How to Choose a Program

A degree in criminal justice opens career opportunities in several different fields, including law enforcement, corrections, forensics, and social services. Your interests and strengths can help guide you toward enrollment in the best online criminal justice program for your professional goals. Many brick-and-mortar criminal justice schools now offer undergraduate and graduate programs in criminal justice online. Online programs offer several benefits for professional students; however, they come with their own set of challenges. Use this guide to learn how to choose a criminal justice program that leads to a professionally and personally rewarding career.

According to federal data cited by U.S. News and World Report, more than 6.3 million students enrolled in at least one online course during the fall of 2016, a number which continues to increase every year. Online learners often cite flexibility as one of the greatest advantages of online education. Working professionals and part-time enrollees benefit from the flexibility of online programs, which includes asynchronous classes or minimal on-campus visits. Like on-campus programs, the cost of online programs varies between schools, but online students save on transportation and lodging costs.

Online learners often cite flexibility as one of the greatest advantages of online education

Online learning may not be for everyone, as a distance program may not provide the social connections that on-campus programs foster. Self-discipline and good organizational skills are also key to online learning, since professors cannot check up on you weekly in class. There’s a lack of evidence that online courses are easier than on-campus courses. In fact, the opposite is often true. Online students not only have to learn the same material as on-campus students, they also have to motivate themselves to stay on top of coursework deadlines while dealing with day-to-day responsibilities.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an Online Criminal Justice Program

Hybrid/Blended Learning

Some online programs follow a hybrid delivery system, with some courses delivered on campus and others online. Many students find blended programs advantageous since they incorporate the flexibility of an online program while keeping some face-to-face interaction with peers.

Blended programs take several forms. Many graduate-level online programs schedule on-campus visits only during the summer months, while others schedule them on a monthly basis throughout the academic year. Some programs offer individual courses that follow a blended delivery. This means only some aspects of the course, such as lectures, are available online while labs are completed on campus. Blended programs work well for students comfortable with technology who enjoy learning in a more traditional face-to-face environment.

Synchronous or Asynchronous

Two forms of courses exist in online classes: asynchronous and synchronous. Asynchronous learning gives students the freedom to attend classes at their convenience, be it during a lunch break or midnight after a late shift. Students who enroll in asynchronous courses must have the self discipline and drive to watch lectures, complete coursework, and fulfill the requirements of the course with minimal supervision.

Synchronous online classes, on the other hand, require students to attend courses at pre-set times, which may be difficult to accommodate while working full time or part time. Regardless of whether you attend asynchronous or synchronous courses, excellent time management and organizational skills, as well as attention to deadlines, is needed.

Class Size

While on-campus courses often have capacity limitations for a course, virtual classrooms may not have the same constraints. Experts offer different viewpoints on the ideal online class size. In general, class size seems to matter more in courses delivered synchronously. Discussions tend to get cluttered and confusing when 30 to 40 or more minds try to comment or ask questions during a live lecture.

In asynchronous courses, students often rely on discussion boards, pre-recorded lectures, and online readings to learn the material. Instructors may have more meaningful interactions with a smaller number of students, forming personal connections rather than talking to an anonymous crowd.

Personal Learning Style

Try to enroll in an online course that matches your preferred learning style. Visual learners benefit from courses that incorporate films, videos, or white board demonstrations. If you prefer to engage in active discussions, choose a program utilizing video chats. Several multimedia tools for online classrooms are available for professors to incorporate into asynchronous and synchronous courses.

No matter what kind of tool helps you learn better, know that in an online course, much of the learning rests on you and the effort you invest in the course. Motivated students almost always do well in online classes. To maximize your learning experience, choose the online criminal justice program that delivers course materials in ways that suit your learning style.

Internships or Practicums

Most criminal justice programs require students to complete a practicum or internship to graduate. Schools follow different policies in regards to practicum or internship requirements.

Some schools allow students to carry out field work in agencies or organizations close to home as long as the professional credentials of the student’s field supervisor are confirmed. Other schools assign students to practicum work within a certain driving radius from their home, and others require practicum or internship experiences to be completed at a specific organization close to the school. Professionals already employed in a criminal justice field may complete their practicum or internship at their place of employment with approval from the university.

