Bachelor’s in criminal justice program guide

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What is a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice?

Criminal justice is the network of legal and social institutions intended to deter crime, support victims, and process and rehabilitate criminals. Law enforcement identifies criminals and crimes. The legal or court system then administers the accused’s trial and potential conviction, and the corrections system manages punishment through measures such as incarceration and parole.

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is an undergraduate program designed to provide students with a broad understanding of the field and prepare them for professional careers in criminal justice and related areas.

For many positions in police departments and organizations like the FBI, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is the minimum requirement. Having a bachelor’s degree opens up dozens of career options in science, computers, accounting, psychology, and social work, for example. So, if you care about law and order and want to play an important role in protecting society while building a solid, well-remunerated career, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice could start you on that path.

How long does it take?

It takes full-time students an average of 4 years to complete a criminal justice bachelor’s degree. Most programs require students to complete around 120 credit hours in general courses and electives plus practical training. The time needed may vary depending on additional requirements, such as internships and capstones.

There are other options such as accelerated programs which are very intensive but take less time. There are also part-time courses available and online programs that allow learners to complete their coursework according to their own schedule.

What is the difference between a bachelor of arts (B.A.) and a bachelor of science (B.S.) in criminal justice?

It is possible to take either a B.A. or a B.S. degree in criminal justice. Some schools offer one or the other while some offer both. A B.A. is a more theory-based program and more focused on research and the reasons behind crime. A B.S. is typically a more precise, technical program, and it is geared more towards career-orientated positions in the field rather than academia.

Either program may require an internship or field experience. Some B.A.s also require a final thesis

What do I need to apply?

These will obviously vary from one program to the next, but this is a list of what you can expect to be asked for.


You must have a high school or GED diploma to enroll in a bachelor’s in criminal justice program.


Applicants are typically required to have a minimum 2.0 GPA and to submit their official transcripts.

Standardized test scores

Many colleges also require applicants to submit ACT or SAT or any other program-specific exam scores.

List of honors and accomplishments

Detailing your academic and other achievements helps to highlight your academic merit.

List of extracurricular activities

Present a list of your jobs, clubs, and volunteer work to help you stand out.

Letters of recommendation

Be ready to submit 1-3 recommendation letters from teachers and counselors.

Some applicants for bachelor’s programs in criminal justice may already be in employment. These applicants will also be asked to submit a resume. Some schools grant transfer credits for previous experience in law enforcement or other relevant positions.

How much does it cost?

Earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice requires a substantial investment of time and money. This investment can give you a range of career improving skills and lead to career and salary advancement and increased job satisfaction. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition and fees at 4-year postsecondary institutions during the 2018-19 academic year was just over $16,300, with additional costs for room and board of approximately $12,000. The tuition and fees cost was about $9,200 at public schools and just under $32,000 at private schools.

Online options can offer quite a saving to traditional brick-and-mortar programs although there may be additional distance learning and technology fees that are not incurred by on-campus students.

You should investigate what funding help in the form of grants or scholarships are available to you before you take on a federal or private study loan

Coursework in a bachelors in a criminal justice program

Course subjects and concentrations vary by school and program. Most programs give students an understanding of the causes and types of criminal behavior and the functions and relationships of the basic parts of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, the justice system, and corrections. Students will also achieve an understanding of the ethical issues and relevant theories that apply to criminal justice.

Some examples of the types of courses a student can expect to take in most criminal justice bachelor’s programs are

Introduction to the American criminal justice system

The course provides an overview of the foundations and components of the American criminal justice system. Topics include the criminal justice process and how the various criminal justice institutions interact. Students also examine issues that arise in the criminal justice system, such as class and ethnicity. Citizens’ rights and responsibilities and how communities and professionals play a role in preventing crime are also explored.

Criminological theory

This course examines the types of crime and patterns of criminal activity and deviant behavior. Students look at the social, economic, and psychological reasons for aberrant behavior. Theories and policies used to reduce crime are evaluated by students applying various criteria.

Criminal investigations

Students in this course examine the principal skills and tasks involved in police investigations. Topics covered include proper collection, tagging, and processing of evidence. Students also learn how to assess a crime scene, interview and interrogate witnesses and suspects, and write reports. Students explore the impact of emerging technological advances on the future of criminal investigations.

