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3 Tips for Picking an Accredited Online Criminal Justice Degree

If you're already researching the possibility of earning a criminal justice degree online, you likely know the multitude of opportunities available in the field. You also know a criminal justice degree is worth it as an increasing number of relevant employers require at least an associate degree.

The field's career opportunities extend far beyond what's shown on Law & Order type procedural television shows. Although, to be fair, Law & Order does involve the responsibilities of far more than just cops and lawyers. Probation officers, crime scene investigators, social workers, and juvenile justice officials are among the professionals also often featured.

When Law & Order first began airing around 1990, the term criminal justice was often used interchangeably with law enforcement. Today, the concept of justice and equal protection before the law has become more prevalent. Enforcement remains key but arriving at solutions that benefit the community as well as those affected by a crime are now highly valued.

Accredited online criminal justice degree programs don't just offer the freedom to study at your own pace at times convenient for you. They also offer the opportunity to pick from schools across the nation that offer the specific curriculum that meets your goals, interests and values.

Judges Gavel

First: Pick Your Criminal Justice Major

Before you pick your ideal school, you should have an idea of what your area of concentration will be. As you learn more, your interests may evolve, but it's a wise idea going in knowing what interests you most.

A solid criminal justice curriculum teaches students how to develop solutions for situations or problems involving ethics and the fair treatment of both victims and the accused. Courses often incorporate sociology and crime study. Think about whether your future goal is to work at a law enforcement agency at a specific level of government (federal, state, local), a law firm, in an academic/research setting or with a social service/community organization.

Within those and other possible settings, are you interested in front-line enforcement, hard science, policy, administration, etc.? You have many options for majors and areas of concentration. For example, majors include:

General Criminal Justice - a broad field that includes careers in law enforcement, security, criminal courts and incarceration and rehabilitation. It addresses everything from crime in our communities to homeland security.

Criminology - differs from a general criminal justice degree in two ways. A criminology major focuses more on the social reasons behind criminal acts. In addition to knowledge relating to criminal justice, criminology majors also have to study topics relating to psychology, sociology, etc.

Homeland Security - degree programs aim to provide students with a thorough foundation of knowledge and analytical skills in the areas of emergency management, intelligence, border security, and counter-terrorism. Students gain an understanding of the modern challenges of transnational security, terror groups, and cyber warfare through a mix of theoretical and applied learning.

Forensic Science - combines knowledge of the law, technology and a thorough understanding of the hard sciences. This is the major for you if you're fascinated by the prospect of collecting evidence from crime scenes, processing and interpreting evidence or trying to piece together crime timelines.

Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Administration - prepares students to apply theories and practices of organization management and criminal justice to the administration of public law enforcement agencies and operations. Relevant courses can include law enforcement history and theory, operational command leadership, administration of public police organizations, labor relations, incident response strategies, legal and regulatory responsibilities, budgeting, public relations, and organizational leadership.

Criminal Justice Police Science - includes instruction in how to perform the duties of police and public security officers, including patrol and investigative activities, traffic control, crowd control and public relations, witness interviewing, evidence collection and management, basic crime prevention methods, weapon and equipment operation and maintenance, report preparation and other routine law enforcement responsibilities.

Victim Advocate - professionals usually have either an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree in psychology, criminal justice, social work, or education. Some organizations require a master's degree. Coursework is frequently coupled with intense practical training in social work. Victim advocates must hone their listening skills and be familiar with the resources available for victims of crime.

Rehabilitation - studies include the underlying factors that commonly lead to unlawful behavior, and focus on the rehabilitation of the offender, rather than on punishment and incarceration. The curriculum leads to the development of the communication, critical thinking, decision making, interpersonal and social skills necessary to understand, analyze and apply ethical and legal standards to individual needs.

Research Top Schools to Identify the Right One for You

When researching schools, the first step isn't investigating curriculums or cost, it's determining if a school is accredited. While accreditation by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation is key, it is also wise to check with the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. The latter organization is the more selective.

After determining that an online school is accredited and that it offers your criminal justice concentration choices, other factors should be researched:

  • Tuition costs and fees - Tuition can vary greatly and a higher price does not necessarily mean one program is superior to another. For example, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice is highly regarded and is among the least expensive.
  • Time on campus - Some schools may require you to take some classes on campus. While some programs are entirely online, other schools may require your presence on campus a few times a year.
  • Job placement - Job and career resources are important. While graduate students can sometimes do well on their own, associate and bachelor's degree holders often need guidance from school administrators to help them find their first job.
  • School/program reputations - The reputation of the institution you select is important. A good determinant of a program's quality is the percentage of students who complete the program. These rates can greatly vary.

Contact Schools that Interest You

After you've narrowed down the online schools that most interest you, get in direct contact and ask very specific questions. If the person you reach out to doesn't seem as knowledgeable or helpful as you'd like, ask to speak to someone else. Be sure you understand the tuition schedules and nail down every possible fee. Make certain that the courses most relevant to your interests are indeed available. Ensure you know admission requirements. Learn how long it takes the average student to complete coursework.

Don't worry about asking too many questions. In fact, you're putting the launching of your career - your future - into the hands of the online program you select. It is one of the most important decisions you will ever make.

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