With a rate of incarceration five times higher than most other nations, the U.S. correctional system holds over two million people in various confinement facilities, including state and federal prisons, local jails, juvenile halls, immigration detention centers, and military prisons. These statistics fuel the continuing demand for skilled correctional personnel at every level. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment in the protective services, including law enforcement and correctional officers and administrators, will increase 5% between 2016 and 2026.
A corrections degree prepares its graduates for a variety of career paths such as jail and prison management, probation and parole services, and correctional counseling. Many of these positions require advanced postsecondary training in correctional law and procedures, organizational leadership, management of special populations, and models of punishment, treatment, and rehabilitation.
A master's degree in corrections provides its graduates with a competitive edge in the workplace, more opportunities for career advancement, and higher salaries than their counterparts with only an associate or bachelor's degree. The following guide will answer some of the most common questions students have in regards to a master's in corrections, including why this degree is beneficial, what you can do with a master's in corrections, what to expect of the admissions process and program itself, and some additional resources and organizations that will offer professional networking opportunities.
Should I Get a Master's in Corrections?
A master's degree in corrections equips its graduates for specialized leadership and policy roles in several correctional and criminal justice-related professions. While each corrections degree establishes its own curriculum, students in all programs learn about crime control strategies and prevention, correctional law, and principles and procedures for correctional management. Some programs offer specialized concentrations that emphasize facility administration, community corrections and rehabilitation, or the treatment of juvenile offenders, substance abusers, or other special populations.
Students may earn a master's in either an online or campus-based format. Online programs often appeal to working professionals exploring a career change or promotion into an administrative position. The flexibility of distance learning degrees may also draw in law enforcement and correctional personnel who need to maintain their work schedules while seeking an advanced degree to move up in rank. A traditional campus-based degree may attract students coming directly out of an undergraduate program who have already decided on career goals in a correctional specialization where a master's degree can boost their chances for advancement.
Students in on-campus programs benefit from personal mentoring and advising from faculty. They may also have more opportunities for collaborative research and informal interaction with other students in their cohort. As students near their graduation date, they should take advantage of their school's career placement services. If possible, they should find an internship or independent research project to gain applied experience. Whatever the delivery format, a corrections master's degree provides a competitive advantage in the workforce that translates into broader career prospects and greater financial rewards.
What Can I Do With a Master's in Corrections?
Correctional workers find employment in police departments; local, state, and federal prisons; the court system; and private correctional facilities. Because of these challenging work environments, most employers look for correctional specialists who possess good organizational and negotiation skills as well as physical and emotional strength. Although each state and branch of government establishes its own hiring standards, college degree holders generally move into correctional positions with higher salaries and managerial responsibility. While entry-level positions may not require graduate training, a master's degree in corrections opens up greater opportunities for career advancement. Most supervisory and administrative positions require a corrections or criminal justice master's degree.
- Prison Wardens
As the head administrators of correctional facilities, wardens hire, train, and manage all staff. They also implement prison policies, ensure compliance with governmental and legal regulations, and maintain the security, safety, and appropriate treatment of inmates and personnel. A master's degree provides many of the managerial skill sets required for this position.
Median Annual Salary: $80,818*
- Police and Detectives
The specific duties performed by police officers and detectives differ by the type of employer and specific job requirements. Educational requirements range from a high school diploma to a postsecondary degree; a master's degree opens up greater professional opportunities and higher salaries. Criminal investigators, detectives, and federal agents often pursue graduate degrees to advance in rank.
Median Annual Salary: $62,960*
- Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialist
These professionals assist in the rehabilitation of people placed on probation or released on parole. They help offenders meet the conditions of their release and avoid repeat incarceration. Most positions call for a bachelor's degree but educational requirements vary by the jurisdiction. Advancement to supervisory positions usually requires a master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $51,410*
- Correctional Officers and Bailiffs
Correctional officers work with individuals awaiting trial or offenders who have been sentenced to serve time in prison. Bailiffs work in courtrooms, maintaining safety and order before, during, and after court proceedings. While hiring regulations differ by state jurisdiction and type of correctional facility, employment in the federal prison system requires at least a bachelor's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $43,510*
- Correctional Counselors
These professionals work directly with inmates in correctional facilities planning and implementing services, counseling individually and in group sessions, and providing input on release decisions. They help inmates cope with behavioral issues and enter job training, GED, or college credit programs. This position requires a bachelor's degree, but many correctional counselors have a master's and specialized training.
