Do you want to investigate federal crimes, conduct research in criminality and criminal law or otherwise work in criminal justice administration? A criminal justice master’s program may be exactly what you need to attain your dream career.

Studying criminal justice makes sense for students interested in advancing in or breaking into a wide variety of jobs in the criminal justice field. Our school rankings below highlight the 10 best criminal justice master’s degree programs

criminal justice work experience

If you are considering applying to a criminal justice master’s program, our school rankings resource below can help you answer your questions and allow you to explore some of the best on-campus and online criminal justice master’s degree programs out there.

RELATED: 50 Top Criminal Justice Degree Scholarships

Careers in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice master’s graduates can go on to work in any role in or related to criminal justice systems and related areas like emergency management and homeland security. Probation officers, police officers and detectives, emergency management directors, social services workers and scholarly researchers are just a few of the career paths open to graduates of master’s-level programs in criminal justice. 

Many criminal justice professionals work in law enforcement agencies and other government agencies. These careers range from police officers and detectives in local and state police departments and forensic science technicians to agent roles in the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal government agencies.

A criminal justice professional may also work in other areas of criminal justice systems, like corrections, rehabilitation and re-integration of convicted criminals who have served their sentences. Some criminal justice graduates work in more academic or research-focused roles, in which they conduct research into criminal behavior, often with the goal of working toward crime prevention.

A master’s degree in criminal justice opens up a broad array of career paths. This education qualifies students for career opportunities in government agencies ranging from the local level to the federal levels, as well as in nonprofit organizations and even some private businesses.  

The Benefits of Earning a Criminal Justice Degree

Opportunities for Career Advancement

You generally don’t need a master’s degree for many roles in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. A master’s degree in criminal justice isn’t required to work as a police officer, a probation officer or a forensic science technician. However, if you want to move up into higher-level roles in the law enforcement and criminal justice job market, a graduate education may be valuable. Professionals working in roles in criminal justice administration and management often have a more advanced education.

If you find that you gravitate more toward academic and research-focused roles than work in law enforcement and other careers involved in the criminal justice process, having a graduate education may be more crucial. For example, you may need advanced knowledge of criminological theory and the design and methods used for research if you want to devote your career to analyzing criminal justice policy, criminal behavior and evidence-based methods of crime prevention. For careers in this field, a criminal justice master’s program, or even a doctorate, may be a necessity.

With the opportunity for advancement comes the opportunity to improve your earning potential. In the highest-paying job roles in the field, senior-level supervisors, managers and administrators can earn thousands, and even tens of thousands, of dollars more than workers in lower-level criminal justice roles.

RELATED: What Salary Can You Expect With a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice?

Advanced Criminal Justice Studies

A degree in criminal justice prepares students for a variety of criminal justice jobs by imparting to them advanced knowledge of the theories of criminal justice and their applications. Often, students explore specialized topics of study in the course of their master’s degree studies.

criminal justice master's program

What exactly can you expect to study in a master’s program in the criminal justice field? Typically, students explore more advanced foundations of criminality, criminology, criminal justice policy analysis, crime prevention and the trends and patterns in crime. Students examine the theoretical aspects of the criminal justice system through classes in correctional theory, advanced criminological theory and administrative theory. Often, students learn about the techniques used to research and analyze crime, criminal behavior and issues in the criminal justice process and the court system.

Different traditional and online criminal justice master’s programs may focus on different aspects of the field. Some programs emphasize leadership and administration, preparing students for leadership positions in law enforcement and the court system. In other programs that award master’s or doctoral degrees, most students are interested in conducting research in areas like crime prevention, restorative justice, public policy analysis and behavioral science. Still programs prepare students to study specific types of crime or populations of people who engage in criminal activities.

Areas of specialization in a master’s in criminal justice program include legal perspectives, social justice, victimization and victim advocacy, law enforcement and criminal behavior analysis. Many graduate criminal justice programs require a capstone project or course near the end of the curriculum, and some programs require a thesis. Some criminal justice students must take a comprehensive exam to complete their degree requirements. 

What Do You Need to Get Into a Master’s in Criminal Justice Program?

Each master’s in criminal justice program establishes its own requirements for admission, and some schools are more selective than others. In general, though, most criminal justice schools look for prospective students who have a bachelor’s degree with a strong grade point average, competitive scores on graduate admissions tests, letters of recommendation, professional work experience in the field of criminal justice and a personal statement.

