenes. This subject involves coursework in crime scene photography, accident investigation, and laboratory skills. Graduates with a background in this concentration may seek employment as a crime scene investigator or forensic science technician.


Online criminal justice degrees with a concentration in corrections focus on the corrections and rehabilitation arm of the criminal justice system. Students learn about courtroom procedure and incarceration, as well as the ins and outs of probation and parole. This specialty enables graduates to pursue careers as corrections or parole officers, among others.

Homeland Security

A homeland security specialty emphasizes aspects of national defense with regards to the role of law enforcement officials and professionals in governmental positions. This concentration prepares graduates for careers as customs and border patrol agents, narcotics officers, detectives, and cyber security analysts.

Law Enforcement

Students pursuing a degree concentration in law enforcement study constitutional and criminal law, in addition to the fundamentals of criminal procedures and investigations. Graduates with this specialty can pursue employment as law enforcement officers or statistic researchers in the field of criminal justice.


A criminology specialty focuses on the psychological and sociological theories of criminal behavior. Students learn about the factors that contribute to the likelihood of criminality at the individual and societal levels. This concentration prepares graduates for careers in juvenile justice, human services, law enforcement, and security.

Emergency Management

This concentration teaches individuals how to prepare for and respond to a variety of emergency scenarios. Students learn about communication strategies, resource allocation, and ways to mitigate the impact of such disasters. Career opportunities include counterterrorism agents, emergency management directors, and policy analysts.

Median Salaries For Criminal Justice Careers Across Specializations
Detectives and Criminal Investigators $78,120
Transit and Railroad Police $66,610
Forensic Science Technicians $56,750
Fire Inspectors $56,130
Probation Officers or Correctional Treatment Specialists $50,160

There are several kinds of licenses and certifications available to professionals working in the criminal justice field. For example, private detectives and investigators may be required by some states to hold relevant licensure. Additionally, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists typically complete training programs that culminate in certification tests. Other job titles, such as forensic technicians, may not require licensure; however, candidates can earn certification to supplement their professional development and set themselves apart from their peers when applying for jobs.

job seekers should double check the licensing laws in the state and district in which they plan to work

Because of the wide range of careers within the criminal justice field, as well as the varying regulations imposed by different states and jurisdictions, job seekers should double check the licensing laws in the state and district in which they plan to work.

Depending on their degree, graduates with an online criminal justice degree may qualify for a wide variety of career paths in the field. These students can pursue jobs at all levels of law enforcement, social and human services, within the judiciary and corrections systems, in forensic science, and in homeland security.

Law Enforcement and Homeland Security Careers

Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officer

Police and sheriff’s patrol officers monitor an assigned geographical area to prevent and respond to criminal activity. These professionals usually need a high school diploma, although some employers require postsecondary coursework or a college degree.

Fish and Game Warden

Fish and game wardens enforce laws in the arenas of fishing, hunting, and boating. Wardens usually hold a bachelor’s degree and have completed coursework in biology, wildlife science, or resource management.

Transit and Railroad Police

Transit and railroad police patrol transit stations and railroad yards to prevent theft, property damage, assault, and unlawful access to secured areas.

Immigration Officer

Immigration officers work in governmental agencies, analyzing immigration regulations and procedures. Employers in this line of work usually look for applicants with a bachelor’s degree.

Intelligence Analyst

Intelligence analysts interpret large amounts of data to evaluate a company’s or government agency’s security threats. Most professionals working in this field have at least a bachelor’s degree.

FBI Agent

FBI agents collect and analyze data and perform investigations related to federal crimes. Agents usually have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Judiciary and Corrections Careers


Paralegals work in legal offices where they conduct research, draft documents, and file paperwork for attorneys. These workers often have associate degrees, although some employers prefer applicants with bachelor’s degrees.

Parole Officer

Parole officers work with recently released prisoners to facilitate their reintegration into society and prevent recidivism. A bachelor’s degree is usually required for this position.

Probation Officer

Probation officers supervise criminal offenders who have been sentenced to probation instead of a prison sentence. These professionals work to rehabilitate probationers, connecting them with resources to ensure community safety. A bachelor’s degree is generally required.

Correctional Treatment Specialist

Correctional treatment specialists work with inmates, parolees, and probationers to formulate plans to help individuals succeed once they exit the criminal justice system. Professionals in this field typically need a bachelor’s degree.