Median Annual Salary: $42,150*
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics and PayScale
How to Choose a Master's Program in Corrections
You have to do your homework when choosing the right master's program to fit your academic and personal needs. Each school differs in its graduation requirements and program characteristics. Make sure to choose an accredited school and pay attention to its overall ranking and reputation. As you look at various programs, compare degree requirements and credit hours and find out if the program offers any concentrations in specific subareas that match your career goals.
Students enrolled full time in a master's program may finish all degree requirements in two years. Some online programs may be completed in 18 months or less, although part-time students may need three or more years to complete their degree. Students who need to work and/or manage family responsibilities while going to school may prefer the flexibility offered by an online or hybrid program. A thesis or fieldwork requirement may also lengthen the time needed to complete a master's degree.
Tuition costs vary substantially between public and private schools. While in-state students usually pay less tuition than those from out-of-state, some online programs offer the same tuition rate regardless of residency. The school's location also contributes to the cost, so remember to budget for transportation, lodging, and meals. While online programs may prove more affordable than campus-based degrees, they often charge technology fees in addition to tuition and sometimes require travel to campus a few times a year for workshops. Students looking at traditional brick-and-mortar schools should find out if they offer graduate fellowships, work-study placements, or other opportunities for employment.
Accreditation for Master's Programs in Corrections
When choosing a master's degree in corrections, students should pay attention to a school's accreditation status. Accreditation determines eligibility for federal financial aid and the acceptance of transfer credits. Graduate programs and some employers give preference to applicants from accredited institutions. Technical, vocational, and for-profits often seek out national accreditation. These schools often offer less stringent admissions requirements and inexpensive tuition. Colleges and universities offering bachelor's degrees and above typically seek out regional accreditation, which requires higher professional and academic standards.
In addition to these two kinds of institutional accreditation, some schools obtain specialized accreditation for programs and degrees within a particular field of study. Programmatic accreditations currently do not exist for correctional programs, although the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) grants programmatic accreditation for bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice. While ACJS accreditation enjoys wide recognition, the absence of this credential has little bearing on the quality of a master's degree in corrections.
Master's in Corrections Program Admissions
The earlier you begin applying, the greater your chances of success. Start by researching program requirements, credit hours, and specializations. You can begin to apply to schools six months or more before your intended start date. Some programs, especially online degrees, offer rolling admissions throughout the year. Many on-campus programs request GRE scores, while some online degrees do not consider them. If required, take the GRE in late summer or fall before you begin the application process.
- Bachelor's Degree: Almost all graduate corrections programs require a bachelor's degree, and they usually accept undergraduate majors in law, criminal justice, criminology, sociology, psychology, and other related fields in the liberal arts and sciences.
- Professional Experience: Online programs often consider an applicant's professional experience in law enforcement or corrections, while a campus-based master's degree in corrections that will attract recent high school graduates without work experience may place more weight on academic performance.
- Minimum GPA: A GPA of 3.0 is usually required, but some programs consider a lower GPA if grades show steady improvement from ninth grade through senior year.
- Application: Each application requires documentation, including recommendations, a personal statement, and transcripts.
- Transcripts: Request official transcripts from the registrar's office of each undergraduate school you attended. Ask to have these sent directly to your intended graduate program before the application deadline. Most schools charge a small fee for preparation and mailing.
- Letters of Recommendation: Some schools request as many as three recommendations. Ask faculty members who know you well enough to write positively about your qualifications. Make sure to give your recommenders ample time to write before the application deadline.
- Test Scores: While many graduate schools request GRE or GMAT scores, some programs focus on overall academic performance and recommendations. Some correctional programs, especially online programs, may not require standardized tests.
- Application Fee: In general, expect to pay between $50 and $75 for each application you submit. Students who demonstrate financial hardship may request a fee waiver.
What Else Can I Expect From a Master's Program in Corrections?