Prospective students should research all of the schools in which they are interested, paying special attention to admissions requirements as well as curricula, opportunities for specialization and whether the school or program offers more in terms of research or professional practice. At some criminal justice schools, applicants are assigned their own enrollment counselor to help them determine if they meet admissions requirements and answer any questions about the application process.

A Bachelor’s Degree

Generally, you can’t start graduate school until you provide official transcripts showing that you finished your undergraduate studies by earning a bachelor’s degree. Generally, earning a bachelor’s degree requires students to complete 120 credits of college-level courses.

What major do you need for a criminal justice master’s program? Naturally, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is a good choice for any student aspiring to work in a field like law enforcement administration or in the criminal justice system. Studying criminal justice at the bachelor’s degree level gives you an opportunity to start building the basics early and then gain relevant work experience before setting off for graduate school.

However, graduate programs in this field often accept students outside of criminal justice majors. Some master’s in criminal justice degree programs only require that students have a baccalaureate or bachelor’s degree and don’t specify any certain courses of study. Other criminal justice master’s degrees are only open to students with a bachelor’s in criminal justice or in a related area like administration, paralegal studies, psychology, criminology, or other social sciences.

Generally, the reason students may have to have a certain educational background to be accepted into some criminal justice graduate programs is so that they will have enough of a foundation upon which to build graduate-level knowledge of theory and applications. A criminal justice master’s program may have certain prerequisites that students must meet regardless of what the title of their undergraduate college major was. Some of the more common prerequisites for a criminal justice master’s program include coursework in research methods and statistics, criminological theory, institutional and community corrections and law enforcement.

If you have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, you are on the path to being able to apply to just about any master’s in criminal justice program. On the other hand, if your bachelor’s degree is in a different field, you may have to limit your graduate school search to programs that don’t have specific prerequisites or undergraduate major requirements.

The grades you earned as you worked toward your bachelor’s degree matter when it comes to applying for graduate school. Master’s degree programs will typically look at applicants’ grade point average (GPA) and their undergraduate college transcript. Generally, applicants for graduate school need at least a 3.0 GPA, although some schools require a higher minimum GPA. Having a GPA approaching 3.5 or higher gives you a better chance of being accepted into your preferred program of study.

Graduate Admissions Test Scores

Graduate school has a reputation for being difficult to get into, and one reason for this perception is that test scores are often required for entry. The most common graduate admissions test used for master’s in criminal justice degree programs is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test.

The GRE General Test measures a test-taker’s skills in verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. The more competitive your GRE scores, the more these test scores can help your application to graduate school. That said, most master’s in criminal justice degree programs view test scores as just one part of the student’s overall application package. Having exceptional test scores won’t get you into graduate school if the rest of your application is lacking, and having so-so test scores may not hurt your chances for admission as much as you would think, as long as your application is strong in other ways.

RELATED: Which Master’s Programs Under the Heading of Criminology Do or Don’t Require the GRE?

A fair number of graduate school programs still require students to submit GRE scores, and some schools and programs may even have a minimum score that they consider for admission. However, more and more schools and programs are dropping graduate admissions testing requirements. If you didn’t perform at the level you had hoped on the GRE, or if you’re reluctant to take the exam at all, you can narrow your school search to programs that don’t require test scores.

Another test schools may look for outside of the GRE is the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). This test assesses test-takers’ abilities in critical and analytical thinking and is much shorter than the GRE, taking just one hour compared to the three hours and forty-five minutes it takes to complete the GRE. Additionally, a criminal justice master’s program may require non-native English speakers who are applying to study at an English-speaking institution for the first time to take the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam.

Recommendations

Grades and test scores can tell graduate school admissions personnel if you’re likely to be able to handle the rigors of graduate-level coursework, but these quantitative pieces of data can leave out critical information about you. Schools often ask students to submit at least one or two recommendation letters – and sometimes more – from people who know the student well enough to speak to the attributes that aren’t always obvious from grades and test scores.

Generally, recommendations are best when they come from someone who knows you in an academic or a relevant professional capacity. For example, an instructor in whose class you excelled as an undergraduate student or a supervisor who managed you when you were an entry-level criminal justice professional can share valuable insight into your passion for the work, your intellectual curiosity, your work ethic, your ability to take initiative and many other qualities.

