Best Online Master’s Degrees in Criminal Justice: Guide to Online Programs for 2022

Best Online Master’s Degrees in Criminal Justice: Guide to Online Programs for 2022
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

For professionals working in the justice system or law enforcement, pursuing the best online master’s degree in criminal justice can be a step toward more lucrative job opportunities and career advancement. In addition to earning about $40,000 more annually over their lifetimes than those with bachelor’s degrees, those with master’s degrees are also more likely to be hired for management-level positions in their fields (Peterson, 2018).

The type of work that you can do with a degree in criminal justice is varied, from being a detective to a forensic technician, researcher, and homeland security officer. A master’s degree in this field can also qualify you to teach at a college or university or fast-track your promotion to supervisory roles.

This article will provide more information about the differences between an online master’s degree in criminal justice and an on-campus degree. The different sections will also help you compare the costs and advantages of an online degree and employers’ changing perception of online education.

Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice Table of Contents

  1. Can you get a degree completely online?
  2. Will employers take my online degree seriously?
  3. Are online degrees recognized all over the world?
  4. Online vs. Traditional Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice
  5. How much does an Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice cost?
  6. What are the requirements of an Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice
  7. Courses to Expect in Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice
  8. Things to Look for in an Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Can you get a degree completely online?

Students nowadays can get a master’s degree in criminal justice completely online. Even before the pandemic, online education statistics showed that the global elearning market was already on the path to massive growth. It was projected to reach $336.98 billion by 2026 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.1% (Syngene Research, 2019). This boom in elearning makes it possible for students at different stages of their education to obtain online degrees for an array of disciplines.

Furthermore, most educational institutions offering online programs encourage the use of asynchronous teaching to provide the most flexibility and convenience to their students. Perhaps these factors contributed to the fact that more students (41%) said their online learning experience was better than their classroom experience (Statista, 2020).

Source: Statista, 2020

Will employers take my online degree seriously?

There are still companies that have negative perceptions of online degrees, but with 6,932,074 students enrolled in any distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2018 (NCES, 2019) and with more reputable universities offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), online MBAs, and other online programs, it can be hard for companies to hire the best talents if they cannot overcome their bias towards traditional degrees.

The good news is that more employers have a positive perception of online degrees. However, there are still a number of HR leaders (39%) who see online degrees as generally of lower quality than those completed in-person (Gallagher, 2019). Therefore, students must also consider important factors that can add to the credibility of an online degree, such as the accreditation of the institution, the quality of its graduates, and the name of the college or university.

Are online degrees recognized all over the world?

Just as some traditional degrees are not recognized in other countries, not all online degrees are acknowledged worldwide. This will vary from location to location as well as the field of study. Online degrees, while seen as the future of education, are still undergoing scrutiny, are evolving, and may not be seen as equal to their offline counterpart.

Criminal justice degrees are among the leading fields of study for online college students. This indicates that an online degree in this field is a popular choice, perhaps because an online master’s degree in criminal justice provides flexibility to job-seekers as they can pursue senior positions in law enforcement, criminal investigation, and homeland security, scientific research, or higher education.

Source: Statista, 2020

Online vs. Traditional Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

A degree in criminal justice studies the three parts of the justice system: the courts, law enforcement/police, and corrections. Students receive training in research methods in criminology, psychology of criminal behavior, and corrections systems, among others. Obtaining a master’s degree in criminal justice can help students advance their careers in criminology, law enforcement, the private sector, and academia.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 813, 500 jobs in the criminal justice field, and the sector is projected to have a job growth of 5% from 2019 to 2029, which is faster than the average for all jobs (BLS, 2021). With such an opportunity in this industry, professionals are pursuing a master’s degree in the top cop schools. However, the online offerings are preferable given the busy schedule they endure at work.

Here are some of the major differences between online degree programs and traditional ones.


In terms of schedule, online degree programs offer more flexibility than traditional programs exactly because things are done online. Students do not need to travel to attend classroom sessions. This can be especially beneficial to individuals who want to take up their master’s degree but also need to continue working. Students who also wish to pursue their studies but are living outside of the state where the host institution is located can now have the option to enroll via online programs.


