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Your guide to earning an online criminal justice degree

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If you’re thinking about earning a criminal justice degree online, you have many choices, no matter what degree you seek. Associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees are all available online.

Online criminal justice programs can be a good choice for people in law enforcement and other criminal justice areas. You may have an irregular working schedule that makes it difficult to commit to being in the classroom at a certain time each week. Online courses can be completed from your own home, any time of day or night.

But, just like traditional on-campus courses, online learning still requires you to devote time and energy to studying, completing your assignments, and mastering the course material. If you’re willing to make the commitment, then online learning might be the right choice for you. 

Online criminal justice degrees

Online options are available for almost all types of degrees in the criminal justice field. Like on-campus programs, online programs offer an assortment of concentrations, specializations, and electives.

Online associate degree

Associate degrees in criminal justice are usually geared toward people who want a career as a police officer, correctional officer or security guard or are employed but hope to qualify for a promotion or pay raise. If you are already working in criminal justice or have previously served in the military, you could get course credit for your experience at some universities.

Since most online programs are accelerated, you might be able to begin taking classes any time during the year. In addition, the year-round format means you could finish your degree requirements more quickly than if you take an on-campus program. 

Online bachelor’s degree

The online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice allows you to increase your knowledge in criminal justice subjects and select a concentration in a specialized field. You can also choose a minor that will expand your knowledge and skills.

Many earn bachelor’s degrees to qualify for a promotion or transition into their desired position. Bachelor’s degrees are also required for many criminal justice careers, especially at the federal level. 

You can begin a bachelor’s degree program without prior college experience or criminal justice work experience. However, if you have already earned an associate degree, you might be able to transfer credits toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. 

Many bachelor’s degree programs conclude with a capstone project or internship that places you in a law enforcement agency, prison or correctional facility, court or other real-world settings. You may need to arrange these experiences in your community, though some online programs have an internship coordinator or a faculty member who can assist you.

Online master’s degree

If you’re working for a law enforcement organization or correctional institution and want to advance to a management position, you may be interested in a master’s degree. It’s not unusual for police officers at the highest ranks to hold master’s degrees in criminal justice.

In an online master’s degree program, you might be able to choose an area of concentration and learn more in-depth knowledge that can help you in your specialization. 

Online PhD or DCJ degree

Doctoral programs in criminal justice, such as a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or DCJ (Doctor of Criminal Justice), are not as common as bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Some online doctoral programs require weeks of residencies, specified periods where you must visit the campus or associated hospital and take classes in person. However, there are also programs without residency requirements. 

Doctoral programs in criminal justice are designed mainly for people who wish to pursue criminal research and analysis or become college professors. 

Online certificate programs

Certificate programs cover specific topics in criminal justice and usually take just a few weeks to complete. They are offered not only by colleges and universities but also by professional organizations. Online, you can have a chance to earn certificates given by schools and organizations that you might not be able to have access to near your home. 

Accreditation of online criminal justice programs

Schools can be accredited at both the institutional level and the program level. Program accreditation for criminal justice is starting to grow, but it’s still not very common. One accrediting organization is the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

Don’t worry if your criminal justice program is not accredited. Instead, investigate whether the college or university is accredited. 

Online criminal justice programs vs. on-campus programs

Academically, there is little to no difference between taking a criminal justice program in person or online. Both learning methods cover the same course material and use the same or similar textbooks. At some universities, the same professors may teach both online and on-campus courses.

However, there are notable differences in the learning experience. You’ll find advantages and disadvantages with both online and on-campus experiences.

When choosing between an online and on-campus criminal justice program, consider your learning style and whether the traditional college experience is important to you, counseled Cody Telep, associate professor at Arizona State University.

“For some students, having a set time and structure works better for them,” Telep said. “The online experience offers more flexibility.” 


Course features: Most online courses are taught asynchronously. This means that you can log into the course any time, night or day, and complete your assignments. You will likely have deadlines and due dates to keep you on track. If you have a full-time job, you can do your coursework whenever you’re off work.

You won’t always be online at the same time as your professor or classmates, but you can still have opportunities to interact with them. Most courses use online discussion areas where you can ask questions, learn from your peers, and share what you know. Courses usually include recorded videos, and many professors will add live video conferencing, too.

Program lengths: Most online criminal justice programs operate on an accelerated schedule, meaning the terms are shorter than average. Instead of taking four courses over a 15- or 16-week period, you may take one or two classes every 7 or 8 weeks.

The accelerated schedule means you could finish your degree sooner than average. For example, you may be able to earn your associate degree in one year instead of two.

A shorter course length doesn’t mean it will be less work—you’ll still be studying the same amount of material. This strategy works for most people, but it may challenge others.

“[Online learning] requires a level of self-motivation, and you have to be prepared to work hard,” Telep said.

Admissions: It’s not necessarily true that it’s easier to be admitted to an online program than an on-campus one. Online universities often do not require standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, or GRE). However, that fact is frequently true of community colleges and smaller universities, as well.  

Cost: The total cost of online degrees can be less than on-campus degrees. Living at home, you won’t have the cost of room and board or other expenses associated with living on campus. You also won’t have to pay commuting costs.

You may also be able to save on tuition. Online universities usually don’t charge out-of-state tuition. So wherever you live, you can take classes at the same price. However, state or regional universities that offer online programs may charge out-of-state students higher tuitions. 

On campus

Class schedules: A face-to-face classroom course will be scheduled for a specific date, time, and place. Many people have difficulty fitting class meetings into their schedules.

Many colleges and universities are beginning to offer more flexible options in criminal justice programs held on campus. For example, courses may be offered on evenings, weekends or off-campus locations to accommodate working students. You may also be able to take hybrid classes, which are taught partly on campus and partly online.

Some universities will give you a choice of mixing on-campus and online courses.

“We try to offer classes in a number of modes and locations,” Telep said.

In-person opportunities: At the undergraduate level, many students want to have the full college experience. They want to live in a dormitory, attend college sports, join clubs and work on campus. These are options that may not be available to online students.

The on-campus experience can also provide more chances to interact with professors and fellow students on special projects easily. In master’s and doctorate programs, that experience can include opportunities to engage in research projects with professors.

Programs that include scientific inquiry, such as forensic science or data analysis requiring specific computer programs, may need to be completed in person. You may need hands-on experience in the laboratory or on specialized computer software.

Online criminal justice degrees FAQ

In an online criminal justice program, will I be able to have hands-on experiences?

Yes. Your university may have agreements with institutions in your area for opportunities such as shadowing a police officer, visiting a prison, or working on a real-world project, according to Telep. If not, take the initiative and call your local organizations. Tell them you’re a student and what career you’re interested in.

Will my diploma state that I earned my degree online?

No. You will receive a diploma that states the name of your university and your degree. It won’t be any different from the students who earned their degrees by attending on campus.

Are online criminal justice degrees less expensive than on campus programs?

They can be. Online degree programs tend to charge less per credit hour than traditional universities. However, a community college program may be comparable or less expensive.

Can I finish my criminal justice degree faster if I take it online?

Perhaps. Online degree programs usually run all year around, with no summer break. That gives you the opportunity to take more classes each year.

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

cody w telep

With professional insight from:

Cody W. Telep

Associate Professor and Associate Director, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University