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Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Earning a degree in criminal justice can open doors to jobs in corrections, law enforcement, and the court system. Regardless of your eventual role, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice prepares you for a career in protecting the public, reforming offenders, and making the world a safer place for everyone.

Types of Bachelor’s Degrees

When choosing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, students must also decide what kind of bachelor’s degree to earn. In criminal justice, there are typically three different options:

  • Bachelor of Science (B.S.): This is the most common bachelor’s degree for criminal justice majors. B.S. programs usually have more emphasis on math and science than a Bachelor of Arts degree.
  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.): While not quite as popular as a B.S. in criminal justice, this degree also covers much of the same material, but with a higher emphasis on the arts and language. Students may be required to take foreign language courses.
  • Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (B.A.A.S.): This degree is usually for students who already have their Associate of Applied Science degree and are transferring from community or junior college.

There are many schools and programs that offer bachelor’s degrees specifically in criminal justice, which generally teach concepts in an applied way. However, many who work in the field of criminal justice pursue bachelor’s degrees in subjects such as political science, sociology, or psychology which can also prepare you well for a career in criminal justice. The choice depends on your career plans as well as what specific courses or concentrations you select.

Criminal Justice Concentrations

In addition to choosing a bachelor’s program, students may also need to decide upon a concentration that they would like to pursue. While they vary from college to college, here are a few common offerings:

  • Corrections: These programs focus on how to work in correctional facilities and ultimately, how to rehabilitate criminals and prepare them for life after release.
  • Police: This is an excellent choice for individuals wanting to pursue a career in law enforcement. This concentration will help prepare students to serve and protect the general public.
  • Criminal Psychology: If you’re fascinated by the criminal mind and enjoy understanding the motivations of offenders, consider this specialization. It’s important to note, however, that further education – such as a master’s or doctorate – may be required to work in this field.
  • Criminology: This concentration focuses on the study of a crime and its causes and consequences.
  • Homeland Security: A broad specialization, this program prepares students for dealing with a variety of threats to our nation that could include terrorism, natural disasters, or other crises.

How to Choose a Degree Program

Even if you know what major, degree, and concentration you want to pursue, it can still be challenging to decide which college or university to attend. While every school may promise to provide you with the best possible education, there are other factors to consider before making your choice:

This is perhaps the most essential factor in choosing a degree program. If a degree program or college is accredited, that means they have undergone a quality assurance process and have met high quality standards. There are several kinds of accreditation (national, regional, and specialized), and there are numerous organizations that accredit educational institutions. Because the accreditation process and standards vary by organization, verify that your chosen program is federally accredited.. This will allow you to accept financial aid from the government if you qualify.

Degree and Concentration
Another important factor is making sure the school you’re interested in offers the degree and concentration that you desire. Not every program offers the same concentrations within criminal justice.

Online or Traditional
Both online and traditional options have their merits and drawbacks. However, if you’re working full-time or have a busy personal or family life, consider earning your criminal justice degree online.

It’s no secret that earning an education can be extremely expensive. When you consider a school, think about the out-of-pocket costs. Private institutions tend to be more expensive than public universities. However, there is also the opportunity for scholarships at both kinds of colleges. Research each school you’re considering to understand what kind of financial aid and scholarships are available to you.

What to Expect in a Bachelor’s Degree Program

The following aspects of a degree program will help you understand what to expect in a bachelor’s program – in either an online or in-person program.


Entry requirements for a bachelor’s degree may vary by program, but they typically include the following:

  • High school diploma or GED: A high school diploma or equivalent is the minimum level of education necessary to be accepted into a bachelor’s degree program.
  • Application: The cost to apply can be in the $0 to $100 range.
  • Minimum GPA: This number varies by program, but is generally in the 2.00 to 2.50 range. It is typically higher for more competitive programs.
  • ACT or SAT scores: Some schools do not require these scores, but if your scores are high, it can help you earn scholarships.
  • U.S. citizenship: Citizenship is sometimes necessary for acceptance into a bachelor’s degree program.

Criminal Justice Degree Coursework

The material covered in a criminal justice degree is diverse and can differ depending on the concentration you choose. However, you will typically cover the areas of corrections, social sciences, courts, criminology, law enforcement, and criminal psychology. Here are some common courses that you might take in your program:

  • Corrections: This course may provide an overview of the American criminal justice system and helps students understand the process of rehabilitating criminals. Regardless of whether students intend to work in corrections, every criminal justice needs a general overview and understanding of the prison system. In this course, students may explore citizen rights and problems that can occur in the corrections system, in addition to understanding the legal and moral elements of criminal justice.
  • Criminal Law: This course examines the nature of criminal law and the court systems in America. Students will learn the basic principles and processes in juvenile and adult criminal courts.
  • Criminal Psychology: To prevent crimes and successfully reform criminals, it’s essential to understand the criminal mind and the motives behind their actions. This course provides such an understanding for students.

Degree Length

A traditional bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete, typically, but the duration can vary. For example, if you decide to take less than a full course load each semester, it will take longer to complete the program. If you choose to take courses in the summer, however, then it may be possible for you to graduate early.

