For aspiring police officers, corrections officers, probation officers, forensic science technicians, attorneys and other occupations in the protective services field and the legal industry, a degree in criminal justice can boost career potential considerably. Earning a degree is a big commitment, but thanks to accelerated program formats and online learning options, graduating from college may not take as long as you expect.
Why Study the Criminal Justice System
Studying the criminal justice process prepares students for a variety of roles in this field. Police officer is one of the more common career paths criminal justice graduates may pursue. With this background, you could also look for other law enforcement roles, including special agent jobs with federal law enforcement agencies. You could also use an undergraduate degree in criminal justice as a springboard for law school, after which you might work as a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney or even, with further experience, a judge.
Criminal justice majors may pursue careers in any area of law enforcement, corrections and the justice system. The breadth and versatility of this major make it consistently popular among students interested in protective services jobs.
Should I Earn a Degree in Criminal Justice?
For many entry-level positions in criminal justice, a high school diploma is enough formal education to get started, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Yet there are compelling reasons to pursue a quality education from an institute of higher learning. Earning a degree in criminal justice offers you a deeper understanding of the theories and evidence-based practices of criminal justice work, more job marketability, higher earning potential and better opportunities for career advancement.
Of course, you have to weigh these benefits against the drawbacks of pursuing a degree, as well. Naturally, there is the financial criminal justice degree cost to consider, as well as the time and hard work you invest into your education.
There are factors that mitigate these potential downsides of pursuing higher education. Despite the high cost of college in general, students can reduce the financial burden by choosing schools that offer in-state tuition or flat-rate tuition and taking advantage of scholarship opportunities and federal student aid programs.
You might also make earning a degree more feasible by choosing a program that works with your schedule. Online degree programs, in particular, tend to offer exceptional flexibility. A busy police officer who is already juggling work and family obligations and might not be able to commute to class at a specified time each week can benefit from online learning programs that they can undertake on their own schedule. Online programs are also ideal for students who live too far to commute to the institution, including out-of-state students and even international students.
How Long Does It Take to Complete Associate in Criminal Justice Degree Programs?
The lowest level of formal college degree you could pursue is the associate degree. Associate degrees are degrees awarded by community colleges and junior colleges upon completing a program of study that most commonly consists of 60 credit hours of coursework. The curriculum of an associate degree program includes both general education coursework and major coursework.
Generally, it takes two years for a full-time student to complete an associate degree. Prospective students who want to finish an associate degree in criminal justice faster can look for accelerated degree programs.
Below are examples of some of the fastest criminal justice degree programs out there.
18-Month Associate of Science in Criminal Justice Degree: New England Institute of Technology
The New England Institute of Technology in East Greenwich, RI, offers an associate’s degree program in criminal justice that can be completed in as little as 18 months. Whether students choose the on-campus or online program, they complete a curriculum that includes the following:
- Criminal procedure
- Issues in the criminal justice field
- Foundations of corrections
- The court system
- Police operations
- Investigation and interviewing techniques
- Criminal sentencing, probation and parole
- Digital forensics
- Organized crime
The program also allows students to gain experience through an internship as well as through mock trial experiences.
16-Month Associate in Applied Science in Criminal Justice Degree: ASA College
The private for-profit ASA College, with locations in Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn in New York City and Hialeah, Florida, offers an even faster path to associate-level criminal justice degrees. Prospective students of the school can pursue their criminal justice degree online, on campus or by logging into real-time classes remotely from anywhere in the world.
This criminal justice degree program equips students with knowledge of the current and historical structures, roles, problems and practices in the criminal justice system and that system’s role in society. Students in the program study criminology, corrections and policymaking. The curriculum aligns with the educational standards published by professional organizations like the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS).
Criminal justice students at ASA College complete externships in environments like police departments, corrections departments, probation offices, Social Services departments and private security companies. Through these experiences, students have an opportunity to learn what it would really be like to become police officers, probation officers, legal assistants and other types of criminal justice professionals.
12-Month Associate of Applied Science in Criminal Justice: Bossier Parish Community College
Some of the fastest associate degrees in criminal justice programs are those that can be completed in just one year. Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier City, LA, offers an Associate of Applied Science program that takes two years to complete on campus but as little as 12 months to complete online. Core coursework in this criminal justice program includes foundational studies of the criminal justice system, criminal law, criminal procedure, criminal evidence collection and use and juvenile justice agencies and procedures.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice?
A BS, BA or another type of bachelor’s-level degree is the most commonly recommended level of education for those interested in criminal justice careers. This level of degree can qualify you for a wide variety of criminal justice jobs and equip you with some of the skills you may need to work in a supervisory or management role someday.
Much of the coursework required for a baccalaureate criminal justice program consists of general education courses that all students must complete regardless of their major. Within their major, students are often required to complete certain core courses. They typically have elective courses that they can use to study areas of particular interest. A criminal justice program at the bachelor’s level may also offer students the opportunity to build expertise in an area of concentration.
A bachelor’s degree program usually consists of a minimum of 120 credit hours of study. Full-time students can typically complete a bachelor’s degree in up to four years, although it’s not unusual for students to take longer to finish a criminal justice bachelor’s degree program. However, some criminal justice bachelor’s degrees are structured to allow ambitious students to finish their education faster.
40-Month Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice: Fisher College
Fisher College in Boston, MA, offers a BS in criminal justice degree online and on campus. Students who pursue the school’s online criminal justice degree can finish their studies faster, completing the curriculum in as little as three years and four months. During this time, students complete two courses per term over 20 terms.
The coursework in Fisher College’s online criminal justice bachelor’s degree program includes studies in law enforcement, corrections, principles of criminal investigations, the criminal court process, criminal law, crime theory and policy, criminology and research methods and statistics for criminal justice. Students also gain hands-on experience in the field by completing a criminal justice internship.
