The interdisciplinary field of criminal justice encompasses a network of government programs and agencies designed to deter criminal activities, prosecute criminal offenders and maintain social order and public safety nationwide. The components of criminal justice include law and law enforcement, fire protection, emergency management, information security and ethics. Criminal justice is one of the most popular fields of academic study; a recent poll by USA Today noted that 'criminal justice and corrections' is the sixth most common college major among U.S. undergraduates.

What are the best criminal justice programs of 2020? Here are our top 10:

Rank School Location
1 Peirce College Philadelphia, PA
2 Pamlico Community College Grantsboro, NC
3 Trine University Fort Wayne, IN
4 Regent University Virginia Beach, VA
5 Keiser University Fort Lauderdale, FL
6 Chaminade University of Honolulu Honolulu, HI
7 Ashland University Ashland, OH
8 Amarillo College Amarillo, TX
9 Saint Leo University Saint Leo, FL
10 University of Maine at Fort Kent Fort Kent, ME

An associate degree in criminal justice will prepare students to succeed in this exciting, often challenging field. The curriculum typically includes coursework in law and ethics, criminal investigation, corrections and probation, juvenile justice and homeland security. A large number of programs also require students to complete an internship course, in which they will receive supervised onsite training from experienced professionals. Many of today's students are choosing to earn their associate degree in criminal justice online. Web-based students follow the same rigorous curriculum as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, leading to the same number of job opportunities after graduation. The asynchronous (or self-paced) schedule and study-from-home format are also ideal for students with part-time jobs, childcare duties and other responsibilities that could possibly interfere with campus-based learning.

Learn more about what you can do with an online associate in criminal justice and what kind of career opportunities you can look forward to with this comprehensive guide.

Accredited Online Associate in Criminal Justice Programs

Rank School Location Cost Graduation Rate Description Toggle

Peirce College

Philadelphia, PA Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 35%

Pierce delivers both an on-campus and online associate degree in criminal justice for students seeking a career in law enforcement or related field. Learners may also combine the two formats for a hybrid online/on-campus approach.

The program's 61-credit curriculum covers the use of technology in criminal justice, effective communication, and ethical issues law enforcement professionals often face. The program also allows students to earn credit for training they receive through the Philadelphia Police Academy or Philadelphia Division of Prisons. The degree provides a solid foundation for Peirce's bachelor's in criminal justice degree, which typically requires an additional two years to complete.

Applicants must provide high school transcripts or GED scores. The college awards conditional acceptance to all applicants. All associate in criminal justice students pay the same per-credit tuition rate regardless of residency.


Pamlico Community College

Grantsboro, NC Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 62%

Located in Grantsboro, North Carolina, PCC offers an associate in criminal justice technology that prepares graduates to work in law enforcement, corrections, juvenile justice, probation, and private security. The curriculum focuses on the tools and technology law enforcement officers use to investigate and prevent crime.

The program's 67-credit curriculum features courses in victimology, court procedures, and community policing. One course examines the history of organized crime and how it continues to affect communities today. Another class, on investigative principles, covers the processes involved in examining crime scenes, collecting and recording evidence, and identifying suspects.

To apply to PCC's associate in criminal justice technology program, prospective students must submit official high school transcripts or GED scores. Some applicants may need to take a placement exam before starting coursework. Most full-time students graduate within two years.


Trine University

Fort Wayne, IN Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 50%

Trine's online associate degree in criminal justice gives students the education and experience needed to serve as competent law enforcement, corrections, and probation and parole officers. While many graduates immediately pursue entry-level jobs, the 60-credit program also transitions seamlessly into the university's bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

All classes take place online and use an asynchronous format, allowing students to view lectures and complete assignments on their own time. New courses start every eight weeks, and students can begin the program at multiple points throughout the year. Full-time learners can complete the program in one year.

Applicants submit official high school transcripts or GED scores, along with transcripts from any other colleges or universities they previously attended. Trine also makes transferring easy, accepting up to 45 credits from other institutions.

Trine is located in Angola, Indiana. The university offers discounted tuition for active-duty military members.


Regent University

Virginia Beach, VA Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 59%

Located in Virginia Beach, Regent offers both an on-campus and online associate degree in criminal justice rooted in Christian values. The curriculum focuses on the prevention and investigation of various types of crime.

