Associate’s degree in criminal justice program guide

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What is an associate degree in criminal justice?

The criminal justice system is comprised of 3 main parts: law enforcement, the courts, and corrections. It also encompasses those agencies responsible for maintaining social order and public safety such as fire protection, emergency management, and information security. Criminal justice is one of the most popular fields of academic study in the United States. An associate degree is a 2-year degree that lays the foundations for career-building in criminal justice.

Earning a criminal justice associate degree gives students the experience, understanding, and academic credentials required for entry-level careers in diverse areas such as security, law enforcement, paralegal work, corrections, and firefighting.

If protecting and serving the community and helping citizens live safely is something that appeals to you, then a career in criminal justice is a great way to serve your community and help others while making a living.

How long does it take to get an associate degree in criminal justice?

Most criminal justice associate degree programs require students to complete 60 to 68 credits and entail 2 years of full-time attendance to complete. There are also online programs that offer students the flexibility to complete their degree while managing other professional or family commitments. If the online program is self-paced and allows students to study and complete assignments as and when they want, then these courses can be completed faster.

Some on-campus schools and online programs have part-time study options available this will extend the time needed to complete the degree.

The difference between an associate of arts and an associate of science in criminal justice

An associate of arts (A.A.) degree concentrates more on humanities topics, while an associate of science (A.S.) degree focuses more on math and science topics. If you are interested in a scientific career or working in criminology or criminal psychology, then you should think about the associate of science alternative as it allows for greater specialization. Both degrees prepare students for entry-level careers or for transfer to a bachelor’s program.

What are the prerequisites for enrollment in a criminal justice associate’s degree program? 

Requirements vary from school to school, but all prospective students need to complete an application, submit official high school transcripts or GED scores. Some schools require a minimum GPA, but others ask incoming students to take an assessment to determine proper placement in general education courses.


This will summarize your background information, schooling, and employment history.


These detail your academic performance at all previously attended institutions, including high school and college. There may be a small fee to pay to have these prepared.

Personal statement

Schools may ask applicants to write an essay about their academic and career ambitions and their motivation and suitability for the program.

Application fee

A school typically charges around $50 to process your application.

Because of the variety of program prerequisites, it is best to contact admissions officers at different colleges and universities to learn more about their specific requirements and offerings to ensure that they match your educational needs.

How much does it cost to get an associate degree in criminal justice?

The cost of a criminal justice associate degree depends on several factors. One of the most important is state residency because many colleges and universities charge higher tuition fees for out-of-state students. However, some online programs charge a flat tuition fee regardless of state residency. Online students may incur technology fees which are not an issue for their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Many colleges charge per course credit rather than a flat fee. Prices can vary enormously from $75 to over $450. Using the national average of $142 per credit hour the cost of on-campus associate degree credits would be $8520. The cost of books, supplies, room and board, need to be added to that.

There may well be funding and other options available, but if you are taking loans to finance your associate degree, you should carefully consider the cost of earning your criminal justice associate degree to ensure you budget accordingly. Also, examine your eligibility for financial aid and scholarships to help supplement degree costs.

What will I study in an associate in criminal justice program? 

General education classes

The majority of courses in an associate degree program usually require students to complete general education courses in areas such as: mathematics, writing, science, art, and history.

Core classes

In addition to general education classes, associate degree criminal justice students will study a range of core classes. These classes provide students with an essential understanding of the criminal justice system while also learning how to apply the knowledge and communication skills learned.

  • Criminal law: students look at the history and development of criminal law in the U.S. to understand how it developed over time. Students review the system of legal rules that define what conduct is classified as a crime and how the government may prosecute individuals that commit crimes. Additional topics include criminal capacity, and the types of crimes, and the punishments that criminals may face.
  • Juvenile justice: students explore the differences between the juvenile justice system and the adult justice system. Learners look at the types of punishments enforced, restorative justice for victims, and rehabilitation programs for offenders. The influences and changes gangs have brought into the juvenile justice system are also reviewed.
  • Quantitative methods in criminal justice: this course provides an overview of primary methods used to study the distribution and causes of crime. The coursework covers the principle methods criminologists use to gather reliable and valuable data and its analysis to help society.
  • Ethics and criminal justice: this course explores the code of ethics in relation to the behavior of criminal justice professionals. The coursework seeks to help students enhance their understanding of what constitutes ethical decision-making and how to apply these methods in criminal justice roles.

Concentration subjects

In addition to the core subjects, some programs allow you to choose an elective to study so as to enable you to tailor the degree to your interests and career goals.

Fieldwork or capstone project

A large number of criminal justice associate degree programs, including online courses, require students to complete a practicum or internship. This could consist of practical work-based experience where you receive supervised onsite training from experienced professionals, or a professional research project called a capstone project where you apply what you have learned to real problems in an area of criminal justice.

What can I do with an associate degree in criminal justice?

A criminal justice associate degree prepares graduates for a variety of careers in diverse areas. Graduates often qualify for entry-level positions that focus on protecting others and public safety; however, these positions may require additional on-the-job training in firearms usage, CPR/first aid, and other areas.
Here are several common careers and potential salaries for graduates:

Correctional officers are usually employed at jails and prisons and supervise arrested or incarcerated people. Bailiffs, also known as court officers or marshals, work in courthouses to enforce order and deliver important documents. These positions often require just a high school diploma as a minimum educational standard, but an associate degree can prove advantageous, as some state and local agencies expect applicants to have some college credits.