Professional Experience

In criminal justice, as in other fields of study, master’s degree programs may be intended for different student populations. For some master’s in criminal justice degrees, relevant professional experience in the field is a necessity. This requirement is particularly common in programs designed for working professionals and programs tailored to the needs of law enforcement leaders. The types of work that may count as experience for criminal justice professionals applying to graduate school include law enforcement careers, paralegal jobs and forensic science technician roles.

law enforcement

The reason a criminal justice master’s program may require experience is so that students start graduate school with the foundation needed to understand and excel at the advanced coursework required at this level of study. A criminal justice master’s program intended specifically for a student body that consists of trained and experienced police officers can assume a level of foundational knowledge that students without work experience are unlikely to have. On the other hand, if a program teaches students from all academic and professional backgrounds to become criminal justice professionals, it probably incorporates more foundational coursework into the curriculum than a program that has numerous prerequisites and professional experience requirements would.

Not all master’s in criminal justice degree programs require students to have considerable professional experience before enrolling in graduate school. In fact, some programs – especially those meant for career changers – give students the opportunity to start building their professional experience as part of their graduate school curriculum through internships and other field placements.

Some criminal justice schools even offer an accelerated “4+1” program structure that allows undergraduate students to start working toward their master’s in criminal justice degree as they earn their bachelor’s degree. Obviously, these options won’t require years of professional experience working in a role that requires a college degree.

A Personal Statement or Essay

An important part of your graduate school application is the personal statement you write and submit with your application. In a personal statement for a master’s in criminal justice degree program, you will discuss topics like your preparation for this graduate degree program and your goals and how earning your master’s degree will help you achieve them.

You may be asked to provide a resume or C.V. along with your application already or to enter into your application any relevant work experience, volunteer experience or extracurricular activities. As such, your essay does more than list what you have done and instead highlights what efforts, achievements and goals make you a good fit for the program.

A personal essay is important, but it doesn’t have to be long. Often, a personal essay is only 1,000 words, 500 words or even just 200 words. Every word counts when you’re trying to show that you deserve a spot in the degree program and that you will put your education to good use after you graduate.

Can You Earn an Online Criminal Justice Master’s Degree?

Online programs are more widely available than ever, which is good news for students who prefer distance-learning formats. Many institutions, including several of the schools on this list, offer an online master’s in criminal justice degree program.

Online students enjoy more convenience and, in many cases, flexibility than students enrolled in a traditional criminal justice master’s program. Not only do they not have to commute to campus – or, if studying far from home, uproot their lives entirely – but online students can often complete their studies on their schedule instead of following a strict course schedule with set meeting times. This flexibility is ideal for working criminal justice professionals, such as police officers who may have to work overnight shifts and probation officers who may be on call.

An online master’s in criminal justice degree program typically prepares online students for many of the same careers as a traditional, campus-based program. One thing to know about online master’s in criminal justice degree programs is that many of them are non-thesis programs. Online students are likely to have less of an emphasis on research in the criminal justice field and fewer opportunities to participate in hands-on research, although most online programs do include some research-focused coursework, such as classes in quantitative methods of research and the application of statistical analysis.

RELATED: What Classes Will I Take in a Criminal Justice Degree?

Prospective students should know that online programs aren’t easy, even if you can complete them from the convenience of your home and the comfort of your pajamas. Succeeding in an online master’s in criminal justice degree program requires plenty of dedication and self-discipline. The coursework in these online programs is similar to that found in a campus-based graduate program, and online students have to complete the rigorous, advanced coursework found at the graduate level without the direct, face-to-face interactions with faculty members that students in traditional programs have.

Even though flexibility is an important part of why students choose online master’s in criminal justice programs, it’s important for online students to develop a plan that allows them to focus on their studies and to promptly reach out for help if they feel that they are struggling or falling behind. Some schools that offer online programs also have resources that help online students succeed, including online library access, IT services, writing tutoring help, career services and counseling services.

The Top Criminal Justice Master Programs

We have compiled the following school rankings based on our extensive research into traditional and online criminal justice master’s degree programs nationwide.