Both the Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognize several regional and national accrediting bodies who hold schools and programs to certain educational standards. Schools and programs seeking accreditation participate in a self-review process and provide evidence that they meet the standards of quality set forth by the accrediting body. The accreditation process typically involves a site visit. In evaluating an online school or program, evaluators gain full access to the online courses and meet with professors and students virtually because there may not be a physical campus to visit. Industry experts maintain that online schools are held to the same rigor and standards as traditional schools. Keep in mind that the ED provides financial aid packages for only students attending accredited schools.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

In general, regional accrediting organizations accredit nonprofit private and public colleges and universities, while national accrediting bodies accredit for profit technical and career schools and programs.

Regional accreditation requires schools to undergo a more rigorous self-review process and is therefore more sought after than national accreditation, as it signals a higher quality program and instructional staff. It is also often easier to transfer credits between two regionally accredited schools. In addition to being able to receive federal financial assistance and the ease of transferring credits, regionally accredited institutions and programs have another strong advantage: most employers look for graduates who earned their degree from regionally accredited institutions. Visit ED or CHEA’s website to determine whether an online criminal justice program is regionally or nationally accredited.

Programmatic Accreditation

Specialized or programmatic accreditation usually refers to the evaluation of a specific program or department within a college or university. Some organizations accredit professional or vocational schools that offer only one type of trade or training program. In these instances, a programmatic accreditation also functions as an institutional accreditation. Certain accrediting bodies evaluate educational programs offered in atypical educational environments, such as hospitals. Similar to procedures followed in institutional accreditation, programmatic accreditation is a voluntary process of self review and external validation.

At the current time, no regional or national agency accredits specific criminal justice programs. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) does certify undergraduate and graduate criminal justice programs in several colleges and universities. However, ACJS is not included in ED’s list of recognized specialized or programmatic accrediting agencies.

Criminal justice encompasses diverse disciplines, including cybersecurity, emergency management, corrections, and law enforcement. Focus your studies in the criminal justice field best suited to your career goals, especially when choosing which program to attend. This is true when pursuing either an undergraduate or a graduate level criminal justice degree.

Degree Level

A criminal justice career can begin with a two year associate degree, working as a legal assistant or an evidence technician. Leadership positions or teaching assignments require at least a four year bachelor’s degree. The degree level you pursue depends on what criminal justice career you desire.

Criminal Justice Specialities

Undergraduate programs may offer concentrations in criminal justice fields, but this specialization more commonly exists in graduate programs. Popular undergraduate concentration areas include forensic science, corrections and case management, and homeland security. If a particular focus appeals to you, contact your prospective school about the concentration or emphasis you seek. Several online criminal justice programs also offer concentrations and list them online.

  • Court System: Students with a bachelor’s in criminal justice degree with this specialization work as court reporters or paralegals, while a master’s degree opens opportunities as lawyers and judges.
  • Cybercrime: With an emphasis on concepts such as cryptography, surveillance, and security systems design and integration, a specialization in cybercrime prepares graduates for careers as security analysts or systems administrators.
  • Homeland Security: A focus in homeland security covers topics such as crisis management, counterterrorism intelligence, risk analysis, and threat and vulnerability assessment.
  • Law Enforcement: Including courses in criminal investigation, human relations, and police functions, graduates of programs specializing in law enforcement may work as corrections and probations officers, detectives, and private security personnel.
  • Legal Studies: This specialization prepares graduates for work as a fraud investigator, FBI or CIA agent, or U.S. Marshall by providing a foundation in investigative strategies, U.S. criminal law, and domestic and international law enforcement policies.
  • Public Policy and Leadership: Often offered as a post-bachelor’s degree specialization, a focus on public policy and leadership explores the ethical and social impact of criminal justice agencies and international race relations as they relate to criminal activity and prosecution.

Explore Criminal Justice Careers

Research and explore the diverse work opportunities available to you as a criminal justice graduate at all levels of education. Some careers require only a high school diploma or equivalent, while others require post-baccalaureate education.

Several factors can affect the cost of a criminal justice program, including the degree level being sought, residency status, and various fees. It is also useful to compare costs between nonprofit private institutions and public universities, online and on-campus programs, and two-year and four-year institutions. Mitigating the overall cost of a program with financial aid and scholarships may help students attend higher quality programs than without any financial assistance.