The 64-credit program prepares students to serve as police officers, probation officers, forensic technicians, and legal assistants. Graduates can also seamlessly move into the school's bachelor's programs in criminal justice, cybersecurity, or paralegal studies, which require two additional years of study.

Applicants under the age of 24 years must provide high school transcripts or GED scores; ACT, CLT, or SAT scores; and a personal statement. Prospective students 24 and older complete an admissions questionnaire and provide their high school transcripts or GED scores.

Distance learners receive a lower per-credit tuition rate than on-campus students. Most full-time students complete the associate in criminal justice program in two years.


Keiser University

Fort Lauderdale, FL Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 69%

Keiser's students can complete an associate degree in criminal justice online or at any of the school's 19 campuses across Florida. The program's 60-credit curriculum covers the role of institutions in criminal justice, common criminal behaviors, the operations of various law enforcement organizations, the juvenile justice system, and the principles of criminal investigations.

Program applicants must meet with an admissions counselor, after which they submit proof of high school graduation or GED scores. Once enrolled, most full-time students graduate within two years.

Keiser is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The school features a freshman-to-sophomore retention rate of over 90%.


Chaminade University of Honolulu

Honolulu, HI Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 59%

Chaminade delivers an associate in criminal justice program that covers the basics of the U.S. criminal justice system and the underlying causes of crime. Students learn how to manage a crime scene, collect evidence, and identify suspects.

The program's 60-credit curriculum features a course on the juvenile justice system and its focus on rehabilitation over retribution. Students must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA to graduate and complete at least 15 credits at Chaminade. Most students complete the program in two years. Each course lasts 10 weeks, and learners may enroll at four different points during the academic year. All students take part in a service learning experience.

Prospective students must submit official high school transcripts or GED scores along with transcripts from any postsecondary institutions they previously attended. Chaminade offers discounted tuition to military members and veterans.


Ashland University

Ashland, OH Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 61%

Located in Ashland, Ohio, AU offers both an on-campus and online associate degree in criminal justice that prepares students to pursue various careers in law enforcement. Many graduates enroll in the university's BS in criminal justice program, which requires an additional two years of coursework.

The online program features asynchronous classes, enabling learners to log in and complete assignments around their own schedules. Students engage in seven-week courses and benefit from opportunities to work with experienced law enforcement officers. Courses cover subjects like criminal justice ethics, victimology, emergency management, terrorism, and gang-related crime.

Prospective students must submit a high school diploma or GED scores along with transcripts from any colleges or universities they attended in the past. Ashland offers a special discounted tuition rate to distance learners. More than 93% of Ashland graduates are employed or attend graduate school after receiving an associate degree.


Amarillo College

Amarillo, TX Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 31%

AC offers a pair of two-year programs for future law enforcement professionals: an AS in criminal justice and an AAS in criminal justice law enforcement. Each program requires 60 credits completed across four semesters.

The AS track prepares students to move directly into a bachelor's program after graduation. The curriculum features courses in the causes of crime, correctional systems, court systems, and the basics of criminal investigation.

The AAS program focuses on preparing students for immediate entry-level career opportunities. It includes the college's Basic Peace Officer Academy. Graduates can sit for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement licensing exam and begin careers as police officers, correctional officers, and bailiffs.

Applicants to either program must submit official high school transcripts or GED scores. Most incoming students take an assessment to determine proper placement in general education courses.


Saint Leo University

Saint Leo, FL Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 51%

Saint Leo's associate in criminal justice program provides students with a strong foundation in law enforcement and criminal investigation. Students take part in hands-on learning experiences that include mock trials and exploring an actual forensics lab.

The program gives students the opportunity to train with the Pasco-Hernando Police Academy and earn a police standard certificate. Students may also intern with local, state, and federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and U.S. Secret Service.

The program's curriculum includes an introductory course on the Department of Homeland Security and how the agency works to prevent terrorist attacks and recover from natural and human-caused disasters. Another course covers due process in the criminal justice system.

Prospective students must submit high school transcripts or GED scores. Saint Leo is located in a community just north of Tampa, Florida.


University of Maine at Fort Kent

Fort Kent, ME Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 46%

In UMFK's associate in criminal justice program, students learn how to use reasoning, communication, analytical, and research skills in preparation for careers as competent law enforcement officers.