Online degree programs are often self-paced—students are not tied to periods like quarters or semesters to graduate on time. Online programs allow students to take their time in their studies or go at a faster pace depending on how well they can understand the material. For working professionals, online degrees can mean a less stressful way to achieve their credentials, while for students eager to enter the workforce, online programs can be a faster way to complete their studies and start job hunting.


Unlike traditional degree programs where students and instructors attend face-to-face lessons, most online degree programs in criminal justice are delivered via asynchronous learning. However, it is best to note that there are programs where synchronous learning through videoconferencing is implemented alongside the modules. Furthermore, some institutions might require students of online programs to also attend in-person/on-campus lessons a few times a month.

Is an online degree cheaper?

Generally, online degrees can be cheaper as they often have lower overhead costs related to running and maintaining the programs. Overhead expenses in traditional classroom degrees, for example, include the cost of operating buildings, offices, classrooms, and dining halls. Amenities offered to students and academic staff are also reflected in tuition costs.

With that said, it is important to remember that the average cost of an online degree can still be a significant investment. Rates depend on factors such as the field of study, the school, the length of the program, and the like. To give you an idea of the average cost of graduate tuition and fees, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) pegs these at $12,000 (in-state, public schools), $27,350 (private nonprofit colleges), and $200,000 (most prestigious schools) (NCES, 2019). NCES does not provide data on the average cost of an online master’s degree, so these numbers can be used as a point of comparison when researching the costs of individual online programs as opposed to their traditional counterparts.

Is an online degree as good as a regular degree?

In the early 2000s, online degrees met a lot of skepticism and were generally viewed as inferior to traditional degrees. Today, obtaining an online degree is “mainstream” as stated in the 2018 report published by Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.  The report Educational Credentials Come of Age: A Survey on the Use and Value of Educational Credentials in Hiring looks into the value of educational credentials in hiring—one being how hiring leaders perceive online learning (Gallagher, 2019).

“The online delivery of degrees is one of the most significant innovations in higher education over the last 20 years,” writes Gallagher, the Center’s Executive Director. “In the early days, online degrees were often stigmatized by employers and associated with “online schools” in a market dominated by for-profit universities. Today’s online education landscape includes thousands of degree and certificate offerings from colleges of all types—including many of the world’s most well-known and prestigious institutions.”

Moreover, the report found that “as of 2018, a solid majority of HR leaders—61%—believe that credentials earned online are of generally equal quality to those completed in-person.” It also noted that more Americans are taking up online degrees and that “71% of HR leaders have personally hired someone with a degree or credential completed online.”

The report stated that online credentials are now “mainstream.” The increased skills demand of jobs will also require higher levels of education and credentials with 52% of HR leaders believing that “in the future, most advanced degrees will be completed online.”

Source: Northeastern University

How much does an Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice cost?

How much a student pays for an online master’s degree in criminal justice will depend on factors such as the type of school, the type of program itself, the course materials, and other related fees. For example, comparing the average cost of tuition for in-state and out-state public schools and private schools can help students see that in-state public schools charge the lowest tuition ($10,560) compared to out-state public schools ($27,020) and private colleges ($37,650) (College Board, 2020). Although these rates are not specific to online master’s degrees, they can serve as guides for students planning their studies.

In general, the overall cost of online degrees can be less expensive than traditional degrees because students do not need to worry about other expenses, such as transportation, housing, and meals. However, they might still encounter other expenses charged within the online program like application fees and technology fees for maintaining learning management systems.

Is an online master’s degree in criminal justice worth it?

With today’s competitive job market, obtaining a master’s degree can definitely help set you apart from other candidates. Based on a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs requiring a master’s degree are projected to grow at a rate of 16.7% through 2026 (BLS, 2016). However, to really capitalize on your degree and make it worth every dollar, time, and effort you invested, you will need to consider other factors that impact its value.

For instance, combining your degree with internships or highlighting your professional experiences and skills obtained in the field of criminal justice can further provide a positive impression to employers. In a tight job market, organizations are re-evaluating their hiring practices. Skills-based/competency-based hiring is gaining momentum with 23% of HR leaders already using this approach and 39% considering moving toward this direction as well (Gallagher, 2019).