Law enforcement

This foundational course looks at the issues and challenges involved in enforcing laws and protecting the public by local, state, and federal agencies. Students examine the duties and responsibilities of law enforcement professionals and explore the history and development of law enforcement in the United States. Students also study how officers monitor criminal activity, investigate a crime scene, and apply legal standards for evidence and trial testimonials.

Ethics and diversity in criminal justice

This course examines the implications of ethics and diversity in the criminal justice system. Students learn about the importance of ethical behavior and dilemmas facing law enforcement officers, correctional practitioners, and the court system. Students will also explore the importance of diversity among employees in criminal justice in creating an unbiased justice system.

Program concentrations

Undergraduate students in criminal justice can choose a concentration to prepare them for specialized fields within the profession. There are many different concentrations available. Choosing the right concentration is something you will need to focus on when selecting a program. The following outline some of the possible subjects available:


A concentration in corrections looks at the programs and practices currently in place to rehabilitate criminals in correctional institutions and offenders in release programs. You will acquire an in-depth knowledge of the policies and laws regulating corrections and the management of offenders. You will study the sociological, biological, and psychological factors that can influence criminal behavior.

Criminal psychology

Criminal psychology is the study of the criminal mind and what makes someone commit a crime. Criminal psychologists can be used in investigative work and as profilers to look for behavioral patterns to help identify offenders and to assess what they are going to do next. Criminal psychologists are often asked to assess the mental health of criminals at the time of the offense and whether they are competent to stand trial. If you are interested in studying criminal psychology in depth, you may consider a bachelor’s degree in this specialization.

Homeland security

A concentration in homeland security focuses not just on terrorist acts but on all types of threats, natural and man-made, to society. The curriculum looks at law enforcement, crisis response, public safety, infrastructure protection, and the development of effective response plans to public safety threats at the local to the federal level. Additionally, students explore domestic and international terrorism, civil liberties, and the collection and analysis of intelligence.


This concentration gives you an understanding of, and the ability to work with, victims of crime, their families, and the community at large. By gaining an in-depth knowledge of the types, causes, dynamics, and effects of victimization, you will have an awareness of the legal rights of crime victims and the role of restorative justice in healing victims of crime, and the provision of services to victims and survivors.

Career options

Upon graduation, bachelor’s degree holders can apply for rewarding careers in any of the 3 branches of criminal justice: law enforcement, the court system, and the corrections system. There are many additional areas in which a bachelor’s degree allows graduates to find positions: political science, research, social work, investigations, the military, and many other fields.

Forensic science technicians work in laboratories and at crime scenes. They assist in criminal investigations by collecting and performing tests on physical evidence for DNA profiling, chemical analysis, and ballistic testing. Forensic science technicians report their results to detectives and often appear in court to explain their findings.


Average hourly pay rate in 2021 is $17.50

A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agent’s role is to protect U.S. citizens by investigating federal crimes. They work mostly on domestic incidents investigating crimes such as terrorism, drugs, corruption, human trafficking, and illegal gaming. Some FBI agents may be field agents gathering evidence, questioning witnesses, and performing surveillance operations. Other agents may work in the office performing technical tasks and maintaining FBI security systems.


The average annual salary in 2021 is $65,553.

Paralegals perform a variety of tasks to help lawyers prepare for hearings, trials, and meetings. They perform a wide variety of tasks: collecting together the facts of a case and gathering evidence, carrying out legal research, maintaining and organizing case documents, and drafting correspondence and legal documents such as affidavits.


Average annual salary in 2021 is $58,911.

Probation officers work with law offenders in custody or on parole to help them successfully reintegrate back into the community. They help create rehabilitation treatment courses and offer tests and counseling for drugs and substance abuse. Probation officers write reports, maintain case files, and connect probationers with social resources to help their clients progress back into society.


Average annual salary in 2021 is $43,608.

Information security analysts work for government agencies and private institutions such as banks. They create and maintain security measures to protect their organization’s computer networks and systems from cyberattacks. IT security analysts do this by staying up to date on the latest methods attackers are using to infiltrate computer systems and create their organization’s disaster recovery plan. These plans allow for the continued operation of an organization’s IT department.