The two-year, 60-credit program features hands-on experiences in which students work with criminal justice professionals in a variety of specialties. While many graduates immediately seek entry-level jobs, others move on to UMFK's bachelor's degree in rural public safety administration.

Incoming first-year students must have a high school diploma or GED and meet the following course prerequisites: four years of English, three years of math, and two years of social sciences courses. The school accepts transfer students with a minimum 2.0 GPA across previous college-level coursework.

Current and former military members may qualify for in-state tuition at UMFK. The university's rural campus is located in northern Maine near the Canadian border.

Choosing a Program

Will An Online Associate In Criminal Justice Provide Me With The Skills I Need To Advance My Career?

Online associate in criminal justice programs usually offer a broad overview of law and law enforcement, the justice system and principles of forensics and detection. This comprehensive curriculum will prepare students for different career paths, and also introduce them to the realities of working for a bureaucratic government agency. Internships and other onsite trainings are also useful; these courses enable students to apply the skills and knowledge they have gained in a real-world work setting.

Will An Online Associate In Criminal Justice Work With My Schedule?

Associate online degrees in criminal justice offer a flexible alternative to traditional higher learning. Students can download course lectures and readings, participate in virtual discussions with other students, submit written assignments, take exams and communicate with their professors from the comfort of their home computer. Current educational technology also allows them to study on the move using a laptop, tablet, smartphone and other Wi-Fi-compatible devices. For added convenience, online criminal justice students will usually be able to coordinate internships at locations within a reasonable commuting distance of their current residence.

What Jobs Can I Get With My Associate In Criminal Justice?

Job availability for criminal justice associate degree recipients will vary by their specific career goals. Many roles in law enforcement are attainable with an associate; however, these positions may require on-the-job training in firearm safety, CPR/first aid and other competency areas. Paralegals and legal assistants, on the other hand, are often hired with only an associate degree and certification is not normally required. Other professions in criminal justice include information security and cybersecurity specialists, forensic investigators and technicians, court reporters and probation officers.

What Are The Best Online Criminal Justice Associate Programs?

Choosing a program is an incredibly personal decision, and only you can properly evaluate whether a target school's strengths match your educational needs. The following ranked list of schools should serve as a helpful starting point in your search for the best online associate in criminal justice programs in the United States. If you are considering an online associate in criminal justice, be sure to contact admissions specialists at different colleges and universities to learn more their about specific requirements and offerings.

What Else Can I Expect From an Online Associate in Criminal Justice Degree?

Some online criminal justice associate degree programs allow students to develop a concentration in a specialized area. While course and curriculum details tend to differ between schools, there are several educational tracks commonly offered through criminal justice programs across the United States. Most are designed to prepare students for specific careers while others are tailored to prepare learners for further education.

Concentrations Offered For An Online Associate Degree In Criminal Justice

Concentration Description Careers this concentration prepares for
Corrections This concentration focuses on the role of the correctional system in relation to the criminal justice system as a whole. Coursework covers topics such as incarceration, probation, and parole, along with courtroom procedures and recent innovations in crime prevention and personal security. Corrections Officer; Corrections Dispatcher; Parole Officer
Law enforcement Coursework focuses on criminal law and procedures, investigations, and constitutional law. Students learn the fundamentals of criminology, and how these concepts can be applied in the community to prevent crime. Curricula may address topics related to homeland security, cybercrime, and forensic detection. Some programs may include a weapons training component. Law Enforcement Officer; Security Officer; Loss Prevention Expert; Statistic Researcher in criminal justice fields
Forensic science Students on a forensic science track gain the knowledge necessary to assess and process crime scenes. In addition to courses like crime scene photography and accident investigation, students learn the basic scientific skills required to succeed in a forensic laboratory setting. Students may be expected to complete an internship or work-study program. Forensic Science Technician; Crime Scene Investigator/Photographer; Records Officer

Curriculum For An Online Associate Degree In Criminal Justice

Although course selections vary from school to school, some subjects are integral to the study of criminal justice. Variations on the following courses are frequently offered by online criminal justice associate degree programs.

