Returning to School

While the criminal justice field incorporates a variety of challenging, exciting, and lucrative careers, many of these positions require a bachelor’s degree at minimum. With this in mind, many individuals who hold an associate degree in criminal justice choose to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree in hope of increasing their job prospects.

Criminal justice professionals return to school for many reasons. Some want to expand their career opportunities and earning power or view advanced credentials as the first step toward finding work in a high-demand field. Forensic science represents one of the fastest-growing areas in the criminal justice field, with a high median salary and projected 17% job growth rate over the next decade. However, most forensic science positions require candidates to hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Many others hope to switch careers or seek promotions within the field, such as a correctional officer who advances their education to apply for a probation officer position.

Forensic science represents one of the fastest-growing areas in the criminal justice field, with a high median salary and projected 17% job growth rate over the next decade

Some older adults return to school to gain personal enrichment instead of career advancement. Other individuals enroll after an extended absence due to work or family. For these students, returning to school often presents certain difficulties. Students must master new and unfamiliar technologies, maintain a school-life balance, and complete coursework while employed. While these challenges might seem overwhelming at first, help is available. In this guide, we’ll take a look at what you should know about returning to school, including acquiring financial aid, transferring previous college credits, and succeeding in a criminal justice program.

Benefits of Returning to School for Criminal Justice

Most criminal justice professionals in supervisory or high-level roles hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees. These individuals typically earn higher salaries, work consistent hours, and receive lucrative benefits packages. Both undergraduate or graduate-level criminal justice programs introduce the advanced skills and theoretical knowledge needed to take on leadership positions. In addition, many programs allow students to develop a specialty by pursuing a concentration within the field. Along with forensic science, numerous criminal justice programs offer concentrations such as law enforcement, homeland security, and case management. In some instances, a concentration itself may lead to new job opportunities or chances to acquire specialty credentials. While graduates must typically undergo additional testing or fulfill work experience requirements to receive certification, degree coursework introduces many of the competencies needed to pass certification exams.

Returning to school also demonstrates your initiative and dedication to the criminal justice field. Employers tend to look favorably upon applicants who pursue further education after beginning their careers. Earning an advanced degree shows that you value competence and technical skill and wish to stay at the forefront of criminal justice-related advancements. It also leads to better compensation. As the table below demonstrates, individuals who attain higher levels of education also draw higher salaries.

Average Salaries for Criminal Justice Graduates by Educational Attainment
Source: PayScale

Online Criminal Justice Programs for Returning Students

Since its inception in the 1990s, online learning has provided both working professionals and recent graduates with a convenient, affordable alternative to the traditional on-campus experience. Using the latest technologies and instructional techniques, distance education programs make higher learning accessible to even the busiest individuals.

Both web-based and hybrid criminal justice programs often require students to complete a practicum or internship at a local facility

Combining flexibility with rigorous coursework, online programs boast a variety of benefits for those who wish to maintain a healthy balance between school, work, and family obligations. Many online programs allow students to begin their studies immediately after registration, and some schools feature accelerated and self-paced courses that may be completed as quickly as the student likes. These features often reduce a program’s duration by weeks, if not months. In addition, distance learning programs allow candidates to progress quickly while avoiding many of the costs associated with on-campus education, including transportation, housing, and facility fees.

Some institutions offer hybrid programs, which combine online coursework with on-campus lectures and activities. Both web-based and hybrid criminal justice programs often require students to complete a practicum or internship at a local facility. Often, learners who are already employed in a criminal justice setting are able to fulfill these requirements through their place of employment.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

If you earned your degree from a regionally accredited institution, many of your credits may still transfer to a bachelor’s program. Typically, colleges and universities only accept transfer credits earned at regionally accredited schools. To explore your credit transfer options, you must first request official transcripts from your previous school. This process may take up to one month and typically requires paying a fee.

Although your associate degree never expires, you may find that some of your credits do not transfer. Due to curriculum changes, some schools may not accept credits that are more than five years old. While general education credits typically transfer with ease, every school maintains different credit transfer policies. Most colleges and universities place a limit on the number of credits a student may apply towards their bachelor’s degree.

