Home Thinking About Your Return on Investment for a College Degree in Criminal Justice

Thinking About Your Return on Investment for a College Degree in Criminal Justice

Return on investment isn’t a concept that gets applied a lot in the criminal justice field. No one argues about whether catching and prosecuting a murderer is cost-effective, or if it makes economic sense to crack down on jaywalking. Laws are enforced, sometimes with varying degrees of emphasis, but with an understanding that the costs of preserving order and society aren’t always going to add up in a spreadsheet.

On a personal level, your considerations may be a little different. You might find a great deal of personal satisfaction in a career in criminal justice. In fact, you have to love it because it’s not the sort of thing people do when they want to get rich. But at the end of the day, your personal expenses and income have to balance in a way that society’s do not.

So, as you are looking around at colleges and criminal justice degree programs, you have to take a hard look at the costs of that education and stack it up against what you are likely to get paid once you graduate with that degree. That’s your ROI: Return on Investment, the financial benefit you receive in return for the amount of money you invest in that education. The formula is simple:

Total Lifetime Compensation Over Base Rate – Total Cost of Education = Total Return

That means the amount of money you will make over and above what you would make without the degree (because there are law enforcement jobs you could get with only a high school diploma), minus the complete costs of going to school, including the time spent in school itself and interest from student loans.

We get that you aren’t a math major, so this stuff isn’t your bread and butter. This guide will help you figure out your ROI for degrees in criminal justice.

Calculating Your Total College Costs for Criminal Justice Degrees

You start off your ROI calculations with the easiest part to figure out: the cost of attending college — which isn’t exactly easy. When someone asks you what a degree costs, you’re probably first going to think about tuition.

According to the National Center of Education Statistics, in-state tuition for public four-year colleges for 2018 was $8,336, while for private schools it was $27,963 per year.

But that’s not all you are paying for. You have to find someplace to live, food to eat, cover transportation costs, buy books and pay all the various fees and extra expenses that come up during the course of several years of your life that you will dedicate to education. That bumps your total annual cost up to $23,076 for in-state, public college living on campus, according to NCES. For private, non-profit schools, that figure jumps to $42,433 per year.

Then there is opportunity cost: if you weren’t in school, you could be out working already. Your time has value, in other words, and that’s particularly true in law enforcement, where many entry-level jobs don’t require a degree. Are you better off sitting in a classroom for two years, or pulling down an entry-level salary as a rookie officer?

That depends on your long-term ambitions and goals, as well as the standards and practices where you want to work. Those can vary from agency to agency and region to region. In general, though, a higher level of education is becoming a stronger requirement for advanced positions in law enforcement like it has in other industries.

Public vs. Private Schools for Criminal Justice Degrees

You’ll notice that costs at private schools are a lot heftier than those for public schools. In some professions, there are benefits to going to a big-name private school—you make connections you won’t at Generic State U, and you get a name that will make future employers sit up and take notice when your resume slides across their desk.

That’s not as much of a factor for most criminal justice professionals, particularly in the line of jobs where most serve. An exception is the many private, for-profit two-year schools that offer dedicated public safety training programs. These can have better resources and more specific course of study than community colleges, and may offer you better preparation for specific roles in law enforcement. Still, the cost differences are substantial, so you need to be sure that the additional expense will pay off in the end on a patrolman’s salary.

How You Pay for College Can Change How Much You End up Paying

Finally, you have to think about financing for your degree. Everything we have looked at so far assumes that you can just pull out your wallet (or, often, your parents can pull theirs out) and slap down between $31,340 (for an associate’s degree at a public school living on campus) and $169,732 (for a bachelor’s degree at a public college living on campus) for that college degree and all the trimmings. But most people can’t. NCES data for 2018 show that more than 80 percent of students at all institutions participated in some financial aid program.

When that financial aid comes in the form of a scholarship or grant, it’s a plus for you—that’s money that someone else is putting toward your education, and not a dime of it counts against your ROI. The average amount awarded in federal grants was nearly $5,000 in 2018. If you are ex-military, as a high proportion of law enforcement personnel are, you have additional grant options in the form of GI Bill college benefits, too.

But for almost half of students, that’s not nearly enough. More than 44 percent of them turn to student loans as well, taking out an average of more than $7,000 each year.

That’s money that has to be paid back someday. Student loans have low-interest rates, but they do have interest, so not only do you pay back what you borrowed, but also a percentage extra on that amount until you pay them off. And that can take years, particularly on a public servant’s salary. So, if you have to borrow money to finance your degree, make sure to account for those long-term costs.