1. Florida State University

Florida State UniversityFor a fantastic education in criminal justice that offers students plenty of options, consider applying to Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL. The university’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice offers both an on-campus and an online master’s in criminal justice program. The 33-credit program of study can be completed as either a Master of Science in criminal justice or a Master of Arts in criminal justice that emphasizes coursework in the humanities and proficiency in a foreign language. Additionally, students can opt for a thesis or non-thesis (course work only) format.

The master’s in criminal justice curriculum at FSU includes criminology and criminal justice theory, a survey course on criminological theory and a survey of criminological studies. Other required courses include statistics and research methods for criminal justice.

Electives make up about half of the graduate-level curriculum. Students must complete a minimum of nine credit hours in criminology and criminal justice electives, plus another six to nine credits within or outside the major program. Potential elective options may include juvenile justice, victimology, ecology of crime, prevention of crime and delinquency, crimes of the powerful, current issues in police and society, data analysis and crime and justice matters pertaining to gender, race and ethnicity. Fieldwork opportunities, including a field practice in criminology or a criminal justice practicum, are also available as an elective part of the curriculum.

Florida State University is home to both the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research and the Institute for the Prevention of Financial Fraud. The school boasts prestigious faculty members with numerous scholarly publications, the second-largest chapter of the Lambda Alpha Epsilon professional law enforcement fraternity in the nation, opportunities to get involved with the American Society of Criminology and a partnership with the Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Academy through which Florida students can pursue their studies and their State Officer Certifications simultaneously.

In addition to the traditional (online or on-campus) criminal justice master’s degree program, the school offers a one-year Master of Science in Criminology, a Master of Science in Cyber Criminology and a highly regarded doctoral program. Joint graduate pathways are available in the areas of social work and public administration.

Tuition Costs:

As of 2022, graduate tuition costs for Florida State University students studying on the main campus were $479.32 per credit hour for in-state students and $1,110.72 per credit hour for out-of-state students. Distance-learning tuition rates ranged from $444.26 per credit in-state to $1,075.66 per credit out-of-state.

Full-time students enrolled in nine credits per semester over two semesters per year, paid annual tuition rates of $8,627.76 in-state or $19,992.96 out-of-state. In-state students studying online could expect to pay $7,996.68 in tuition, while out-of-state students would be looking at tuition costs of $19,361.88 for the year.

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2. Arizona State University

Arizona State University

Arizona State University in Phoenix, AZ, offers both a Master of Arts in criminal justice and a Master of Science in Criminology and Criminal Justice program. The MA option is an online master’s degree program, while the MS degree is offered at the downtown Phoenix campus. Both the MA and the MS degrees in criminal justice are 33-credit programs.

To earn the online MA degree in criminal justice, students at Arizona State University must complete five core courses. These required classes include two courses in theory and research on crime and the criminal justice system, Seminar in Criminal Justice and Seminar in Criminology. Other core coursework for the degree includes two courses in the category of conducting research and analytical techniques – applied data analysis in criminal justice and criminal justice planning and program evaluation – and a capstone course titled Theory and Practice in Criminal Justice.

Students’ 18 credits of elective coursework may cover topics in corrections, policing, homeland security, sex crimes and criminal justice theory. This online program is available in an accelerated format that features 7.5-week course terms and year-round start dates. Full-time students complete the program in as little as 18 months.

The MS criminal justice program at ASU is a better option for students considering a PhD program in the future due to its stronger focus on research. However, the program can be tailored toward research or professional practice and may culminate in either a thesis or a capstone paper. Like students pursuing the MA, students in the MS program complete seminars in both criminal justice and criminology. However, their other required core courses include research methods for criminal justice, statistical tools used in criminology and criminal justice and advanced statistical analysis.

Master of Science students at ASU must also take at least two systems courses, which may cover topics like policing, corrections, and courts and sentencing. Students who opt not to write a thesis must instead take the capstone course. To round out their coursework, students in the MS program take six to 12 credits of elective courses.

ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice has consistently been ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report, with its criminology doctoral program ranked second in the nation and its online master’s degree in criminal justice ranked seventh for 2022. With 26 tenured and tenure-track instructors, 20 research professors and lecturers and 58 faculty associates educating 38 PhD students, 287 master’s students and 2,530 undergraduate students, the school bills itself as “one of the largest criminology and criminal justice faculties” nationwide.

Students can also pursue a Master of Science in crime analysis, a doctoral degree in criminology and criminal justice, and graduate certificates in topics like corrections management, crime analysis, homeland security and law enforcement administration.