The annual median pay for a correctional officer is $45,180, while bailiffs tend to earn slightly more at $47,830 per year.

Paralegals and legal assistants carry out a range of tasks to support practicing lawyers. Their day-to-day duties include maintaining and organizing client records, conducting legal research, drafting legal documents, requesting affidavits, and preparing attorneys for court appearances.

The annual median pay is $51,740.

Police officers protect the community while responding to emergencies and enforcing laws. Detectives investigate possible wrongdoings and gather facts and collect crime scene evidence. Education requirements range from a high school diploma to a college degree depending upon the actual agency and police department.
The annual median pay for both occupations is around $65,170.

Private detectives and investigators search for information and intelligence on individuals and groups to help find missing persons, uncover fraudulent activities and help solve crimes.
They perform a variety of duties, including verifying information, finding missing persons, and collecting intelligence on individuals or groups. The requirements for these positions vary but often require an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

The annual median pay for both job titles is around $50,510.

Security guards watch over an area by video surveillance and/or physically patrol the area to ensure that unauthorized individuals do not enter that space. Gaming surveillance officers monitor gamblers at casinos to ensure that the casino’s rules are obeyed. Most security or gaming surveillance officer jobs ask for a high school diploma as a minimum, but some employers favor applicants with a postsecondary education.
The annual median pay for a security guard is $29,680; while a gaming surveillance officer tends to earn a bit more at $34,190.

Career advancement in criminal justice 

An associate degree in itself is a valuable degree that can help you launch your career. But once you have started working and gained some experience, you might consider studying for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

You can think of your associate degree as a stepping-stone to your bachelor’s degree and transfer your credits and experience to a bachelor’s program.

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice can help graduates progress to more prestigious and higher-paying positions. Certain federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, require at least a bachelor’s degree.
There are also a number of professional certificates in criminal justice that can be taken. These can help a student to focus their career on a specific area of interest. Adding a certificate to a degree strengthens an applicant’s resume.

How to choose an associate degree in criminal justice program 

When you start looking for schools for an associate degree in criminal justice, there are several important factors to consider.


You may or may not have decided on a particular field in criminal justice in which you want to work. If you have, make sure that your program covers that area. If you have not, look for a program that gives a good all-round range of course subjects that leave your options as open as possible.

Program delivery format

The choices boil down to on-campus, online, or a hybrid of the two. For online courses there are two delivery types: synchronous and asynchronous. The first means that lessons are delivered to students according to a predetermined schedule and you have to be available at that time or miss the lesson. Asynchronous means that lessons are not delivered to students at the same time and that you can download or access the lecture materials at times convenient for you. Many asynchronous courses have a deadline of midnight to submit course work, and that can give you more flexibility to take care of your work and domestic responsibilities.

Time availability

Assess what sort of schedule you will need to maintain while you study. If you have professional or family commitments during the day, you will need to be sure that your nights are free and available for studying. If that is the case, then you should focus on schools that offer asynchronous courses.

Your priority might be to reduce the amount of time that it takes to finish your studies. This means choosing an accelerated program, or one that allows you to transfer credits to reduce the amount of time needed to finish your studies.

Program cost

This is an important for factor most students. Online courses are typically less expensive than those on campus as they help you save money as you do not need to pay room and board fees. Online courses also allow you the opportunity to continue working and earning an income while you study.

There are also federal financial aid options and scholarships that you might be eligible for that you should explore.


The accreditation status of a program or school is one of the most important considerations for prospective students. Accreditation involves an extensive review of a school’s educational programs and student services and ensures that a school is operating according to standards set by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Colleges and universities may be regionally or nationally accredited, depending on the body evaluating them. Regional accreditation is generally more respected and valuable than national accreditation.

For students interested in continuing their education after earning their criminal justice associate degree by enrolling in a bachelor’s program finding a regionally accredited school could be an important consideration. Nationally accredited schools will accept credits from regionally accredited schools, but generally not the other way round. A degree from a regionally accredited institution gives more opportunities for further education than its national equivalent.

A school’s accreditation status can also impact a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid, so students should ensure the school offering the program has earned national or regional accreditation. Potential employers also may not hire holders of non-accredited associate degrees.

The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit institutions, it reviews accrediting agencies to ensure that they meet federal standards. You can find a list of accredited institutions on the DOE’s website, or search for schools on CHEA’s database.

National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA)

The NCJA promotes the development of the justice system to improve public safety and reduce the effects of criminal behavior on victims, individuals and communities.

National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA)

Advocates for policy initiatives that protect the rights of victims of crime. It provides credentialed training to those working directly with people who have suffered from a crime. It works to ensure the highest standards of care are delivered by those working directly with crime victims.

International Association of Women Police (IAWP)

IAWP’s mission is to raise public awareness about the role of women in law enforcement and to increase the numbers of women who work in police-related activities internationally. The IAWP runs a grant program for women in criminal justice and publishes the WomenPolice magazine.