Each corrections degree establishes its own distinctive curriculum and requirements. Some corrections and criminal justice master's programs offer students the opportunity to choose a concentration in a focused area of study. A concentration helps students develop a specific set of skills and the specialized knowledge that best aligns with their career plans.
|Corrections Administration and Management||This concentration provides students with the conceptual framework and pragmatic understanding of issues related to managing an offender population in federal, state, local, and private correctional facilities. Students examine organizational leadership theory and applications, corrections operations, staff roles, and supervision in detention facilities. Coursework includes community corrections, managing special populations, risk assessment, and contemporary challenges.||Prison warden, manager of a correctional facility|
|Juvenile Correction Services||Coursework focuses on the characteristics of juvenile offender populations and the structure and operations of youth correctional facilities, camp facilities, detention facilities, juvenile hall, and community-based and residential treatment facilities. Students examine the roles of juvenile corrections officers, probation officers, and youth correctional counselors, and evaluate alternative treatment options and best practices for rehabilitation.||Juvenile correctional officer, juvenile correctional counselor, juvenile probation officer|
|Community Corrections and Rehabilitation||This concentration explores the two main types of community corrections: probation and parole. Topics include the theory and practice of community corrections; policy and procedure for the supervision of criminal offenders in the resident population; and offender rehabilitation and treatment options. This concentration also emphasizes the challenges of working with special populations, such as youth, sex offenders, and substance abusers.||Probation officer, parole officer, correctional treatment specialist|
|Correctional Assessment||Coursework introduces students to best practices in correctional assessment. Students learn how to apply counseling theories and methodology to community and institutional corrections as well as how to supervise special populations. This concentration includes a summary of the history, development, and future of the Correctional Assessment and Intervention System and the Juvenile Assessment and Intervention System.||Correctional officer, correctional counselor, correctional case manager|
|Special Populations in Corrections||This concentration focuses on specific groups of prisoners that need the most external scrutiny because of distinctive needs and susceptibility to ill-treatment. Students examine policies and best practices for special prison populations including the elderly, females, racial minorities, juveniles, sexual offenders, prisoners held in isolation, prisoners vulnerable to sexual assault, inmates with mental or physical challenges, and those with serious medical conditions.||Corrections officer, prison warden, manager of correctional facilities, corrections officer supervisor, correctional counselor, correctional social worker|
Courses in a Master's in Corrections Program
Requirements for a corrections degree vary by school, but most programs share some common features. Students enrolled in a master's degree in corrections usually take courses that explore the management of detention facilities and prisons, the treatment of special populations, correctional law and policy, community corrections, and rehabilitation. Many programs require a thesis or field placement.
- Foundations of Corrections
This beginning course required of all master-level students analyzes the correctional system and its relationship to other aspects of the criminal justice system. Students connect philosophical arguments for retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation to contemporary applications. The course emphasizes policy analysis and decision-making models for various correctional settings and best practices for correctional professionals.
- Correctional Law
An essential course for all correctional professionals, this seminar covers the legal rights and obligations of corrections agencies and personnel and the legal rights and obligations of the inmate, probationer, and parolee. Students examine statutory criminal law and its application to law enforcement and the criminal courts in the U.S.
- Management of Correctional Facilities
Designed specifically for students interested in administrative roles in corrections, this course presents the organizational framework, policies, and practices for jail management and the operation of correctional institutions. Students learn how management models impact staffing, security, safety, and treatment. The course places special emphasis on issues related to managing special offender populations.
- Community Corrections, Probation, and Parole
This course prepares students for professional roles in community-based corrections, including probation, parole, boot camps, halfway houses, and other intermediate sanctions. Themes covered include assessment, treatment, supervision practices, probation and parole evaluation, effectiveness of shock or short-term incarceration, issues related to electronic monitoring and home confinement, and the treatment versus punishment debate.
- Special Populations in Prison
An emerging challenge facing correctional professionals concerns the management of special populations and racial groups. This course examines law, cultural competency, and diversity policies in relation to appropriate models of punishment and treatment for these groups. Students analyze case studies of several special populations, addressing why they should be monitored and how they are underserved or particularly vulnerable.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Corrections?
A master's degree in corrections requires 30-40 credits, and most full-time students can complete the program in two years. However, the length of time needed to finish a degree ultimately depends on the program requirements and the number of courses completed each term. Some students can maintain continuous enrollment, while others who must handle work or family responsibilities may choose to attend part time or take time off for a semester or two, extending the time needed to complete the degree.
Program format and specific requirements can impact program length. Some courses have prerequisites that must be taken in a specific order. A thesis requirement or fieldwork may lengthen the amount of time needed to finish the degree. Online degrees usually allow students the flexibility to progress through courses at their own pace, but some cohort-based programs require a fixed schedule.
How Much Is a Master's in Corrections?
For many students, paying for a master's degree in corrections represents a major challenge. Costs vary considerably based on the type of school, program features, and location. The National Center for Education Statistics reports the average graduate tuition for public colleges and universities at $11,303 and $25,817 for private, nonprofit schools. While public institutions usually cost less than private institutions, some private schools offset costs by offering financial aid or tuition discounts.