Tuition Costs:

For on-campus graduate students, tuition for the 2021 through 2022 school year is $11,720 for in-state students and $23,544 for out-of-state students. For online MA in criminal justice students, the tuition cost for the 2021 through 2022 year is $11,782.

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3. Michigan State University

Michigan State University

Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, offers numerous master’s degree options – both online and in-person – that are of interest to those working in the criminal justice arena. The School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University is part of the institution’s College of Social Science and brings together interdisciplinary coursework to create a curriculum that continues to earn accolades year after year.

The online and on-campus Master of Arts criminal justice degree programs both require 30 credits of coursework in topics like criminal justice management and crime causation and prevention. The elective course offerings for criminal justice graduate students at Michigan State University are robust and diverse. Whether you’re interested in intelligence and counterterrorism, product counterfeiting, security management and administration or advanced topics in policing, there’s bound to be an elective course that fits your career goals.

Research is an important part of the master’s in criminal justice program at Michigan State University. Even for students who decide to pursue the non-thesis format, coursework in quantitative research methods and design and analysis in criminal justice research is required.

Other programs to consider are the master’s degree in forensic science and the online-only master’s degree in cybercrime and digital investigation and master’s degree in law enforcement intelligence and analysis. Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice has the longest continuous history of granting criminal justice degrees of all institutions nationwide.

Tuition Costs:

Online tuition for the Master of Arts in criminal justice degree at Michigan State University is $784.00 per credit hour in 2022, which translates to $13,464 for a year of full-time study (nine credit hours per semester over two semesters) or $23,520 for the entire degree.

For graduate students pursuing an on-campus master’s degree, per-credit rates for 2022 are $817.25 for residents and $1,605.75 for non-residents. Over the course of a year of full-time graduate study, that amounts to $14,710.50 in-state or $28,903.50 0ut-of-state.

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4. East Carolina University

East Carolina University

Students looking for an online master’s in criminal justice program should consider applying to East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. This fully online master’s program in criminal justice boasts an award-winning faculty, offers funded graduate research assistantships to make graduate school more affordable and does not impose a GRE requirement, so there are fewer obstacles in the way of getting started.

In their core coursework for this 36-credit program, students complete coursework in criminal behavior and the principles of criminal justice and of criminal justice management and administration. Research is also an important part of the curriculum. Additional required classes include research methods and statistical interpretation in criminal justice and the application of qualitative and quantitative research methods to the evaluation of criminal justice programs.

East Carolina University is a great choice for students who really want to tailor their education to specific interests. More than half of a student’s coursework in the master’s in criminal justice program at this institution consists of electives in the major, which means that students have plenty of flexibility to customize their curriculum.

In choosing their elective courses, graduate students might consider classes in corrections, law enforcement, criminal justice courts, juvenile justice, civil liability in criminal justice and ethics and diversity issues in criminal justice. If you are interested in the research and academia side of the field, you might choose to study criminal justice education or criminal justice and society. Other possible electives for graduate students at Eastern Carolina University include studies in criminal justice and terrorism, international crime, hate crimes and victimology.

East Carolina University’s master’s in criminal justice degree is a non-thesis program but requires the completion of a professional paper in which students, under the guidance of a faculty mentor, complete an independent analysis of a problem in the criminal justice field. Aside from its fully online Master of Science in criminal justice program, East Carolina University also offers a graduate certificate in criminal justice education and, through the school’s department of political science, certificates in both security studies and public management and leadership.

Tuition Costs:

During the 2020 through 2021 academic year, graduate students of criminal justice paid an in-state tuition rate of $4,478 and an out-of-state tuition rate of $16,080.

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5. University of the Cumberlands

University of the Cumberlands

A private institution that was founded by Baptists in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in 1888 and still maintains its Christian affiliation today offers one of the best fully online master’s in criminal justice programs around. The University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, KY, was ranked seventh in the nation among online master’s in criminal justice programs by U.S. News & World Report for 2022. Students who pursue the program in an accelerated format can finish the 31-credit degree in as little as 12 months.

The curriculum of the Master of Science in Justice Administration (MJA) degree program consists of 18 credits of core courses, 12 credits of coursework on two areas of specialization (of the student’s choosing) and a 1-credit capstone project. The required coursework for this degree includes classes in the foundations of justice administration, ethical issues in justice administration, legal issues in justice administration and criminological theory in justice administration.