Average annual salary in 2021 is $72,836.

Career advancement in criminal justiceass

Once you have earned your bachelor’s degree you will have a wide range of positions open to you. You may decide to continue your education and improve your employment prospects by taking a master’s degree in criminal justice. Master’s degrees are generally required for mid-to-upper management in criminal justice.

There are also a number of certificates that you can take if you want to focus your career in a particular specialist area.

How to choose a bachelor’s degree program

There are many different factors: concentrations, program costs, transfer policies, study method, and time commitment that prospective bachelor’s degree students should examine before reaching a final decision on where and how to study. You should take your time as you explore schools, making sure you select a bachelor’s degree criminal justice program that fits your goals, schedule, and budget.


If you know what career direction you would like to follow after graduation, you will need to ensure that a prospective degree program offers that concentration. If you do not have a precise plan, you should look for a program that offers a wide range of concentrations so that your future options are as broad as possible.

Program costs

These can vary widely between public and private institutions, and they will likely have different tuition rates for out-of-state students. The costs generally follow the national average of $16,300 for either a B.A. or B.S. Other elements of a program’s costs are housing, teaching materials, and travel expenses. Online bachelor’s degree courses can offer significant savings, but there may also be some occasional on-campus attendance requirements.

Transfer Policies

Transferring your college credits to a new college not only saves you time but can save you considerable amounts of money. However, institutions have differing transfer policies so you will need to check with the administration registrar what their approach is. Some only accept credits from accredited institutions and or only give credits for general education coursework.

Program Length

Earning a bachelor’s degree typically takes 4 or more years. This can be reduced depending on the program’s format and the school’s transfer policies. Many institutions offer part-time, online, and accelerated program options.


Accreditation is an important point to consider. You should ensure that your bachelor’s degree in criminal justice program is from an accredited institution. Accredited colleges and universities follow the best practices in education, and accredited degrees are valued more by potential employers. Students at accredited institutions can access federal funds, and credits earned can be more easily transferred to other schools. If you decide to continue studying after your bachelor’s degree and earn professional licenses and certificates, an accredited degree can be a prerequisite.

Accreditation comes in 3 basic forms: regional, national, and programmatic. Regional and national accrediting agencies evaluate entire colleges and universities. Of the 2, regional accreditation has the highest standard. Programmatic accreditation means that a specialized degree-granting program has been endorsed.

The Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) maintain extensive databases of accredited schools and programs. Criminal justice programs do not generally receive programmatic accreditation, but there is also one body that is considered to be the leading programmatic accreditation organization for criminal justice education programs the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS).

Financial Aid

Prospective students should plan ahead – but not worry too much – about how to pay for their criminal justice degree. Master’s degrees set a higher standard and open doors for better-paying jobs within the field, and are likely to pay for themselves over time. Federal loans are a common choice, with typically a lower interest rate than private or bank loans. Scholarships and grants are often more plentiful at the higher degree level, with student teaching or research assistantships a common option. The U.S. government also has a student loan forgiveness program, and those with applicable military experience can likely use their GI Bill benefits.

National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO)

The NAPO is a coalition of US police unions and associations. It was formed to advance the interests of law enforcement officers through education and advocacy. Members receive invitations to three annual conferences, as well as continuing education opportunities and enjoy discounts from various sponsor enterprises.

National Criminal Justice Association (NJCA)

The NCJA provides assistance to federal, state, local, and tribal justice agencies to increase the effectiveness of criminal justice agencies and programs. The organization provides members with updates to legislation, an online member community, access to free webinars and conference and training discounts.

American Society of Criminology (ASC)

The ASC serves an international membership, its objective is to encourage criminological research, scholarship, and teaching in criminology. Members gain access to an annual conference, three unique publications in criminology, specialized divisions within the organization, and an online jobs board.

American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)

The AAFS’s objectives are to promote professionalism and research to advance forensic science and its use in the legal system. Despite the name, the AAFS has members from over 6,500 members from 70 countries. Student members can access a wide range of resources, career advice, and placement service.