Transferrable Credits

Typically, credits transfer between state and public schools with little to no difficulty. However, your new institution’s transfer policies may affect how many credits you can transfer in, and what kinds. As you research criminal justice programs, pay close attention to three components of each school’s transfer policies: course equivalency, course level, and quarter versus semester transfers.

Course Equivalency: Many previously earned credits transfer to new institutions through course equivalency. If you submit three credits earned in an English 100 course, your new school may decide that the credits are equivalent to their English 120 course. Although the course numbers differ, the course contents are deemed identical or similar. Your new school may allow you to transfer non-equivalent credits toward a program’s general education requirements. However, you may need to retake certain courses to fulfill certain prerequisites.

Course Level: In general, credits earned through 100- and 200-level courses transfer more easily than those upper-division from classes. Because colleges and universities offer more 100- and 200-level courses than advanced 300- and 400-level courses, there is a stronger chance that your new school provides the same lower-division courses as your old institution. While you may be asked to retake major-related courses at your new school, many lower-level general education credits should transfer without difficulty.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Colleges and universities award either quarter or semester credits. Because differing credit systems do not impact course content or rigor, most schools maintain guidelines for converting quarter credits to semester credits, and vice versa. However, conversion may not work in your favor. Before enrolling in a criminal justice program, it is important to gain a thorough understanding of your prospective school’s credit transfer process and conversion system.

College Credit for Work Experience

In addition to associate degrees, many adult and returning students possess years of professional or life experience. Your work experience may fulfill one or more graduation requirements. Using the prior learning assessment (PLA) system, many institutions evaluate students’ knowledge and award college credits when applicable. Students applying for credit through PLA must demonstrate that their experience is equivalent to certain academic requirements. The PLA methods described below are only a few of the most common, and your school may not offer all of them. In addition, some methods better apply to certain types of knowledge and experience. If your prospective school offers more than one type of assessment, consider which method would best demonstrate your abilities.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

Nearly every institution uses PLA to convert life and work experience into college credit. While many schools use the four methods described below, your program may offer different opportunities. An admissions counselor can provide further, more detailed information about the options available.

Standardized Exams

Many colleges and universities use standardized exams to assess candidates’ experience. The College Level Exam Program (CLEP) offers evaluations for many general education subjects, including English literature, history, and mathematics. Much like CLEP exams, DSST exams assess competence in foundational subjects. Students may take either exam at a nearby school or testing center. Numerous study resources are available for both evaluations.

Challenge Exams

Challenge exams grant credit to students who successfully test out of a required course. Depending on the subject, these exams may consist of multiple choice, short answer, or essay questions, or a combination of the three. Learners who wish to test out of a course must take their challenge exam in the first or second week of class. Those who do not pass the exam may still earn credit by completing the course.

Individual Assessments

Many criminal justice professionals choose to provide an individual assessment for their PLA evaluation. Individual assessments typically require candidates to develop a portfolio describing how their professional experience meets certain learning objectives. Portfolio guidelines vary according to school and subject, but may include essays and projects.

Evaluation of Non-College Education and Training

If you have completed continuing education coursework or career training programs, or earned professional certifications, your accomplishments may translate into college credits. Military personnel and veterans may also receive college credit for on-the-job training. Current and former members of the Military Police Corps who apply to criminal justice programs are often able to turn their qualifications into major course credit.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Depending on institutional policies, your PLA credits may transfer as credits or course waivers. If a school provides waivers, you may still need to earn additional credits to graduate, lengthening the amount of time necessary to earn your criminal justice degree. Also, even if a school offers credit, it may not count towards your criminal justice major.

Due to varying policies, always check with the colleges and universities on your short list to determine their PLA credit transfer policies. Even the smallest difference may cause a significant effect on the amount of time you remain in school and the final cost of your undergraduate or graduate education.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Just like recent high school graduates and current college students, returning students are eligible to apply for a variety of financial aid opportunities.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps the government determine what kinds of federal financial aid you are eligible to receive, and how much. You may qualify for grants, federal student loans, scholarships, and work-study programs. Federal student aid is awarded according to need instead of age, work experience, or prior educational experience, and returning students are encouraged to apply for funding.