Core courses in the area of research methods encompass a class in statistical applications in justice administration and a course in research, design and analysis in crime and criminal justice organization administration. Other required courses in leadership fundamentals and human resources management as they pertain to the criminal justice field.

To meet their specialization course requirements, students must complete two courses in two different areas of specialization. There are 10 different specialization options for students to choose from, each with its own course requirements. For example, students who choose the juvenile justice specialization study juvenile justice administration and management as well as family violence. The investigations specialization encompasses classes in the crimes and psychology of violent offenders and in the myths and motives that pertain to sex crimes. In the addiction studies specialization, students complete studies in addiction and the offender population and in addiction recovery and relapse.

In addition to the MJA program, the University of the Cumberlands also offers an online criminal justice management certificate that consists of four graduate-level courses.

Tuition Costs:

For online master’s degree programs at the University of the Cumberlands, the per-credit tuition cost for the 2021 through 2022 school year was $315. Assuming a full-time course load of nine credits per semester and two semesters per year, students can expect to pay just $5,670 in tuition for a year of graduate study at this institution.

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6. University of Central Florida

University of Central Florida

At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL, the graduate-level criminal justice program leads to a Master of Science degree. Officially, the degree program is offered “primarily online,” with limited options for in-person courses, but some criminal justice electives at the graduate level may be offered only in person, not online.

In this 36-credit master’s degree program, which includes both thesis and non-thesis options, students complete core coursework in the nature of crime, policy and data analysis in criminal justice, the administration of justice and the research methods applied in the field of criminal justice. A capstone course is required.

Areas of study students may choose in the form of restricted electives include the foundations of law enforcement and corrections, law and social control, American criminal courts and juvenile justice. Possible elective courses in the field of criminal justice include data management systems for analyzing crime, professionalism in criminal justice organizations, leadership and ethics in criminal justice work, advanced research methods, copycat crime and perspectives on genocide.

As one of the most popular departments in the university, the Department of Criminal Justice, part of the College of Community Innovation and Education, graduates a total of more than 450 students per year. Criminal justice students at the University of Central Florida may participate in organizations like the Lambda Alpha Epsilon professional law enforcement fraternity and the Alpha Phi Sigma Honor Society. U.S. News & World Report ranked the University of Central Florida 11th in the nation among master’s in criminal justice programs.

For students interested in doctoral study, the University of Central Florida offers a Doctor of Philosophy in Criminal Justice. Students can also pursue graduate certificates in the areas of Juvenile Justice, Crime Analysis, Criminal Justice Executive Leadership, Police Leadership and Corrections Leadership. Of particular interest is the dual master’s degree in criminal justice and public administration, which awards both a Master of Science in criminal justice and a Master of Public Administration and prepares students for leadership, policy and research roles.

Tuition Costs:

For the traditional on-campus master’s in criminal justice program at the University of Central Florida, in-state students pay $369.65 per credit hour, and out-of-state students pay $1,194.05 per credit hour. Students pursuing the online master in criminal justice degree pay slightly discounted tuition rates of $327.32 per credit in-state or $1,151.72 per credit out-of-state.

Assuming a full-time course load of nine credits per semester and two semesters per year, in-state students would pay $6,653.70 for in-person study and $5,891.76 for online study. Out-of-state students could expect to pay $21,492.9o per year if studying in person or $20,730.96 per year if studying online.

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7. Sam Houston State University

Sam Houston State University

Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, offers half a dozen master’s degree programs in the general area of criminal justice, including both general and specialized content and both online and on-campus formats. Additionally, the longstanding public university ranked well on U.S. News & World Report’s list of both the best online master’s in criminal justice schools and the best criminology schools, placing second among online master’s programs in 2022 and 15th among all criminology programs in 2021.

Specialized master’s degrees offered through Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice include forensic science, homeland security studies and victim services management. A Master of Science degree in criminal justice leadership and management, offered online and in-person on weekends, prepares students for work in management roles within criminal justice organizations.

The most general degree options for graduate students at Sam Houston State University are the Master of Science in criminal justice and the Master of Arts in criminal justice and criminology. The online MS in criminal justice program is a non-thesis program that includes core coursework in criminal justice organization and administration, critical analysis of justice administration, program evaluation in criminal justice, emergent issues in criminal justice leadership and research methods for criminal justice. Additionally, students must take a course in either ethics in criminal justice work or communication theory as it pertains to justice administration, as well as elective courses.