Case Worker

Case workers provide resources and guidance to high-need populations, such as the elderly, recovering addicts, the impoverished, ex-convicts, and people with severe mental illness. These professionals often require an associate degree or higher.

Juvenile Detention Officer

Juvenile detention officers supervise youth offenders at detention facilities to ensure safety and adherence to behavioral protocols. Some of these workers only hold a high school diploma, although federal detention facilities may require an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Forensics Careers

Forensic Analyst

Forensic analysts collect and analyze evidence at the scene of a crime. Many professionals working in this field hold postgraduate degrees.

Crime Scene Investigator

Crime scene investigators collect evidence from the scene of a crime and perform tests on the evidence to reach scientific conclusions that facilitate the solution and prosecution of a crime. A bachelor’s degree is generally required.

Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists work with lawyers and attorneys, applying psychological theories and concepts to evaluate a criminal and understand his or her motives. These professionals may be asked to create reports for court trials or to testify in court. While an undergraduate degree in criminal justice provides a strong educational background for this career path, forensic psychologists typically need a doctorate degree in counseling or forensic psychology.

Forensic Interviewer

Forensic interviewers talk with abuse victims to obtain information that can aid in the investigation of crimes. These professionals must be highly skilled at collecting sensitive information from vulnerable people with care and respect. A bachelor’s degree is usually required, although some employers prefer candidates with a master’s degree.

Criminal Justice Salaries by Experience
  Entry Level Mid-Career Experienced Late-Career
Intelligence Analyst $55,000 $67,000 $80,000 $88,000
Immigration Officer $50,000 $82,000 $86,000 No Data
Police Lieutenant $49,000 $61,000 $70,000 $83,000
Private Detective or Investigator $43,000 $51,000 $59,000 $73,000
Police Officer $44,000 $50,000 $55,000 $64,000
Corrections Officer $34,000 $39,000 $44,000 $48,000
The Best States for Criminal Justice Careers
Click Here to View The Full List of States
State Average Salary
Alabama $60,240
Alaska $65,610
Arizona $69,530
Arkansas $61,240
California $93,780
Colorado $75,640
Connecticut $80,570
Delaware $75,910
District of Columbia $81,620
Florida $82,920
Georgia $65,930
Hawaii $60,580
Idaho $77,700
Illinois $79,990
Indiana $63,500
Iowa $61,150
Kansas $63,910
Kentucky $59,500
Louisiana $60,360
Maine $67,750
Maryland $78,840
Massachusetts $72,640
Michigan $66,510
Minnesota $71,850
Mississippi $59,020
Missouri $62,780
Montana $69,390
Nebraska $59,880
Nevada $67,340
New Hampshire $64,030
New Jersey $70,750
New Mexico $65,540
New York $81,960
North Carolina $75,710
North Dakota $57,720
Ohio $63,930
Oklahoma $62,560
Oregon $70,850
Pennsylvania $67,140
Rhode Island $67,900
South Carolina $65,940
South Dakota $58,660
Tennessee $61,930
Texas $75,600
Utah $62,300
Vermont $70,730
Virginia $89,750
Washington $75,910
West Virginia $65,740
Wisconsin $63,140
Wyoming $61,270

Financing an online criminal justice degree can be challenging. Fortunately, college students pursuing any level of education in this field (from associate to doctoral degrees) can apply for a number of scholarships. Many of these sources of aid are tailored specifically to students in criminal justice programs.

Criminal Justice Scholarships for Associate Degree Students

Sheryl A. Horak Law Enforcement Explorer Memorial Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This merit-based scholarship is offered to students who are at least high school seniors; individuals must submit a personal essay about why they want to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Amount: Varies

Ronnie Williams Foundation Criminal Justice Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The Ronnie Williams Foundation awards this scholarship to high school seniors in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. Applicants must have a GPA of at least 2.5 and plan to major in criminal justice.
Amount: $1,000

Irlet Anderson Scholarship Award

Who Can Apply: The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives offers funding to a high school senior of African-American descent who demonstrates financial need and has a minimum GPA of 3.8. Applicants must be committed to a career in criminal justice or law enforcement.
Amount: $2,500

Out to Protect Scholarship Award

Who Can Apply: This scholarship is provided by Out to Protect, Inc. to support LGBT members enrolled in criminal justice training programs who are committed to being positive role models in the field of law enforcement.
Amount: $500-$1,000