Even if your FAFSA results indicate that you do not qualify for financial aid, your financial situation may change in the coming year

The FAFSA application window opens on October 1 of each year. The results of a FAFSA submitted on October 1, 2018 remain valid throughout the 2019-2020 school year. Applicants submit their personal and financial information, including how much they or their family expect to contribute toward educational expenses. If the FAFSA results determine that an individual can pay for their college expenses, they are not eligible to participate in federal student aid programs. Those who cannot cover costs receive information on the financial aid opportunities available to them.

Even if your FAFSA results indicate that you do not qualify for financial aid, your financial situation may change in the coming year. For this reason, you should submit a FAFSA every year you plan to attend school. The sooner you submit your information, the sooner you can start developing a budget and exploring other financial aid opportunities. Before getting started, you will need to have certain information on hand. Below are a few tips to make the application process easier.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number

Federal student programs are intended to help U.S. citizens and eligible non-citizens attend college. Eligible noncitizens include permanent residents and those born in U.S. territories and possessions. DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants cannot receive federal financial aid. Citizens must provide their social security numbers, and eligible noncitizens must submit their United States Customs and Immigration Service numbers.

Driver’s License Number

You do not need to hold a valid driver’s license to receive federal aid, but providing your driver’s license number may protect you against fraud. This information helps the government ensure that financial aid goes to the right person. However, if you have a state-issued ID card instead of a driver’s license, you should not submit your ID number.

Federal Tax Information

Unlike recent high school graduates whose parents claim them as dependents, adult students need only provide their own federal tax information. Before starting the application, you should retrieve your tax returns from the previous two years. If you begin filling out the FAFSA and cannot find a necessary piece of information, you may save your progress and return to it at a later time.

Records of Untaxed Income

Untaxed income, such as child support, interest on investments, and workers’ compensation payments, also influences financial aid eligibility. Be sure that you do not accidentally overreport your untaxed income. Doing so may reduce the amount of funding you receive.

Information on Assets

If you own stock, bonds, a second home, or a business, you are required to provide financial information for each asset. You must also report your current checking and savings account balances. Retirement accounts do not affect eligibility determination.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

Paying for college is often the most stressful aspect of returning to school, but planning ahead can make things a little easier. Before filling out the FAFSA, calculate the cost of attendance (COA) for each criminal justice program you plan on applying to. More than just tuition, COA includes the cost of room and board, books and supplies, and childcare fees, if applicable. After calculating the total for each program, complete and submit your FAFSA. The FAFSA determines your expected family contribution (EFC), or the amount of money you can afford to spend on education in the coming year. If your COA exceeds your EFC, you should qualify for need-based federal student aid programs, and may be eligible to participate in certain non-need based programs.

Need-based federal students aid consists of five related programs: Federal Work-Study Programs, Federal Perkins Loans, direct subsidized loans, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, and Federal Pell Grants. Students who require additional funding may apply for one of three non-need-based federal aid programs: Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education Grants, Federal PLUS Loans, or direct unsubsidized loans. However, unsubsidized loans begin accumulating interest while you are still in school, and may cause you to incur additional debt.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


Often awarded on the basis of academic merit, scholarships are financial awards that do not need to be paid back. Many schools, nonprofit groups, corporations, and religious and cultural organizations sponsor scholarships.
While grants share many similarities with scholarships, they are typically awarded based on need. Grant applicants are often required to submit financial statements and FAFSA results.
Federal Loans
Students who qualify through the FAFSA may take out federal loans. Loan amounts vary according to need and usually feature low interest rates and more lenient repayment options than private loans.
Private Loans
Some students choose to take out loans through banks and other private lending institutions. Unlike most federal loans, private loans begin accruing interest prior to graduation, which may contribute to higher student debts.