The Master of Arts in Criminal Justice and Criminology degree at Sam Houston State University is a campus-based 36-credit program that prepares students for professional practice in the criminal justice field or for further study in the form of a PhD. A thesis is required, and the curriculum focuses more heavily on research than the online MS program does, encompassing coursework in research methods and a sequence of classes in statistics for criminal justice research. Other required courses for this degree program include critical analysis of justice administration, perspectives in criminology and legal aspects of the criminal justice system.

In addition to undergraduate offerings and its criminal justice master’s programs, Sam Houston State University also offers PhD programs in both criminal justice and forensic science.

Tuition Costs:

Sam Houston State University charges a per-semester tuition rate based on the number of semester hours a student is taking. For the 2021 through 2022 academic year, graduate tuition rates for nine semester hours of coursework were $4,332.65 per semester for in-state students, or $8,665.30 for the year (spring and fall semesters). Out-of-state students would pay $8,004.65 per term, or $16,009.30 per year, for the same number of semester hours.

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8. California State University—San Bernardino

California State University—San Bernardino

The California State University system is a large and well-respected public university system, and multiple of the school’s 23 campuses offer exceptional master’s in criminal justice programs. U.S. News & World Report ranked California State University—San Bernardino as 34th among the best online master’s in criminal justice programs in 2022. Additionally, U.S. News & World Report has ranked California State University—Long Beach 41st among the best online master’s programs.

At California State University—San Bernardino, the interdisciplinary Master of Arts in criminal justice program includes both thesis and non-thesis tracks. Required coursework in the 34-credit program includes criminal justice or corrections, the application of criminological theory to criminal justice work, the planning and evaluation of criminal justice programs and research and literature in criminal justice. Students will also cover statistical analysis and advanced techniques of basic and applied research as they pertain to the field of criminal justice.

Students in California State University—San Bernardino also complete three electives of their choice, which may include topics such as terrorism, homeland security, transnational organized crime, intelligence and crime analysis, crime in public spaces, life course criminality and trends and patterns in criminal and victim populations. Students on a non-thesis track complete additional electives and take a comprehensive exam.

California State University—San Bernardino is also home to two research centers that are relevant to the field of criminal justice: the Center for Criminal Justice Research (CCJR) and the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism.

Tuition Costs:

For the 2021 through 2022 school year, the resident tuition rate for graduate students at California State University—San Bernardino was $3,588.00 per semester if taking at least six units of coursework, or $7,176 for the year (fall and spring terms).

For non-resident students, the tuition rate was $396 per unit on top of what residents pay. Thus, a non-resident student would pay $11,928 to take six units of coursework for both terms. If the non-resident student were taking nine units per semester, they would be looking at a tuition rate of $14,304.

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9. Boston University

Boston University

The graduate-level criminal justice program offerings at Boston University have a lot to offer: a completion time as short as eight months, three possible areas of specialization to choose from and a strong reputation overall. U.S. News & World Report ranked Boston University fourth among the best online criminal justice master’s programs for 2022.

Boston University’s Master of Science in criminal justice program teaches students the essentials of graduate-level education in this field. Students can study online or on campus. Of the 32-credit program, 16 credits are devoted to core courses in criminal justice administration and ethics, criminology and crime policy, research and evaluation methods for the criminal justice field and applied analytical methods for criminal justice research. The remaining half of the program focuses on students’ interests.

Among students who opt not to pursue an area of specialization, further coursework consists of elective courses that may range from youth crime problems and rehabilitation and re-integration to victimology, forensic behavior analysis and trauma and crisis intervention. Students who choose an area of specialization take fewer electives, instead devoting some of their non-core credits to their concentration area. The three areas of specialization open to students in Boston University’s master’s in criminal justice program are crime analysis, strategic management and cybercrime investigation and security.

The crime analysis specialization requires coursework in crime and intelligence analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) and Spatial Analysis, as well as classes in data science with Python programming language, the foundations of machine learning, and similar topics. Students in the strategic management specialization study public emergency management and criminal justice policy and planning. When studying cybercrime investigation and security, students complete coursework in the major theories in cybercrime and in applied digital forensic investigation.