Criminal Justice Scholarships for Bachelor’s Degree Students

Alpha Phi Sigma Best Paper Scholarships

Who Can Apply: Alpha Phi Sigma presents three scholarship awards to undergraduate students who win the Best Paper Scholarship competition. Students must write a paper on the designated topic and be members of Alpha Phi Sigma.
Amount: $150-$500

Brian Terry Scholarships

Who Can Apply: The Brian Terry foundation awards scholarships in honor of a border patrol agent killed in the line of duty. Applicants must be undergraduate criminal justice students who plan to pursue careers in law enforcement.
Amount: Varies

WIFLE Members-Only Annual Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Women in Federal Law Enforcement awards an annual scholarship to WIFLE members majoring in criminal justice. Applicants must have completed one year of college with a 3.0 GPA or higher.
Amount: $1,500

Criminal Justice Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Crimcheck.com provides a scholarship opportunity to a high school senior or undergraduate in a criminal justice program. Applicants must demonstrate leadership and hold a GPA of at least 3.0.
Amount: $500

Criminal Justice Scholarships for Master’s Degree Students

Pi Gamma Mu Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Pi Gamma Mu presents scholarships to 11 member students each year who are in their first or second year of graduate work in criminal justice.
Amount: $1,000-$2,000

Gene Carte Student Paper Award

Who Can Apply: The American Society of Criminology awards this scholarship to undergraduate and graduate criminal justice students who demonstrate academic achievement by submitting a scholarly paper.
Amount: $200-500

Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners gives this scholarship to students interested in fraud who are pursuing a criminal justice, business administration, accounting, or finance degree at the undergraduate or graduate level.
Amount: $1,000-$10,000

V.A. Leonard Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Alpha Phi Sigma awards this scholarship to one undergraduate and one graduate member student in a criminal justice program.
Amount: $1,500

Criminal Justice Scholarships for Doctoral Degree Students

Ruth D. Peterson Fellowship for Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Who Can Apply: The American Society of Criminology awards three annual fellowships to students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups to encourage these students to pursue and complete degrees in criminal justice. Applicants must be accepted to a doctoral program.
Amount: $6,000

Dorothy Brace/Janice Joseph Minority and Women New Scholar Award

Who Can Apply: The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences bestows this award on deserving women or minority members of the ACJS who earned a PhD in the last seven years and hold active roles in research, service, and teaching.
Amount: $1,000

Regina B. Shearn Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Alpha Phi Sigma presents this scholarship to one undergraduate and one graduate criminal justice student each year. Applicants must be Alpha Phi Sigma members and demonstrate leadership, service, and academic achievement.
Amount: $1,500

Thurgood Marshall Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The John Jay College of Criminal Justice offers a scholarship to graduate students who have completed 12 credits with a GPA of at least a 3.2. Award recipients must pledge to help raise awareness of the plight of impoverished and minority groups in the criminal justice system.
Amount: $500-$1,000

Professional Criminal Justice Organizations

Students earning their criminal justice degree online may be interested in joining a professional organization as a student or as a professional in the field after graduation. These associations provide members with a host of benefits, such as conferences and seminars where like-minded people in the industry can connect to share information and network. Many organizations produce publications that showcase current research in criminal justice. Additionally, these associations often offer scholarship and certification opportunities for members.

  • Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences: The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences has close to 3,000 members with diverse professional backgrounds in law enforcement, corrections, juvenile justice, and criminal justice education. The organization advances education and research in the field of criminal justice.
  • American Criminal Justice Association: The American Criminal Justice Association promotes increased awareness of criminal justice issues and supports the education, professionalism, ethical standards, and advocacy of those working in the criminal justice system.
  • American Society of Criminology: The American Society of Criminology works to advance the accessibility of education and development for professionals working in the field of criminology. Member benefits include access to research, courses, and workshops, as well as conferences and networking opportunities.
  • American Correctional Association: The mission of the American Correctional Association is to encourage diversity in the corrections arena, promote scholarly research, foster professional development opportunities, and correct misconceptions about those working in corrections.
  • International Police Association: The International Police Association brings together police from various regions through travel and recreational opportunities. Active and retired police officers also gain access to educational materials.
  • American Bar Association: The American Bar Association is a professional organization that provides continuing education and discounts to practicing attorneys.