Certain students may be able to finish their online criminal justice bachelor’s degree at Fisher College even faster. Police officers who have already graduated from police academy programs can receive credits toward their degree through the Prior Learning Assessment program, and transfer students who have already completed at least 30 credits of college study may be eligible for the school’s Degree Completion Program.
30-Month Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice: East Coast Polytechnic Institute
At the private for-profit East Cost Polytechnic University located in Virginia Beach, VA, students can complete their online criminal justice degree in as little as two and a half years. The broad curriculum covers topics in criminal law, criminal procedure, criminal investigations, corrections, law enforcement operations, crime scene management, criminology, organized crime, terrorism, cybercrime investigation, private security and conflict management methods for the criminal justice field.
24-Month Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice: The University of Oklahoma
The 100% online program offered through the College of Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Oklahoma allows students to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in as little as two years. The curriculum includes core coursework in all areas of criminal justice, including law enforcement and police operations, the criminal court system and the corrections system. Students may also choose an area of concentration to focus on, including options such as administrative leadership, restorative justice, homeland security and investigations and intelligence analysis.
The online criminal justice degree at the University of Oklahoma is offered in eight-week terms, which begin five times per year. While the typical courseload is two 3-credit courses per term, adding up to 30 credits per year, students can graduate faster if they are willing to double up on courses.
Taking 12 credits, or four courses, per term instead of six credits (two courses) will allow students to finish their degree within two years. The school reported that the “majority” of students in the major graduate in two to three years. Rather than trying to juggle four courses at once during these short eight-week terms, students following an accelerated format typically complete two courses in the first half of each term and two more courses in the second half.
Fast Criminal Justice Bachelor’s Degree Completion Programs
Naturally, if you have already completed some college coursework, you’re going to be able to earn your bachelor’s degree in criminal justice faster than if you were starting from scratch.
Some of the fastest criminal justice education programs are degree completion programs. These programs accept students who have already finished their associate degree or completed a minimum number of college credits, helping them bridge the gap between having some college education and having a full bachelor’s degree.
Some of the fastest criminal justice degree completion programs include:
- Norwich University‘s Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, which students of online learning can complete in 18 to 24 months
- King University‘s online criminal justice degree, for which the major requirements can be completed in as little as 16 months
- San Diego State University, which offers among its online programs a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice completion program that students can finish in as little as 15 months
- The University of Maine at Presque Isle‘s online criminal justice degree completion program, which students can finish in as little as 12 months
How Long Does It Take to Earn a Master’s in Criminal Justice Degree?
For some roles in criminal justice, it may be beneficial to earn a master’s degree. This graduate-level degree typically includes at least 30 college credits, although some master’s degree programs encompass as many as 60 college credits. Although master’s degrees have traditionally required a thesis based on research, many master’s in criminal justice programs today are tailored toward professional practice and don’t require a thesis.
In addition to pursuing criminal justice master’s degrees, students with a background in this field might pursue graduate degrees and graduate certificates in related areas of study. For example, criminal justice graduates who want to become forensic science technicians might enroll in master’s degree programs in forensic science or forensic investigation.
One-Year Master of Science in Criminology: The University of Pennsylvania
The criminology master’s degree program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA, is a versatile option that can prepare you for research, doctoral study and professional practice in government and nonprofit roles in criminal justice. Coursework includes criminology in practice, evidence-based methods of crime prevention, research methods in crime analysis, data analytics for criminal justice professionals and quantitative methods for public policy.
One-Year Master of Science in Administration of Justice: Wilmington University
Wilmington University in New Castle, DE, offers 100% online programs of study at the master’s level, including its MS in Administration of Justice degree. Students complete 12 courses, including core coursework in criminological theory, criminal justice ethics, research methods in criminal justice, technology for modern policing and managing diversity. Specializations in the areas of criminal behavior, homeland security and leadership and administration are available.
One-Year Master’s Dual-Degree Programs
At several colleges and universities, early planners can start working on their graduate degree while still enrolled as undergraduates and complete their criminal justice master’s degree programs faster. Often called dual-degree or “4+1” programs, these accelerated programs allow students to finish both their bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and their master’s degree in a total of five years instead of spending six (or more) years earning both degrees.
Typically, 4+1 programs work by allowing senior undergraduate students to enroll in graduate-level courses that count toward both their bachelor’s and master’s degree requirements. Students in these dual-degree programs are actually taking fewer classes than they would if pursuing both degrees separately, which means they’re saving money as well as time – and they often pay undergraduate tuition for the graduate-level courses they take during their senior year of study.
Some of the colleges and universities that offer 4+1 dual-degree criminal justice programs include:
- Lewis University
- Rutgers University
- Arizona State University
- Marshall University
- Saint Joseph’s University
How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctoral Degree in Criminal Justice?
Doctoral study takes time, because it usually includes original research and the writing of a lengthy doctoral dissertation. On average, earning a PhD in any subject takes students nearly six years, according to U.S. News & World Report. Some PhD students take as long as eight years to earn their doctoral degrees.
Fortunately, doctoral programs in criminal justice tend to be somewhat shorter. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, doctoral students typically complete their criminal justice degree programs, including their dissertation, in four years.
Doctoral degrees are overkill for most criminal justice careers. Unless you want to work in research or academia, a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree is sufficient education for most criminal justice career path options.
One exception is the Juris Doctor degree required to become a lawyer. Law schools typically award this professional degree upon completion of a three-year curriculum. However, some accelerated options exist for aspiring attorneys. For example, Southern Illinois University offers a dual-degree program through which students can earn both an undergraduate degree in criminology and criminal justice and a Juris Doctor degree from the SIU School of Law in a total of just six years of study.