  • Quantitative methods in criminal justice: This course provides an overview of common methods used by criminologists to research the causes and distribution of crime. Lectures cover primary methods of data acquisition and analysis, as well as challenges introduced by social relations and economic factors.
  • Criminological theory: Designed to provide students with a broad foundation in the integral concepts of criminology, this course describes the various schools of thought that have contributed to modern criminological theory. Topics covered in this course are crucial for anyone pursuing a career in law enforcement or forensic science.
  • Criminal justice ethics: A must for future law enforcement officers, students can expect to learn the code of ethics that defines the behavior of all police professionals. Coursework details ethical methods of problem solving and conflict resolution, stressing the importance of honor and integrity in the field.

How Long Does It Take To Get An Online Associate Degree In Criminal Justice?

While it takes most learners around two years to complete their criminal justice associate degree online, several factors can affect program length and completion time. Many schools provide the option of studying part-time, for example, which may extend the duration of a course or program. However, the biggest factor influencing degree length is program pacing.

Featuring accelerated courses and lenient deadlines, self-paced, or asynchronous programs allow students to study and complete assignments without requiring their online presence at specific times. Ideal for busy individuals, self-paced courses can be completed quickly. Online criminal justice associate degree students in cohort programs begin and end classes with the same group of people. Students may be expected to log on at designated times, and deadlines are typically stricter. Assignments and projects often require collaboration between group members. Following a precise schedule, cohort programs often take more time to complete.

Accreditation for Online Associate in Criminal Justice Degrees

Not all criminal justice online associate degree programs are created equal. To ensure that you receive the highest quality education possible, it's important to seek programs from accredited schools. The accreditation process ensures that a school is operating according to standards set by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Institutions may be regionally or nationally accredited, depending on the body evaluating them. Regional accreditation is generally applied to nonprofit, academically oriented colleges, while for-profit vocational schools are often nationally accredited.

For students who are interested in entering a bachelor's program after earning their criminal justice associate degree online, finding a regionally accredited school is crucial. While nationally accredited schools will accept credits from regionally accredited ones, the opposite is generally not true. Most graduate programs follow similar practices. A degree from a regionally accredited institution provides many more opportunities for further education than its national counterpart.

That doesn't mean that you can't get a quality associate degree in criminal justice online from a nationally accredited institution. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes all accredited schools as legitimate. While the DOE doesn't accredit institutions, it reviews accrediting agencies to ensure that they meet federal standards. All agencies are monitored by the DOE, and undergo review periodically. CHEA also oversees accrediting organizations from a non-governmental perspective, and provides the public with information about accreditation's role in protecting students. You can find a list of accredited institutions on the DOE's website, or search for schools on CHEA's extensive database.

Employment Outlook for Associate in Criminal Justice Graduates

Job Placement: Associate in Criminal Justice

The demand for qualified professionals is quite high in law and law enforcement, emergency management, homeland security and other criminal justice-related fields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that most legal occupations for associate degree-holders — including police officers and detectives, paralegals, legal assistants, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists — will grow by 4% to 8% between 2014 and 2024. This industry growth will result in thousands of new jobs. Additionally, jobs in the cutting-edge field of forensics are also on the rise. The number of forensic science technicians, for example, is expected to increase 27% over the next decade.

Unemployment rates in criminal justice are linked to areas of specialization. The following table features five criminal justice professions that were included in the 'Best Jobs' ranking published by U.S. News & World Report in 2016.

Profession Unemployment Rate
Patrol Officer 1.0%
Lawyer 1.1%
Paralegal 2.8%
Information Security Analyst 3.9%
Security Guard 8.0%

Source: U.S. News & World Report

Generally speaking, most jobs in law and law enforcement, information security and other criminal justice fields have unemployment rates lower than 4.0%. Comparatively, the national unemployment rate for all occupations currently sits at 4.7%.

Earning a Living

According to the 2015-16 PayScale College Salary Report, students who earn an associate degree in criminal justice earn median annual salaries of $31,100 during the first five years of their career and $46,000 after a decade on the job. This represents a 10-year growth rate of nearly 48%. The report also found that those with an associate in criminal justice administration earn median salaries of $36,800 and $50,200 at the five- and 10-year marks, respectively.

How do these two fields stack up against other areas of study in terms of earning potential for new graduates? The table below features projected earnings for six related academic fields.