School Aid
Many colleges and universities provide institutional financial aid packages. Awards vary between school, and may be need- or merit-based. Schools that receive large endowments tend to offer the most generous aid packages.
Federal Aid
In addition to loans and grants, the government maintains work-study programs that can help cover educational costs. Participating students may be placed in a position at their school, or with a local company or organization related to their academic major.
State Financial Aid
Many states provide financial aid through lottery scholarships, need-based grant programs, and other initiatives. Those applying to receive state financial aid may need to provide recent ACT or SAT scores.
Privately Funded Scholarships
Many companies and private organizations offer funding for students pursuing a particular major or career path. Application materials typically include academic transcripts, essays, and letters of recommendation.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Both graduate and undergraduate students benefit from federally-backed financial aid programs. Graduate students can take advantage of the Direct Loan Program, Direct PLUS Loans, Federal Work-Study Programs, the TEACH Grant, and Federal Pell Grants. In addition to federal aid, graduate students often quality for institutional funding. Some colleges and universities fully or partially cover graduate tuition for candidates who demonstrate significant need, or those who distinguish themselves academically.

Many companies and organizations maintain tuition reimbursement programs, which cover the cost of an employee’s work-related degree in exchange for a period of service after graduation. If the employee leaves the company before this period ends, they must pay the company back for the cost of their tuition. Finally, dozens of foundations and private companies sponsor scholarships for students of all degree levels and majors. Most private scholarships do not require applicants to attend a specific school, which gives recipients the freedom to study where they please. The scholarships in the following section represent just a few of the funding opportunities available to adult and returning students.

Scholarships and Grants for Adult and Mid-Career Students

Adult and Mid-Career Scholarships

Brian Terry Foundation Scholarship Varies

Who Can Apply: Every year, the Brian Terry Foundation awards one scholarship to an undergraduate student majoring in criminal justice. Applicants must submit two letters of recommendation, an essay, and their most recent academic transcripts. View Scholarship

My Alarm Center Student Scholarships $1,000

Who Can Apply: This scholarship is awarded to a college freshman or sophomore majoring in law enforcement or criminal justice. To apply, students must submit an essay that should be between 500 and 1,000 words describing the relationship between law enforcement and the general public. View Scholarship

Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship $10,000

Who Can Apply: Undergraduate students planning to pursue a career in fraud examination must submit their transcripts and two letters of recommendation. Candidates may apply only after enrolling in a bachelor’s program. View Scholarship

WIFLE Scholarship Program $2,500

Who Can Apply: This award is granted to female students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. To be eligible, candidates must hold a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA, submit a 500-word essay, and provide a letter of recommendation from a community leader. View Scholarship

ACJS Student Scholarship Award $600

Who Can Apply: The Academy of Criminal Justice Studies awards this annual scholarship to one graduate student pursuing an advanced degree in criminal justice. Funding also covers the recipient’s travel expenses to attend the annual ACJS conference. View Scholarship

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

Who Can Apply: This social science honor society provides 10 graduate students with financial awards each year. Applicants must be Pi Gamma Mu members, and should submit a resume, personal statement, official transcripts, and three letters of recommendation. View Scholarship

Tips for a Successful Return to School

There are numerous ways to ensure a successful return to school. Before you begin a criminal justice program, take the time to plan ahead. Mastering the required technologies, finding a program that works with your schedule, and building a strong support network are three easy ways to make your return to school a positive experience.

Brush Up on Tech Skills: Although you may use technology at work on a daily basis, it never hurts to begin practicing with the software programs your online or on-campus program uses. To get a better idea of the tech skills you’ll need to master for academic success, contact the criminal justice department at the school you plan to attend.

Find a Support Network: Whether at work or at school, everyone needs a support network to succeed. Building personal connections with peers and getting to know your professors can lead to a better classroom experience and help widen your professional network. Developing a strong working relationship with your professors may lead to job opportunities, letters of recommendation for scholarships and awards, and personal assistance when you need it most.

Choose a Flexible Program: Criminal justice programs that appeal to returning and adult students often feature flexible schedules, self-paced coursework, and accelerated classes. Before you select a school, it is important to compare each program’s structure against your professional and personal obligations. Some allow students to temporarily step back from classroom requirements to deal with unexpected family and work issues.