Although tuition and fees for out-of-state schools cost more than in-state rates, online programs at private schools sometimes offer the same tuition rate to both in-state and out-of-state students. In addition to expected costs for tuition, books, and supplies, students attending campus-based programs must budget for transportation, housing, and meals. While online students save on travel and lodging, they often have to pay technology fees.
Whatever your personal circumstances, investigate all possibilities for financial assistance and make sure to submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for federal aid. Many graduate programs offer specialized scholarships, fellowships, research grants, military benefits, or work-study awards. Working professionals planning to return to school should check with their employer about tuition remission benefits that may finance their degree in exchange for a commitment of continued employment.
Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Corrections Prepares For
- Certified Corrections Professional (CCP)
Widely recognized for its professional certification program, the American Correctional Association (ACA) awards several levels of credentials for corrections professionals. ACA offers specialized certifications in adult corrections, juvenile justice, security threat groups, and health care.
- Jail Manager Certification
The Jail Manager Certification Commission and the American Jail Association promote professionalism and effective management practices for those working in local correctional facilities. They administer three voluntary certification programs: certified jail officer (CJO), certified jail manager (CJM), and certified correctional trainers (CCT). Certification requires renewal after four years.
- National Certified Corrections Officer (NCCO)
The professional certification program offered by the National Institute for Jail Operations provides certification training based on a legal-focused curriculum for detention and jail officers, administrators, and sheriffs.
- National Sheriffs' Association Jail Certification Program
NSA, in cooperation with the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service Corrections Academy, oversees several training programs in criminal justice-related professions. Its Jail Certification Program for jail officers, supervisors, administrators, and sheriffs offers three levels of certification: jail officer, jail supervisor, and jail executive. These designations establish standards of professional competency in liability, correctional law, jail operations, and personnel management.
- Certified Correctional Health Professional (CCHP)
The National Commission on Correctional Health Care administers the CCHP program for all professionals working in the field of correctional health, including administrators and mental health and support staff. Eligibility differs for each type of certification. The basic CCHP credential requires a general exam; advanced certifications for registered nurses, physicians, and mental health providers require specialty examinations.
Resources for Graduate Corrections Students
Users of this site find resources for state and local correctional training programs, a searchable library and online help desk, and statistics on the corrections industry. It offers several publications, including the 50 State Report on Public Safety.
Correctional professionals, researchers, and students can access current data on inmate populations and research on issues such as drug treatment, equity and diversity, prison management, and recidivism. It also provides resources for victims, witnesses, and former prisoners.
The NRRC provides publications and webinars to support correctional and supervision practices that reduce recidivism. It publishes a reentry services directory that includes employment and housing assistance, mentoring services, substance abuse treatment, and victim support.
Administrators, researchers, and students use the evidence gathered here to evaluate educational programs for incarcerated adults and juveniles. The project provides an archive of downloadable publications, research reports, blog posts, and statistics presented in multimedia and infographic formats.
Professional Organizations in Corrections
Joining a professional association offers invaluable benefits to graduate students preparing to enter an increasingly competitive job market. Your membership gives you the chance to network with experienced practitioners and specialists. You can learn about new developments in corrections from industry leaders and top authorities. Correctional organizations, like those listed here, host conferences and workshops, sponsor scholarship and grant programs, and provide an array of career resources including job banks. Many offer free or discounted membership to students.
As the oldest and one of the best-known professional associations in corrections, the ACA promotes the interests of correctional professionals at every level and institutional setting. It also sponsors one of the major correctional credentialing programs.
Established in 1974, IACTP represents correctional trainers, training administrators, and educators from the adult and juvenile justice fields. It sponsors an annual conference, quarterly webinars, and a certificate training program.
This national advocacy group supports policy interests in all areas of criminal justice, including law enforcement and corrections. NCJA lobbies for effective criminal justice policy and funding for justice assistance programs. Students may apply for a discounted membership rate.
AJA supports correctional workers employed in local institutional settings. It sponsors an annual training conference and administers certifications for jail personnel. AJA offers a discounted membership rate to full-time students not currently employed in the corrections field.
APPA extends membership to community corrections professionals, service providers, and others interested in parole and probation who share the goal of reducing recidivism. Student members receive discounts on training institutes and complimentary subscriptions to APPA publications.