For online learners, there is more flexibility in earning a criminal justice degree. Students are typically free to take as many or as few courses as they’re able to and complete the coursework on their own time. Due to this, the duration of the program can vary, but the number of credit hours required to graduate is typically the same as their in-person counterparts. Most bachelor’s programs require about 120 credit hours, with most classes being three or four credits.

How to Pay for a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice

As mentioned above, the cost of a bachelor’s degree can be overwhelming to prospective students. You may find themselves uncertain about how you can afford your education. While these tips won’t entirely erase the cost of tuition, they can help mitigate the cost:

  • Look for scholarships: Most schools have automatic scholarships that are determined by your GPA and/or test scores. In addition to those, you may apply for additional scholarships that you could be eligible for, depending on factors such as your GPA, major, financial need, demographic, or strength of the application. Outside scholarships are available as well, including scholarships specifically for criminal justice students.
  • Research loan forgiveness: Some employers have programs in place for the repayment of their employees’ student loans. Many jobs in government have loan forgiveness options, but it can be challenging to meet the eligibility requirements. Do research to make sure this is a viable option for you if it’s something you want to pursue.
  • Find out what financial aid you’re eligible for: Depending on your level of income and other factors, you could qualify for financial aid from the government or private sources.
  • Take out minimal loans: Student loans are just that — loans. They accrue interest and must be paid back to the lender. Take out only as much money as you need, pay them down consistently, and choose loans with the lowest interest rates possible.

Career and Salary Outlook for Criminal Justice Grads

The field of criminal justice is vast, and the salary and expected growth of each career can vary by location and other factors. The following jobs are only a sample of what is available within the criminal justice field.

Career2019 Median Salary Expected Job Growth
Police and Detectives$65,1705% (average)
Correctional Officers and Bailiffs$45,300-7% (decline)
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists$54,2903% (slower than average)
Private Detectives and Investigators$50,5108% (faster than average)
Forensic Science Technicians$59,15014% (much faster than average)

All data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). Expected job growth from 2018 to 2028.

Careers for Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

There are many career possibilities for someone with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. In each of the three branches of criminal justice – law enforcement, the courts, and corrections – there are opportunities for job placement and career advancement. Below are just a few of the careers available:

Career Options with a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice

Police Officer or Detective
Police officers and detectives have a variety of job duties relating to the care and safety of the general public. In their job, they might respond to emergency and non-emergency calls, patrol their assigned areas, conduct traffic stops, arrest individuals, collect evidence from crime scenes, and write reports. Detectives might also gather facts and evidence and interview suspects about suspected crimes.

Learn more about becoming a police officer

Learn more about becoming a police detective

Correctional Officer
These individuals work in prisons, jails, and detention centers keeping the individuals there safe and secure. While you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to work in corrections, it does help your job prospects.

Learn more about becoming a correctional officer

Probation Officer
Probation officers supervise people who have committed a crime and are on probation instead of being sent to prison or after they have been released. They must assess the progress of these individuals, monitor their success, and provide them with options for rehabilitation if necessary.

Learn more about becoming a probation officer

Forensic Science Technician
These technicians analyze crime scenes, gather evidence, take photographs of the scene, record their observations, and perform analyses of the evidence in the lab. Many individuals in this role have a biology or science background in addition to criminal justice.

Learn more about becoming a forensic science technician

Paralegals assist lawyers and help them prepare for cases. They might need to investigate and uncover facts relating to the cases and research relevant laws. They may also help write reports or legal documents and gather evidence.

Learn more about becoming a paralegal

Continuing Education

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice can make you an excellent candidate for many jobs in the field. Your education, coupled with any relevant internships or training, tells employers that you’re knowledgeable and professional. However, some jobs may require a higher degree. You may also wish to continue your education to make yourself a more desirable candidate for competitive employment. Regardless of your motivations for continuing your education, there are many options available to you:

Master’s in Criminal Justice
Like a bachelor’s, this degree typically has a few available concentrations. Earning your master’s may increase your job prospects and help you earn supervisory or higher-paying jobs.

Doctorate in Criminal Justice
With a doctorate in criminal justice, individuals could work as information security analysts, forensic psychologists, criminal justice professors, homeland security experts, and more.

Certificate in Criminal Justice
A certificate in criminal justice takes a shorter amount of time to earn than a degree; it typically amounts to 12-15 credits or one semester. While this likely won’t open any more doors for someone who already has a bachelor’s in criminal justice already, this could be a good option for someone with an unrelated degree wanting to switch to the field of criminal justice.

Professional Resources for Criminal Justice Students

  • The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences: promotes research and education in the field of criminal justice. Among their members are students, scholars, and professionals. Members have access to a wealth of research, resources, and ACJS publications.
  • The American Society of Criminology: provides scholarly, scientific, and professional knowledge in the field of criminology. The society recognizes the specific achievements of its members and provides awards for their accomplishments. They also serve as a platform for connecting like-minded individuals and further the research of criminology.
  • Alpha Phi Sigma: the national criminal justice honor society, where high-achieving students can join a network of other criminal justice students and have access to scholarships and many other resources.
  • The National Criminal Justice Association: assists governments at every level to help them develop strategies for effective criminal justice management. They also offer training, networking opportunities, and other resources for their members.
  • The National Institute of Justice: offers an extensive library and database, accessible for free. For students in need of research, data, and statistics provided by reputable sources, check out the Library & Multimedia tab on their website.