Online Master's Degree in Criminal Justice

If you are interested in helping your community or making the world a safer place, you might consider a career in criminal justice. Criminal justice professionals address issues like terrorism, cybercrime, and community violence. They typically work in local, state, and federal law enforcement.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment in protective service occupations will grow 5% between 2016 and 2026. Many of these positions require advanced training in research, statistical analysis, and technological applications. An online master’s degree in criminal justice can help you obtain high-level jobs in investigation, administration, and forensics. Graduates gain more opportunities for advancement and earn higher salaries than their counterparts with only a bachelor’s or associate degree.

All criminal justice programs analyze the structure and function of law enforcement systems. Most programs feature coursework in statistics, crime prevention, and administration. The best online criminal justice degrees prepare students for a broad range of careers, including law enforcement, corrections, legal studies, and public policy. They may culminate in an internship, capstone project, or thesis.

When selecting an online master's degree in criminal justice, consider your personal interests, professional goals, and academic needs. Many programs feature specializations in topics such as cybercrime, public administration, forensics, juvenile justice, and homeland security. Be sure to find a program with a concentration in your particular field.

Distance learners can save money on housing, transportation, parking, and other on-campus fees

The cost of an online criminal justice degree differs widely from school to school. Many schools charge a lower tuition rate for in-state students. While attending an out-of-state school may be more expensive, several programs offer a flat tuition rate regardless of state residency status. Distance learners can save money on housing, transportation, parking, and other on-campus fees. However, some online programs charge technology fees that do not apply to students enrolled in on-campus programs.

Delivery format can affect the cost and length of a master’s program. Most programs are available completely online. This flexible option suits self-motivated students, working professionals, new parents, and other busy individuals. Other programs follow a hybrid format, which is a combination of online and on-campus classes. Hybrid and on-campus programs provide a more structured experience and face-to-face interaction. However, these programs may take longer to complete than a fully online degree.

Curriculum for a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice

Online criminal justice degree programs usually cover the same set of core topics. However, specific courses, specializations, and degree requirements vary from between schools. Students may take classes in areas like behavioral criminal analysis, forensics, law enforcement, security, and terrorism. Most master’s programs emphasize statistical analysis and research design.

Example Courses

Introduction to Criminal Justice Systems This course provides a comprehensive overview of the functions, processes, and structures of the criminal justice system. The class surveys law enforcement, corrections, courts, and juvenile justice. Students also analyze the connections between different components of the criminal justice system. Learners discuss issues and challenges facing the U.S. criminal justice system.
Policing in Society This course examines how police function as agents of social control within contemporary societies. Topics include the development of policing as a profession, contemporary police organizations, community-based policing, problem-oriented policing, and current and future trends in law enforcement.
Introduction to Forensic Science This course examines current technologies used by forensic specialists, including procedures and methods for laboratory analysis. Learners study the recognition, collection, protection, documentation, and analysis of physical evidence. The class also discusses scientific techniques for processing crime scene evidence and new technologies gaining courtroom acceptance.
Cybercrime Cybercrime refers to criminal activity committed through digital technology and the internet. In this course, students learn how cybercrime challenges traditional approaches to law enforcement. Topics include electronic surveillance law, online fraud, and computer hacking. The course also addresses encryption, online economic espionage, and cyberterrorism.
Research and Statistical Methodology in Criminal Justice This class covers research methods and statistical techniques for criminal justice. Topics include research design, survey construction, data collection and analysis, hypothesis testing, and report writing. Students learn how to interpret and critique research findings in criminal justice publications. Students also learn how to evaluate criminal justice policies and programs.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online Master's in Criminal Justice?

An online master’s degree in criminal justice requires 33-36 credits, and most full-time students can complete the program in two years. Part-time students usually take two and a half to four years to earn a master’s degree. However, program length can vary based on a number of factors.

An internship or thesis may increase the amount of time it takes to finish a program. Working professionals or parents with young children may take longer to complete these requirements. Program format also affects length. Some online criminal justice degrees allow students to progress through coursework as quickly or slowly as they would like. Cohort programs, on the other hand, follow a predetermined schedule.

The BLS projects that employment in protective services will grow 5% by 2026. Certain positions, such as forensic science technician, are experiencing significantly higher growth. Other positions, such as corrections officers, are projected to lose positions.

Professionals with a criminal justice master’s degree hold numerous advantages. Advanced positions in criminal justice increasingly require specialized research, computer, and technical training. In recent years, government agencies like the FBI, CIA, and DEA have expanded employment for highly trained recruits. The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are also hiring agents at all levels. Private industries have created positions for security analysts, fraud examiners, and cybercrime specialists.

A master’s degree can also lead to higher compensation. Federal agents and police officers often receive a salary bump after they complete a master’s program. The degree also opens up high-level career prospects, including administrative and supervisory roles.