Of course, being a public servant makes you eligible for special programs like the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Working full-time for a government agency (federal, state or local) can qualify you to have some outstanding federal student loans forgiven after you have made at least 120 payments on them. That can bring down your ROI dramatically, even if you borrowed substantially to get your degree.

Return on Investment for Associate’s Degrees in Criminal Justice

An associate’s degree might be the only college-level education that many in the criminal justice field ever need. If your ambition is to work as a cop, in corrections, or even in some technical jobs like crime scene investigation, two years of specialist training is often all that is required.

Costs for an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice

With only two years of school to get through, it’s both easier to pay for an easier to justify the costs of an associate’s degree. The community colleges that these degrees typically are offered through tend to be widespread, so there is a good chance you can find one near you — so the costs for relocation and housing could be substantially lower than at larger schools. In-state tuition rates also tend to be very attractive at public community colleges.

The Department of Education’s College Score Card site helps you get a specific picture of exactly what these degrees might run you at thousands of different schools around the country. The site estimates the typical cost of attendance for two-year criminal justice programs at both public and private schools, accounting for both tuition and fees as well as cost-of-living expenses. The totals are adjusted down by the average amount of federal tuition assistance that students at each of these example schools receive.

Cost of Attendance – Two-Year Criminal Justice Programs


  • Santa Rosa Junior College – Santa Rosa (public) – $6,229
  • Platt College – Los Angeles (private) – $23,953


  • Valencia College – Orlando (public) – $5,585
  • Keiser University – Fort Lauderdale (private) – $30,767


  • Albany Technical College – Albany (public) – $698
  • Altierus Career College – Norcross (private) – $16,023


  • William Rainey Harper College – Palatine (public) – $7,382
  • Rasmussen College – Rockford (private) – $16,713


  • Dodge City Community College – Dodge City (public) – $3,857
  • Grantham University – Lenexa (private) – $8,684

New York

  • SUNY College of Technology at Canton – Canton (public) – $13,728
  • ASA College – Brooklyn (private) – $25,359


  • Pennsylvania Highlands Community College – Johnstown (public) – $5,908
  • South Hills School of Business & Technology – State College (private) – $17,717


  • Lee College – Baytown (public) – $6,114
  • Vista College – El Paso (private) – $16,354


  • Green River College – Auburn (public) – $8,647
  • Charter College – Vancouver (private) – $29,362

As you can see, your costs vary quite a bit between public and private schools, but also by geographic area. Colleges in rural areas might have lower tuition, but they also have considerably lower cost-of-living expenses, which can be a big factor in your total college costs.

Salary Ranges Expected from Jobs Available with an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice

It’s hard to break down exactly what your ROI will be from the official data on employment rates for the jobs you can do with an associate’s degree in criminal justice because many of those positions are included with jobs that don’t require a degree. If you’re making the same salary either way, then getting the degree is going to be a net loser. On the other hand, for roles that require a degree, you won’t even get your foot in the door without one.

You can make some educated guesses, however. Police officer and sheriff’s patrol officers earned an average annual wage of $71,380 as of 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some departments require college education for applicants to those jobs, while others do not. You can get a sense of the difference by looking at the industry breakdown:

  • Local government officers – $71,390
  • State officers – $78,520
  • College and university officers – $59,440
  • Federal police – $66,800

The higher rates likely are coming at positions with higher entry-level requirements, including an associate’s degree. Other common positions that may require an associate’s degree include:

  • Private investigator – $59,400 (BLS, 2022)
  • Correctional officer – $54,760 (BLS, 2022)

Like degree costs, salaries will vary from state to state as well. You can see the range in some of the states from the BLS for 2022:





New York




Return on Investment for Bachelor’s Degrees in Criminal Justice

A bachelor’s degree can be significantly more expensive than an associate’s degree because of the higher costs of four-year universities and the greater difficulty of covering those costs out of pocket. So, many students have to take out loans to cover their bachelor’s education, and that interest should become a significant part of your ROI calculation.

The kinds of jobs you can get also increase in terms of compensation with a bachelor’s degree, however, whether it’s an entry-level job in forensic science or you’re working toward a more advanced level of police work, such as detective or federal agent.

You do have another possible advantage, however, if you went to community college and earned your associate’s degree first: If you pick the right university, one with a transfer agreement with your community college, you can use your two-year degree to cover the credits for the first two years of your bachelor’s program.

In fact, that’s a big reason that people earn associate’s degrees in the first place, to cut down on the costs of a full four-year program.

Costs for Bachelor’s Degrees in Criminal Justice

If you have ever added up your costs of four years of expenses, you’d be shocked at how much money you go through.

