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What can I do with a criminal justice degree? Degree and career options

At a glance

  • While a college degree isn’t always required for a position in law enforcement or the criminal justice system, it can offer the foundational skills and the potential to move into specialized or leadership roles down the line.
  • Associate, bachelor’s and master’s programs in criminal justice cover such topics as integrating research and theories in criminal justice administration, analyzing procedures in public policies and evaluating strategies for diverse populations.
  • Individuals considering pursuing a degree in criminal justice may qualify for scholarships, financial aid or even tuition assistance from an employer.
  • University of Phoenix offers a robust criminal justice program with degrees available at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s levels.

Depending on your career goals, a criminal justice degree may be worth the investment. A degree isn’t necessary for some jobs in law enforcement, corrections and other legal professions. However, criminal justice degrees can provide the foundational skills for those planning on a career in law enforcement or the criminal justice system. 

According to a 2017 report from the Police Foundation, 51.8% of law enforcement officers have at least a two-year degree, and 30.2% have a bachelor’s. Some federal agencies require a four-year degree for any applicant. 

Criminal justice degrees are available at the associate, bachelor's and master’s degree levels. (Doctoral programs in criminal justice are also available at some universities.) These programs provide knowledge to help you succeed in the complex world of modern law enforcement, security and corrections. Courses may include ethics and cultural competency in addition to report writing, de-escalation techniques and other skills necessary for criminal justice careers. 

Finally, a criminal justice degree can prepare graduates to pursue a variety of different career options. In addition to working as a patrol officer or investigator, a degree can prepare you for public administration, corporate security, loss prevention or corrections and parole officer jobs. Criminal justice degrees may also provide educational benefits for those pursuing law school or other legal careers. 

Types of degrees and career paths for criminal justice students

While you may not need anything more than a high school diploma to begin a career in law enforcement, a criminal justice degree can help provide the educational foundation to pursue leadership options in the field. Here’s a look at the different criminal justice degrees available.

Associate degree

An associate degree in criminal justice generally takes two years to complete. You’ll likely learn the fundamentals of this subject area, including criminal thinking and the nature of crimes.

Some programs allow you to take specialized courses in your area of interest. For example, you may be able to learn technical skills to use in a career as a case manager, corrections specialist, regulatory affairs manager or police captain. 

Associate degree programs also include liberal arts, math and other general education courses. These courses can give you the credits necessary to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the future. 

Bachelor’s degree

It takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. In addition to introductory crime-related courses, you’ll learn about the law, ethics and research procedures.

Some federal law enforcement agencies may require a bachelor's degree. Additionally, a bachelor's in criminal justice can be a start on one’s educational journey toward law school or another post-graduate degree. 

Master’s degree

It typically takes one-and-a-half to two years to earn a master's degree in criminal justice. At this level of study, you can select a specialty, such as public administration or justice and security, to pursue leadership positions within an agency or department after graduation.

Criminal justice vs. criminology

Cost of a degree

The cost of a criminal justice degree varies among institutions. You can expect to pay per credit for a two-year, four-year or postgraduate degree. If you’ve already started your career, you may be able to get help with tuition. Some companies offer tuition assistance help of up to $5,250.

An undergraduate degree will take two to four years to complete, although it can take longer for individuals juggling full-time employment and other obligations. Some jobs, including many law enforcement positions, require additional licensing or industry certification. These may require further training, exams, continuing education or fees.

Resources for tuition, grants and scholarships

You have several options for obtaining financial assistance while getting your degree. For example, criminal justice degree holders who get public service jobs with qualified law enforcement or government agencies can apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which will pay off the balance of their student loan after they make 120 qualifying monthly payments. 

Scholarships are also available. For example, the Women in Federal Law Enforcement Scholarship is for female criminal justice majors. Some financial aid, such as the Harold Johnson Law Enforcement Scholarship, is for criminal justice students from a specific region. 

You can also fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to see if you qualify for any federal loans or grants. 

Careers in criminal justice

After graduating from a criminal justice program, you can pursue careers in law enforcement, corrections or investigative specialties. Here are a few criminal justice career options for those who are interested.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Detectives

Detectives enforce the law, support the community and investigate criminal activity. These positions require at least a high school diploma and specialized police training. Employers may prefer an associate or bachelor's degree. The salary range in May 2021 was $40,420 to $105,540, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and the demand for qualified detectives is projected to increase by 7% between 2020 and 2030. 

Private detectives and investigators

Private detectives and investigators work for clients instead of law enforcement agencies. They may conduct surveillance and perform research for individuals, lawyers or companies. The average private investigator earned $32,130 to $98,070 per year, according to BLS. Demand for qualified investigators is projected to grow by 13% between 2020 and 2030.

Correctional specialists

Correction specialists work with prisoners and recently released inmates who are trying to integrate back into society. The annual salary for this career ranged from $37,380 to $99,090 in May 2021, according to BLS, and the demand for professionals in this field is projected increase by 4% from 2020 to 2030. 

Criminal justice degrees at University of Phoenix

Though a degree may not be necessary for entry level law enforcement or corrections jobs, some employers may prefer to hire applicants with a degree. A criminal justice degree can also be helpful for individuals planning to continue their studies or move to a specialized law enforcement profession. Completion of a criminal justice program can also help you prepare for federal agency jobs.

If you’re interested in pursuing a degree in criminal justice, University of Phoenix has a few options at a range of degree levels. Degree programs prepare graduates with the foundational skills to pursue opportunities in the fields of security, the court system and corrections. Degrees can be earned completely online and are taught by instructors with an average of 25 years of experience in the fields they teach.

Explore the options below or visit phoenix.edu/criminal-justice for more information on available degrees.

  • Associate of Arts in Criminal Justice: This degree program provides an introduction to how the criminal justice and corrections systems operate, preparing students for careers in corrections, detention and security.
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration: Students learn how to serve their communities through administrative roles in the criminal courts and corrections sectors. Potential job outcomes from this program include police captain and detective sergeant.
  • Bachelor of Science in Public Administration: Those interested in a career in the government, nonprofit or public sector can gain an understanding of public policy to serve in administrative roles. Graduates will be prepared for roles like regulatory affairs manager and operations manager.
  • Master of Public Administration: Graduates of this program will learn how to implement public policy, helping to effect positive change in the public and nonprofit administration sectors. Graduates may choose to pursue careers like city manager, public works director and government service executive.
  • Master of Science in Administration of Justice and Security: Those who are interested in leadership positions in police, corrections or security organizations can learn the problem-solving, leadership and policy development skills to succeed in this space. Potential career outcomes include police chief, adjunct professor in criminal justice or police supervisor.