Online Master’s in Criminal Justice Careers

An online master’s degree in criminal justice can open up many rewarding careers in law enforcement, corrections, and public safety. The research and technological skills acquired in these graduate programs are increasingly in demand in the public and private sectors. Graduates may find positions with police departments, federal agencies, private companies, security firms, private detective agencies, and other employers.

Training Development Director

These professionals perform different functions depending on the business and the industry in which they work. General duties include developing and organizing employee training, aligning training with corporate goals, and monitoring industry trends and training needs. Many employers require a master’s and prefer candidates with experience in research and technology.

Police Chief

Police chiefs command police departments and districts. They plan and coordinate police response, work with communities to address safety concerns, and create plans to reduce crime in their district. Typically, police chiefs must have a degree in law enforcement or a related field. A master’s degree in criminal justice can lead to increased opportunities and higher salaries.

Probation Officer

These professionals help criminal offenders fulfill the conditions of their parole and avoid repeat incarceration. They attend court to discuss releasing clients from probation, increasing conditions for parole, and other topics. Candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field. Many probation officers seek out graduate work and advanced certifications.

Police Sergeant

Police sergeants oversee police officers, assign duties, and assist with investigations. They also relay orders from superiors to lower-level officers. Candidates must have extensive knowledge of law and police procedure. Police departments increasingly require a college degree for this position.

Federal Bureau of Investigations Agent

FBI agents collect evidence, conduct interviews, and arrest and detain persons suspected of criminal activity. FBI agents should have at least a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and some professional experience. A master’s degree can make applicants more competitive. Candidates must successfully pass the FBI’s rigorous training.
Occupations and Salary for Online Master’s in Criminal Justice Graduates
Job Title Overall Median Salary Entry-Level Employees Mid-Career Employees Late-Career Employees
Training Development Director $93,995 $67,529 $88,248 $113,063
Police Chief $71,352 $45,000 $56,000 $86,000
Probation Officer $40,768 $37,189 $42,229 $59,149
Police Sergeant $67,059 $53,000 $64,540 $78,484
FBI Agent $63,510 $59,808 $78,493 $97,000
Source: PayScale

Accreditation is one of the most important factors to consider when searching for an online master’s degree in criminal justice. Employers do not recognize unaccredited degrees, and students cannot usually transfer credits from unaccredited schools. Most master’s and doctoral programs only accept bachelor’s degrees from regionally accredited schools. The U.S. Department of Education provides a comprehensive list of all accredited institutions on its website.

Schools may receive either national or regional accreditation. Vocational, for-profit, and technical schools typically hold national accreditation. These schools often offer less rigorous admissions requirements and inexpensive tuition. Regional accreditation, on the other hand, requires higher professional and academic standards. Approximately 85% of colleges and universities receive regional accreditation.

In addition to regional or national accreditation, some schools receive specialized accreditation. This form of accreditation only applies to certain programs and degrees, usually in a particular subject. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences offers specialized accreditation for a few criminal justice programs throughout the U.S.

Even though online programs usually cost less than on-campus programs, they can still require a significant amount of money. Besides tuition, students have to budget for books, fees, and normal day-to-day expenses. Most students rely on a mix of government loans, work-study, scholarships, and grants to finance their education.

Before anything else, aspiring students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA can tell you which unsubsidized loans, subsidized loans, federal grants, and other awards you qualify for. The government offers many kinds of loans, including Perkins loans for low-income students and PLUS loans that cover unmet needs.

Some criminal justice graduates receive aid through loan forgiveness programs. Corrections and law enforcement officers may qualify for Perkins loan forgiveness. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program provides a way for law enforcement personnel and other public servants to reduce the balance on their direct loans.

Many professional associations, agencies, and local governments offer occupation-specific criminal justice scholarships. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners sponsors students interested in fraud examination. You may also find grants specifically for underrepresented populations, military personnel, veterans, and other groups.

Criminal Justice Scholarships

Whether you choose an on-campus or online criminal justice degree, there are many scholarship opportunities available to you. Professional associations, educational organizations, and private foundations offer scholarships to help attract students to criminal justice. Students may search for merit-based or need-based awards. Some scholarships specifically target underrepresented groups in law enforcement, including African-Americans and LGBT persons.

Online Master’s in Criminal Justice Scholarships

American Criminal Justice Association Scholarship $100-400

Applicants must be ACJA/LAE members, major in criminal justice, and hold a minimum GPA of 3.0. View Scholarship

Regina B. Shearn Scholarship $1,500

Applicants must be members of the National Criminal Justice Honor Society. View Scholarship

Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship $1,000-$10,000

Applicants must major in criminal justice, accounting, business, or finance and demonstrate interest in becoming a fraud examiner. View Scholarship

Pi Gamma Mu Scholarship $1,000-$2,000

Applicants must be members of Pi Gamma Mu majoring in criminal justice or another social science. View Scholarship

Gene Carte Student Paper Award $500

Applicants must have conducted outstanding scholarly research on some aspect of criminal justice. View Scholarship
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