What are the requirements of an Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice?

Admission Requirements

Here are some of the admission requirements you can expect when enrolling in an online master’s degree in criminal justice program:

  • Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice or a related field. Master’s programs, whether online or in-person, will require a student to have completed a bachelor’s degree. The undergraduate degree may or may not be in criminal justice or a related field depending on the school or program.
  • Transcript and Other School Records. Applicants for a graduate program are also usually asked to submit their transcript of records, diploma, and other related documents. These will provide information about their previous school work and show proof that they graduated from an accredited school.
  • Minimum GPA. Graduate programs also look at an applicant’s undergraduate GPA to determine their academic potential. Each school will set its own grade requirement but this is often between 2.75 and 3.0. Additionally, some schools may admit candidates with lower GPAs provided they have accumulated some years of professional experience in the field.
  • Related Work Experience. Some students pursue a master’s degree immediately after their undergraduate studies, so work experience will obviously not apply to all. But if you do have related professional experience in criminal justice, law enforcement, military, or public service, be sure to highlight them in your application.
  • Standardized Test Score. Standardized tests help admission committees in assessing the preparedness of a student for graduate school work. Examples of these tests are the GRE and MAT. However, it is best to check the institution you wish to enter to see if they still require standardized tests scores.
  • Other Documents. Colleges and universities may also require graduate school candidates to submit other documents aside from their academic records. These documents help better evaluate the student and may include recommendation letters, personal statements, and curriculum vitae.

General Requirements

  • Critical Thinking and Decision-Making Skills. It is imperative to have good judgment and critical thinking skills since decisions in the criminal justice field will have a strong—and even life-changing impact on society and policies. You need to develop your perceptiveness, social awareness, and attention to detail both in your master’s program and personal practice.
  • Written Communication Skills. It is not enough that your writing is free of grammatical mistakes. You must also be able to write clear and well-organized statements, especially if your job entails writing documents that have the potential to be used in courts or law enforcement.
  • Time Management Skills. When you are managing multiple cases, investigations, or need to visit clients or appear on different court dates, your time management skills become extremely important. If your job role requires you to also submit reports and a lot of paperwork, being able to prioritize tasks and manage your time well will help you thrive in your career in criminal justice.

What are the technological requirements of students for online learning?

Check if you have the right devices and technology to participate in your chosen online program. Technology has a huge impact on the experience students get from online learning. Since online is the way of the future for education, the educational technology market is projected to reach $342 billion by 2025 (World Economic Forum, 2020).

  • Reliable Internet Connection. A reliable internet connection is a must if you plan to pursue an online degree. All your course materials will be provided online and you may also have live lessons with your instructor, so you will need a strong enough connection to handle HD video and video calls.
  • Up-To-Date Devices. Before you enroll in an online course, make sure to confirm with your school the minimum specs required for laptops or computers to access any content or course material for the program. If you need to invest in a more powerful computer or accessories like headphones, microphones, and speakers, it is also better to know this before you start the course.
  • Basic Proficiency in Technology. Aside from the hardware, your online degree program might require you to install and use a variety of software and productivity applications. So, being tech-savvy will serve you well when working with your online course materials. It is also important to be familiar with a variety of file formats and have the ability to learn new technology/apps on your own using tutorial videos, handouts, or accessing online support. This also will come in handy once you start work in law enforcement. Police work often involves the use of digital tools from forensic software to police record management system solutions.

Courses to Expect in Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Online degree courses in criminal justice include core subjects that help students gain research skills and in-depth knowledge of theories related to crime prevention and criminal justice administration.


Many programs will include coursework on ethics as they are the foundation of the criminal justice system. Discussions cover a range of ethical problems encountered in the three primary institutions of criminal justice — the courts, police, and corrections. These problems can be those that are faced by criminal justice practitioners, such as professional ethics, use of ad hominem legal defense, or becoming friends with prison inmates. They can also cover general ethics problems within the criminal justice framework such as ends and means, human rights, and impartiality.