Associate Degree Field of Study Median Annual Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 Years) Median Annual Salary for Mid-Career Employees (10+ Years)
Fire Science $34,700 $56,600
Legal Studies $32,300 $51,300
Criminal Justice Administration $36,800 $50,200
Law Enforcement $34,000 $50,200
Legal Assistant Studies $33,400 $46,300
Criminal Justice $31,100 $46,000

Source: 2015-16 PayScale College Salary Report

Another important consideration for criminal justice degree-holders is specific job title. Salary expectations will strongly vary between different positions; other potential factors include employer size, certification level, experience and city/state of employment. The next table looks at salary projections for five of the most common occupations in criminal justice.

Occupation Median Annual Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 Years) Median Annual Salary for Mid-Career Employees (10+ Years) Median Annual Salary for Experienced Employees (10-20 Years) Median Annual Salary for Late-Career Employees (20+ Years)
Police Officers $43,146 $51,046 $55,662 $61,218
Police Detectives $50,000 $52,000 $63,000 $69,000
Probation Officers $35,057 $39,926 $45,742 $58,590
Paralegals $38,734 $46,626 $51,154 $53,194
Forensic Scientist $47,000 $59,000 $63,000 $69,000

Source: PayScale

All five occupations listed in the table experience salary growth of at least 37% after 20 years in the workforce. Probation officers reported the highest growth rate: a 67.1% increase in earnings between the entry-level and late-career phases. Forensic scientists placed second with a 20-year growth rate of 46.8%, followed by police officers with 41.9% growth.

Career Opportunities

Students who graduate with an associate in criminal justice will be qualified for dozens of entry-level positions, although individual eligibility will also depend on their areas of specialization. Four of the most popular careers in criminal justice are outlined below.

Police and Detectives: Police officers and detectives safeguard public safety. Officers are primarily responsible for protecting human lives, property and natural resources through active patrolling and law enforcement practices. Detectives are mid- to top-level law enforcement officials who investigate different crimes and, in many cases, arrest the perpetrators. These professionals also collect evidence, interview people linked to crimes that have been committed, write police reports and testify during trials and other criminal proceedings.

Paralegals and Legal Assistants: Paralegals and legal assistants provide supportive services for practicing attorneys. Their day-to-day duties include researching case studies, composing legal documents, formally requesting affidavits and other legal forms, preparing lawyers for court appearances and organizing client records.

Forensic Science Technicians: Forensic science technicians collect material evidence at crime scenes, and then perform a series of tests and analyses on each piece of evidence to help investigators apprehend guilty parties. Their time is neatly divided between crime scenes and laboratories, and they must be skilled at using different lab tools and equipment.

Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists: Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists work directly with probationers, or individuals who have been convicted of criminal offenses. They monitor their clients to ensure they do not reoffend, and may also meet with them to discuss employment opportunities and rehabilitation programs.

Profession Median Annual Salary Projected Industry Growth (2014-24)
Police and Detectives $60,270 4% (33,100 jobs)
Paralegals and Legal Assistants $48,810 8% (21,200 jobs)
Forensic Science Technicians $56,320 27% (3,800 jobs)
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $49,360 4% (3,300 jobs)

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Professional Organizations

Making professional connections and learning about different approaches to criminal justice is crucial to your success. Professional organizations offer a great entry point for students who want to learn more about their chosen career path. Below you'll find three of the country's most prominent organizations established for criminal justice professionals. These organizations host networking events, provide online trainings, maintain active job boards, and offer other services for career-ready college graduates. Resources like these often prove invaluable as you complete your degree requirements and prepare to enter the job market.

  • National Association of Police Organizations: NAPO was founded in 1978, and today represents roughly 241,000 officers and detectives in more than 1,000 law enforcement units. Members receive invitations to three annual conferences, as well as continuing education opportunities.
  • National Association of Legal Assistants: NALA is a nonprofit organization representing more than 18,000 paralegals, both individual members and employees of member affiliates. The association offers two certifications for paralegals, as well as online webinars, job leads and complimentary issues of the Facts & Findings academic journal.
  • American Probation and Parole Association: APPA represents probation and parole personnel working with criminals and juvenile offenders. The organization's website features an extensive online resource library, as well as links to online and onsite training programs.

Financing Your Online Associate in Criminal Justice Program

Despite the relative affordability of online programs, most students still need financial assistance. Students should complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to learn more about loans, grants, and other opportunities offered through the U.S. government. Additionally, private grants and scholarships are widely available through nonprofit organizations, companies, and other sources. Check out our collection of resources below to learn more about financial aid options.


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