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November 17, 2021

Top 8 reasons why higher education is important for a criminal justice career

kendall upton

Written by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

forensic specialist photographing crime scene

Whether you are a seasoned professional in the prime of your profession or someone who is just starting to think about embarking upon a criminal justice career, now is the perfect time to consider earning a criminal justice degree. From associate to doctoral degrees and everything in between, a criminal justice degree might be the springboard you need to land your dream job.

Even as college enrollment rates continue to decline, the need for criminal justice graduates has never been greater. Staffing shortages in some fields, for example, may poise criminal justice graduates for success now more than ever. Enrolling in a criminal justice program could be the best investment you make for your career and your future. 

Contrary to what many people think about criminal justice degrees, they won’t silo you into a particular occupation or prune your career choices. In fact, earning a degree can increase your job options, lead to a higher salary and make you a more desirable employee candidate.

Staffing shortages mean jobs are available for the taking

Law enforcement agencies across the country are currently experiencing critical staffing shortages. This means police officers are in high demand, and although it’s not required everywhere, many police departments want recruits to have some college education under their belt. A degree in criminal justice is a common choice for future law enforcement professionals and could be exactly what you need to launch a rewarding career as a police officer.

Shortages in other sectors may also affect the criminal justice field. A shortage of nurses, for example, could lead to a higher demand for emergency management personnel that can plan for and accommodate declines in the proportion of nurses and other first responders.

Higher education can create more job opportunities

Even if it’s not essential for every career, having a college degree can make you qualified for a greater breadth of jobs. A criminal justice degree can open up new realms of possibilities for someone who wants to pursue a career in the field, especially because a criminal justice degree can be so versatile.

“I think it’s really common for people to assume that you’re either going to be a lawyer or you’re going to be a cop,” said Riana Romero, a class of 2021 graduate from California State University, Fullerton with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and minor in psychology. “People don’t usually understand that there’s a lot you can do with a criminal justice degree.”

Romero, who wants to be a coroner or medical examiner, originally thought she would need a science degree. She eventually switched her major to criminal justice and found out that it could still lead to a career working for a coroner’s office. She’s never looked back and is excited to start working in Los Angeles County where she is based.

A degree is required for some jobs

There are many positions in the vast field of criminal justice that require you to have a college degree to get started. For jobs in forensic sciences, for example, you need to have a college-level foundation in hard sciences to know how to do the job itself. The same applies to federal law enforcement positions, which often require at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify. Higher education, therefore, may be key to breaking into the career path of your dreams.

Some jobs like paralegals or private investigators tend to value experience more than your education, but that doesn’t mean a college degree isn’t still worthwhile. If you want to eventually advance to leadership or management roles, a higher degree may be necessary.

It can give you an edge in the job market

Regardless of the minimum qualifications to break into a given criminal justice job, having a college degree can give you an advantage in a competitive job market. Some jobs that might only require a high school diploma to get started may still favor applicants with a more robust education than the minimum.

Romero said no matter what job you’re going for, you should have an understanding of the criminal justice system if you want to make a career out of it.

“Even clerical work—if you’re going to work a clerical job at the sheriff’s department or any kind of government [agency], you need to understand how the system works. If you don’t understand how the system is organized and how it functions and why they do what they do, it’s never going to work,” Romero said. “Having the background that I do is helping me stand out and it’s also helping me better understand the people that I’m going to end up working around anyway, no matter what I do.”

A degree may lead to promotion and a higher salary

Some fields require you to have a certain degree in order to be promoted. Police departments, for example, may require you to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree to move up the chain of command. This in turn can lead to a higher salary. 

Higher education also correlates with higher salaries across all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In their 2021 report, data indicates that the median usual weekly earnings for workers aged 25 and older with just a high school diploma are $809, compared to workers with master’s degrees who earn $1,574 per week. As expected, associate and bachelor’s degrees fall somewhere in between, and people with doctoral degrees earn even more on a weekly basis.

You can learn specialized skills

By getting a degree, you have the opportunity to learn new skills that can be leveraged in the job market and make you a stand-out criminal justice professional. There are numerous concentrations and specializations that schools offer as part of their criminal justice programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level, such as:

Specializations allow you to position yourself for a particular career path and can give you the unique knowledge and skills needed to succeed in your chosen discipline.

Higher education could pave the way to a research or academic position

Maybe you’ve been in the field for years and you’re looking for a change, or maybe you’re still early in your career but you know you want to do research or work in academia. For these kinds of roles, a doctoral degree in criminal justice is typically required. Other roles may simply require a doctoral level education to begin with, such as forensic psychologists.

It allows you to better understand others

Romero said that majoring in psychology is a popular choice for those who want to learn about people and the human mind, but she feels that a criminal justice degree scratches that same itch.

“Criminal justice breaks down why people are the way that they are, and why people do the things they do. I think when you have that kind of a background it helps you to understand society in general.”

Romero said that she feels her degree has allowed her to have a more nuanced understanding of the people in her life that are incarcerated.

“If you have a family member that was incarcerated—a parent, a sibling or even just a friend—understanding why people do the things that they do and understanding what kind of lifestyle or experiences they may have had to make them do certain things, I think that’s an important part.”

With professional insights from:

Riana Romero, class of 2021

University of California, Fullerton