Criminological Theory

Lessons in criminological theory help students understand the workings of the criminal justice system and many perspectives that may explain the causation of a crime or criminal behavior. Students typically study criminological theories through a combination of different disciplines such as sociology, biology, psychology, and even political science. They examine these theories and how they play a role in criminal investigations and policy-making for crime prevention.

Homeland Security

Coursework in homeland security focuses on public safety and the many decisions lawmakers make to protect society without compromising individual rights and freedom. Students explore how different public security agencies work together to maintain public safety. There are can also be discussions on legislation and policy concerning terrorism, controversies in criminal justice, and current issues in homeland security such as cybersecurity. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 65% of Americans who went online received at least one online scam offer. Another 47% had their personal information exposed by cybercriminals, and that 44% of millennials have been victims of online crime (DHS, n.d.).

Criminal Justice Policy

Criminal justice policy in a graduate program that focuses on the advanced study of current issues in criminal justice and practice. Students analyze controversial cases, examine possible future practices, and can work on collaborative projects with professionals in the courts, corrections, and law enforcement. This subject provides students with the necessary skills in conducting further policy research and analysis.


Master’s degree programs often require a capstone project where students can apply what they have learned in their study in real-world projects. These capstone projects vary but are often done in the form of a master’s thesis. Other capstone projects may target the needs of the home agency of the student and culminate in the completion of a research paper or implementation of a project in their community.

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Source: DHS

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Things to Look for in an Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

It is imperative to devote some time to researching the online graduate program you wish to take before enrolling. Though online programs offer more flexibility, they can still present many challenges—40% to 80% of online students do not finish their programs (eLearning Industry, 2018).

Each student will have different criteria when choosing an online program, but here are some of the most important ones you should consider:

  • Faculty and Staff Support. Whether it is an online or on-campus program, faculty and staff support is vital for anyone trying to get a degree. Faculty advise students not only on their research but also provide support in navigating their educational experience. Other staff like distance learning librarians and tech support are also some of the people who can ensure online students’ success.
  • Virtual Community. Online programs indeed can provide more flexibility and convenience but they take away socializing and networking opportunities for students. When choosing an online program, check what platforms the school provides for students to interact in a virtual community. This can also lessen feelings of isolation and can help maintain the interest of students.
  • Student-Centric Online Learning. Since online programs will not have the same in-person sessions, it can be hard to keep track of the needs of individual online students. Look for a program that provides a variety of support services to their students based on individual needs as they may come up. For example, if you are not familiar with the LMS the school is using, it is good to know that they have a team that can teach you how to get the learning system up and running.
  • Accreditation. More employers now have a positive perception of online degrees compared to those in the past. But this does not mean it is advisable to just enroll in any online master’s degree in criminal justice. It is still important to look for accredited, well-respected universities providing quality online education. This will ensure you are getting your money’s worth and will increase the credibility of your degree once you start using it to advance your career.

Is an Online Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice right for you?

Deciding to enroll in an online master’s degree in criminal justice cannot be taken lightly. Though it is online, it still requires a lot of work, almost the same admission requirements as a traditional master’s degree, and can still involve a significant financial investment.

In their 2019 study “Factors That Influence Students’ Decision to Dropout of Online Courses,” authors Pedro A. Willging and Scott D. Johnson found that “students tend to drop out after completing only a few of the courses in a program. In this study, the highest number of dropouts left after completing the first course.”

The study published in the Online Learning Journal grouped students’ reasons for leaving their online program into personal, job-related, program-related, and technology-related reasons. Based on the results, a “de-personalized” learning environment overwhelmed by technology and a “lack of one-to-one interaction with the instructors and students” were some of the reasons given by students who left their online programs.

Moreover, the authors wrote “it was too hard to work full-time and be a graduate student, the program was no longer applicable to them because of a change in job responsibilities, and technology problems or limitations,” as the top reasons students gave when asked about the single main reason why they left their online programs.

This study shows that not all students can successfully graduate from their online programs due to a wide range of reasons, so it is best to set your expectations accordingly. Aside from researching about the online degree, it is also highly recommended that you assess your own personal situation and see if you have the time, tools, the right online learning environment, and the energy to see your program through. You can refer to this article on the types, costs, and requirements of master’s degree programs for further research.



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