Boston University also offers graduate-level certificates in criminal justice, crime analysis, strategic management in criminal justice and cybercrime investigation and cybersecurity.

Tuition Costs:

For the 2022 through 2023 academic year, tuition rates for Boston University’s Metropolitan College, out of which the MS in criminal justice degree is offered, full-time students pay $30,525 per semester, or $61,050.00 per year (fall and spring terms). Part-time students pay $520.00 per credit when taking courses numbered 599 or below (as several graduate courses, including core coursework for the major, are) and $955.00 per credit when taking courses number 600 and above. In-state and out-of-state students at Boston University pay the same tuition rates, depending on whether they studying part-time or full-time. 

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10. University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA, is a research university, so it’s not surprising that the institution’s Master of Science in Criminology is a research-focused program.

The small, selective program from the Department of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences requires coursework in criminology in practice, criminal justice data analytics, research methods for crime analysis, quantitative methods in sociology and evidence-based crime prevention. This program requires a thesis in the form of an oral and written presentation on a crime analysis project.

Naturally, the University of Pennsylvania also offers a PhD program in criminology. Students can also choose from dual-degree master’s programs in criminal justice and law, social work or government administration.

Tuition Costs:

For the 2020 through 2021 school year, graduate tuition for master’s degrees in the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences was $27,597 per term (fall or spring) and covered up to four courses. For the year, graduate students in these programs could expect to spend $55,194 in tuition costs.

View program details.

Starting Your Criminal Justice School Search

Launching a graduate school search can be intimidating. You can look at school rankings like ours and scout out faculty members’ credentials and research contributions. Other important factors to consider are whether a program offers (and whether you need) options for part-time and full-time study and the cost and value (counting financial aid) of a degree program.

Part-Time, Full-Time and Accelerated Options

Full-time students finish their studies faster, but many professionals working in the field of criminal justice aren’t able to commit to full-time learning. Fortunately, several top schools for criminal justice master’s degrees offer a variety of study formats and program structures to meet students’ needs.

Full-time students often take three or more graduate-level courses per term, two terms per year, to complete a master’s degree in two years. Some full-time students prefer an accelerated format in which they complete fewer courses at a time during multiple short terms instead of traditional fall or spring semesters. An accelerated option may also mean taking on a heavier course load than typical full-time students take at the graduate level. Accelerated formats allow students to graduate faster than the typical two years it takes to finish a master’s degree, sometimes in as little as eight to 12 months.

Part-time students take a lighter course load than full-time students. Often, they are working professionals or stay-at-home parents or caretakers whose other obligations prevent them from devoting regular business hours to their education. Part-time criminal justice master’s students may attend classes in person on evenings and weekends, or they may choose online programs with asynchronous formats that allow students to complete coursework on their own schedule.

Any progress toward your degree counts, regardless of whether you’re able to enroll as a full-time or part-time student. Before you choose a school for a master’s program in criminal justice, you should consider what learning format and structure is right for you.

Cost, Value and Financial Aid

The cost of an education can really add up, so it’s important for prospective students of both traditional and online programs to look at tuition rates and other fees when choosing a degree program. However, students should also weigh the financial aid that will be available to them and the value of their education.

Going to the most prestigious (but expensive) school you can find may not be a wise decision in this career field unless that institution offers something special – like a research center, an area of specialization or field placements and recruiting opportunities with high-profile government agencies. Otherwise, a less expensive institution with regional distinction and a solid curriculum may help you achieve the same career results without the steep price tag.

The “sticker” cost of an education isn’t always what your degree will actually cost you. For one thing, tuition rates, including those listed in our ranking above, aren’t the only costs to consider. Other college costs include mandatory fees, textbooks and course materials and potentially room and board.

For many graduate students, though, the real cost of college can actually be less than the tuition rate. This is because financial aid packages, including federal financial aid, can reduce the cost of attendance. Financial aid for graduate students ranges from scholarships and loans to graduate assistantships in which students work in exchange for stipends and tuition waivers. An admissions advisor may be able to help you figure out what kind of financial aid may be available to you and what costs you can expect to pay for your graduate education.

Related Resources: 

Highest Paying Degrees in Criminal Justice – Majors & Careers

What Are the Fastest Schools to Earn a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice?

How Fast Can I Earn a Degree in Criminal Justice?

Are There Different Graduate Degrees in Criminal Justice?