Public vs. Private Schools

State governments cover most of the operating costs incurred by public universities, thus subsidizing the cost of attendance to a considerable extent. Tuition in public universities is often lower than tuition in private colleges. Without access to state funds, private colleges rely on tuition and private contributions to cover expenses, often resulting in higher tuition.

Tuition in public universities is often lower than tuition in private colleges.

Private colleges tend to offer merit scholarships based on a student’s academic performance in high school or prior undergraduate work, whereas public universities typically offer more need-based grants and scholarships.

Size is another major difference between public and private institutions. Public universities typically enroll more students than private colleges. Private institutions present a smaller class size as advantageous to the student, with a lower student-to-teacher ratio often cited by education experts as an important learning factor. By virtue of their size, public universities offer a wider range of programs to appeal to a larger number of students than private colleges. Rather than a wide range of programs, private colleges may offer more specialized fields of study not found at a public university.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Schools

A student’s residency status affects the cost of attendance at a public college or university. On average, in-state students pay almost 2.5% less tuition than out-of-state students. State governments give priority to resident students for enrollment in public and private universities. Few public colleges and universities have sufficient financial resources to offer out-of-state students a substantial break on tuition; however, some states enter into reciprocity agreements with one another to entice specific types of students, such as nursing enrollees, and give resident students higher education options out of state.

A student studying at an out-of-state public university in a state that has a reciprocity agreement with their home state pays the same or a reduced tuition rate as an in-state student. The table below shows how tuition varies for in-state and out-of-state students in a public four-year university or a four-year nonprofit college.

In-State vs. Out-of-State College Tuition Prices
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Four-year In-State College $9,670 $9,970
Public Four-Year Out-of-State College $$24,820 $25,620
Private Four-Year Nonprofit College $33,520 $34,740
Source: CollegeBoard

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Schools

Two-year community colleges cost less than four-year colleges and universities. Some students complete general education requirements at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution.

Depending on the field, a two-year associate degree may provide initial access to your desired career field. Plan your coursework in a two-year college with your ultimate education goal in mind. If you plan to continue on to a four-year college or university, confirm which credits will transfer to your prospective school to save time and money in the long run. If you are undecided about the degree the want to pursue in college, enrolling in a two-year institution provides exploration of interests without total commitment to a program. Below lists the tuition rates for a two-year and a four-year college for resident students.

Two-Year and Four-Year College Tuition Prices
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Two-Year In-District College $3,470 $3,570
Public Four-year In-State College $9,670 $9,970
Source: CollegeBoard

Online vs. On-Campus Programs

It’s difficult to pin down the typical cost of online programs, because similar to traditional on-campus programs, several factors affect cost. According to U.S. News and World Report, the 10 most affordable undergraduate online programs charged an average of $111 per credit. At the highest per credit cost for its online bachelor's programs, Temple University charged $752 per credit hour.

When examining the price advantage of online programs, keep in mind that fewer scholarship opportunities for online students exist than for on-campus students. Online students are eligible for federal aid programs such as the Pell Grant, and all students have access to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Online students also save on transportation costs and room and board fees as evidenced below.

Room and Board Fees
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Four-Year In-State/Out-of-State College $10,480 $10,800
Private Nonprofit Four-year College $11,850 $12,210
Source: CollegeBoard

Certain schools and programs acquired glowing reputations within academic circles for their quality and high academic standards, such as Ivy league schools and M.I.T. engineering programs. These schools and programs open professional doors and a wealth of work opportunities. Utilize the resources available online and on campus to maximize your acceptance potential.

Graduate Job Placement: Career advisers can help graduates land their first job with interview and resume advice. Talk to your prospective school’s career adviser to get more information. Online students often have access to career advisers as well through phone or chat.


Teacher Credentials: Small colleges usually provide a list of their teaching staff under the faculty heading on their websites. Larger universities list faculty members with their experience and academic background under each department or college.


Accreditation Status: Accreditation determines whether or not students can receive federal aid and whether or not credits transfer between schools. Always find out if your prospective school is accredited through the directories offered by ED and CHEA.