Online Associate Degrees In Criminal Justice: Everything You Need To Know

The criminal justice system relies on dependable, dedicated workers to conduct investigations, prosecutions, convictions and corrections. Despite challenges within the field, many criminal justice professionals discover rewarding career paths within local, state and national agencies.

Earning an associate degree in criminal justice is an excellent choice for anyone interested in this career path. Not only does having a degree enhance your résumé, but the coursework provides valuable opportunities to develop essential skills in leadership, collaboration and cultural awareness. These skills are highly beneficial for long-term success in criminal justice careers.

Although law enforcement jobs are hands-on, earning an associate degree in criminal justice online adequately prepares you for a career in the field. Read on to discover whether an online associate degree in criminal justice is the right fit for you.

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What Is an Online Associate Degree in Criminal Justice?

An associate degree program explores the three components of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, the judicial system and corrections. Criminal justice coursework examines the history and future of these sectors, including current trends and international approaches to various issues.

In addition to gaining practical knowledge—such as arrest procedures and understanding how the sentencing process works—students learn about the psychology of crime. Criminal justice classes can help you sharpen your critical thinking and communication skills.

Current programs also incorporate curricula exploring the social and political issues affecting the criminal justice system. Developing empathy and an understanding of different cultures is crucial for graduates. Engaging in collaborative learning with peers is a valuable part of this process.

To familiarize yourself with the course material, consider taking a few courses at your local community college before enrolling in a degree program. You can transfer the credits earned to an associate program once accepted.

Associate Degree Options

Associate degrees prepare students for entry-level jobs or a four-year degree. They are also a good choice if you want to enter the workforce faster. Most programs require 60 credits to complete, which typically takes two years. When selecting your program, you may find a few distinctions:

  • Associate of arts: An AA degree, typically offered at community colleges, can make transferring to a four-year program easier to complete the last two years of a bachelor’s program.
  • Associate in science for transfer: An AS-T is an associate degree offered by California community colleges that provides a pathway to transfer to a four-year program in California.
  • Associate of science: AS degrees prepare you to enter the workforce immediately after graduating. They also offer transferable coursework for those who plan to pursue bachelor’s degrees. Online programs often offer AS degrees.
  • Associate of applied science: An AAS is a terminal degree intended for immediate career entry after graduation and is not designed to transfer to a four-year institution. Some AAS in criminal justice programs are only open to students sponsored by law enforcement agencies.

Is Online Learning Right For You?

Online schools commonly have flexible start dates throughout the year and allow you to complete your work from anywhere—and often at your own pace. Earning your degree online is often less expensive than in-person programs, as well, especially considering expenses such as transportation and food.

When choosing your college, there are two factors to consider: your preferred learning style and accreditation.

First, think about how you learn best. Does living in an on-campus apartment motivate you? Do you prefer the flexibility of studying on your own schedule? Some programs offer live online classes, while others are asynchronous, meaning you can watch lecture videos at your own pace.

Second, verify that the college is accredited. Accreditation indicates that the school meets minimum education standards and its credits are transferable. You can typically find information about the school or program’s accreditation on its website.

What Can You Do with an Online Associate Degree in Criminal Justice?

Many jobs in law enforcement don’t require a college degree, so you might wonder if an associate degree in criminal justice is necessary.

A well-rounded understanding of the criminal justice system can contribute to your success and prepare you for leadership positions. The degree also qualifies you for certain professional certifications, which can boost your pay and open up new career opportunities.

If you want to advance your criminal justice career, an associate degree prepares you for a bachelor’s program. Certain leadership positions and federal agencies often prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree, although a bachelor’s is not required to enter the field.

Here are some of the most common jobs for criminal justice graduates. Some positions may require you to earn a certification or complete a law enforcement academy.

  • Correctional officer: Correctional officers guard inmates in jails and prisons. They monitor people in custody, conduct inspections, transport inmates between facilities, intervene in unsafe situations and keep reports.
  • Court reporter: Court reporters create verbatim transcripts of legal proceedings, including court hearings, depositions and trials. Transcripts created by court reporters serve as official records that judges and lawyers refer to, so court reporters must provide an exact and detailed account of the proceedings to ensure an accurate record of events. Court reporters need certification and on-the-job training.
  • Detective: Detectives investigate crimes by gathering evidence, conducting interviews and building cases for prosecutors. Police officers typically handle day-to-day activities, while detectives cover more serious and complex crimes, such as robbery and homicide. They monitor and arrest suspects, conduct raids and keep detailed reports.
  • Private detective: Private investigators undertake investigations on behalf of law firms, businesses and individuals. As private citizens, private detectives don’t have any legal authority outside of the law. They may help find missing persons, perform background checks and identify fraud.

Admission Requirements for an Online Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

Application requirements vary by school, but a few common factors are consistent among associate degree admissions departments. Applicants are generally required to have a high school diploma or the equivalent. They must also submit academic transcripts from high school or previous colleges. Colleges often set a minimum GPA requirement of at least 2.0 on a 4.0 scale.

Common Courses in an Online Criminal Justice Associate Degree

Criminal justice programs give students a breadth of knowledge about the field, including trends and current issues. Here are some classes you can expect to enroll in your online program.

Introduction to Criminal Justice

The introduction to criminal justice course provides an overview of the criminal justice system—its structure, development and sentencing practices. Students learn about the history and purpose of the correctional system and current trends in juvenile justice.

Theory and Practice of Law Enforcement

This course builds on the foundation laid out in the introductory class. It delves into the history and role of police in the United States. Students discuss issues in the policing system and what should change in the future. The class also touches on the importance of police transparency.

Theory and Practice of Corrections

Complementing the theory and practice of law enforcement, this course examines the historical evolution of the correctional system. Students explore questions of corrections effectiveness and alternatives to incarceration. Enrollees study the organization of the correctional system, its challenges and its impact on society.

Juvenile Delinquency

In this class, students learn about the juvenile justice system. They discuss criminological theories of this system, its infrastructure, how offenders are processed and programs focused on reaching juvenile offenders. The class also examines how international communities approach this issue.


Criminology is the scientific study of criminals and their behavior. This course delves into the psychology of crime, including theories on behavior and crime causation. Other topics include social policy, technology and modern approaches to crime.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Online Associate Degrees in Criminal Justice

Is an online criminal justice degree worth it?

Yes, many students find an online criminal justice degree worth pursuing. Online degrees are less expensive and more flexible than in-person programs. Earning an online degree in criminal justice can give you a comprehensive understanding of the criminal justice field and broaden your job prospects.

What’s the highest-paying job in criminal justice?

The highest-paying job in the criminal justice field includes judges, lawyers and FBI agents; however, these careers often require higher levels of education. Graduates with an associate degree in criminal justice can work as a detective or criminal investigator. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, these professionals make an annual median salary of $86,280.

What is the difference between an AA and an AAS in criminal justice?

Associate of arts (AA) and associate of applied science (AAS) degrees both involve two-year programs, but they have different purposes and outcomes. AAs serve students who plan to transfer to four-year universities. AAS degrees cater to students who want to enter the workforce immediately. Some AAS in criminal justice programs are only for students sponsored or endorsed by a law enforcement agency.


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