College adds overhead costs to that number: Not only do you have the same, or higher (depending on where you attend) costs for room and board, but you have all the extras of attending school: tuition itself, books and fees. Plus, you might not be earning income if you’re in school full time.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average total cost of a bachelor’s education in the United States was $109,428 in 2018.

On an annual basis, according to College Score Card, these are the amounts you will pay each year at different four-year universities offering criminal justice bachelor’s degrees around the U.S., minus the average amount received in tuition assistance by students at those schools:

Cost of Attendance – Four-Year Criminal Justice Programs


  • California State University – Long Beach (public) – $8,982
  • Fresno Pacific University – Fresno (private) – $20,706


  • University of Central Florida – Orlando (public) – $12,733
  • Florida National University – Hialeah (private) – $21,736


  • Georgia State University – Atlanta (public) – $14,519
  • Clark Atlanta University – Atlanta (private) – $33,276


  • University of Illinois – Chicago (public) – $13,301
  • Loyola University – Chicago (private) – $34,024


  • Fort Hays State University – Hays (public) – $12,340
  • Southwestern College – Winfield (private) – $23,029

New York

  • SUNY Buffalo State University – Buffalo (public) – $12,766
  • Syracuse University – Syracuse (private) – $34,472


  • Pennsylvania State University – College Park (public) – $30,996
  • University of Scranton – Scranton (private) – $35,313


  • Texas A&M – College State (public) – $18,944
  • Texas Christian University – Fort Worth (private) – $37,513


  • Washington State University – Pullman (public) – $15,768
  • Gonzaga University – Spokane (private) – $33,545

You can see the private-school premium in play here and again, there likely are fewer advantages in the workforce for those degrees than there will be in private sector positions.

In some cases, this also is the level where you will find that jobs require more specialized degrees for some positions than just a basic criminal justice bachelor’s degree. For instance, working in forensic science typically requires a specialized degree in the hard sciences to qualify for positions with higher pay rates, which can also impact your college costs along the way.

Salary Ranges Expected from Jobs Available With a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

What do the jobs you can get with a bachelor’s in criminal justice pay? Is it worth the additional expense of two more years of university?

That depends a lot on your career track. You may be looking at the same positions as someone with an associate’s degree would consider: Patrol officer, corrections officer or similar. That’s because there is no advanced entry option in those career paths: You start off at the lowest rung on the ladder even if your ambition is to become a detective or move up to a senior leadership position where your bachelor’s degree is required. Even direct-entry positions in criminal justice that require bachelor’s degrees, such as FBI agent, typically go to individuals who already have professional experience under their belts.

Speaking of FBI agents, they are a rarity in criminal justice in that they start at the same base pay regardless of locality: The GL-10 government LEO pay scale, ranging between $81,000 and $129,000 annually, has cost-of-living adjustments based on where they are stationed.

For other roles that require bachelor’s degrees, you’ll need to account for local and regional differences in pay rates to figure out your ROI. For the states listed as examples in our costs section, you can see the different BLS median pay for some of those roles here:






New York




Return on Investment for Master’s Degrees in Criminal Justice

A master’s degree in criminal justice is something that you will usually come at with a strong idea of what your potential ROI will be. That’s because most master’s candidates only enroll in those programs after several years of professional experience in the field, and candidates have a concrete plan for how an advanced two-year degree will support their growth potential.

NCES records for 2018 show that private schools charge an average of $25,442 per year for graduate programs, while public schools cost $11,926.

As with four-year degrees, you’ll find that more specialization may be required at this level for specific positions. You might find yourself pursuing a master’s in emergency management, homeland security or intelligence studies, each of which can have different cost implications.

Of course, the cost of a master’s degree has to be added to whatever the outlay was for your bachelor’s program. You’ll be counting both of those expenses against your salary. And if you have to take out loans to pay for either, you’ll be paying them both down out of the same income stream at the same time.

Still, that master’s degree can make a big difference in your long-term income potential working in criminal justice. That’s because it unlocks some of the most senior positions in the field, as well as highly expert roles such as:

  • Security Analyst
  • Security Manager
  • Criminal Profiler
  • Policy Analyst/Criminologist
  • College Instructor

The compensation for these kinds of positions is difficult to track, because it can vary between different industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data often buries those roles in with the kind of positions listed under bachelor’s degrees above.

Here are some average salaries, according to the BLS for 2022:

Of course, working in criminal justice isn’t necessarily supposed to be lucrative, but it can be enormously satisfying. Protecting your country, family and society has an intrinsic ROI that you can’t put into a calculator. The lives you can affect with a master’s in criminal justice might be the best return of all.

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures contained here reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed November 2023.