Jobs in the broad field of criminal justice are never far from the headlines of the news or the plot lines of TV shows and movies. And it’s true that people come to this field from a wide range of interests. Some may have grown up watching police procedurals like NCIS or Law and Order, and found the excitement and challenge of police work a compelling and attractive feature of the career. Some may have been concerned about the relationship between the police and minority communities, and wanted to make a difference for the better in your own city. Some may have come to police work because of a long and proud family tradition. Regardless of how you came to your career, if you’re a serving police officer, correctional officer, sheriff’s deputy, or other criminal justice professional, you may be ready to take on a leadership role within your current department. Investigating your educational options for a master’s degree in criminal justice is the next step in turning your career goals into reality.
A master’s degree in criminal justice can really enhance your salary potential. And, according to Payscale.com, salaries for graduates of these programs can increase significantly depending on your level of experience:
- 1-4 years experience: $47,740
- 5-9 years experience: $65,000
- 10-19 years experience: $80,000
- 20+ years experience: $108,000
Of course, many of the career benefits of criminal justice work, typically including generous pension packages, are not reflected in salary reports. And the greatest benefit of all, knowing that you’re serving your neighbors and working for the common good, is intangible.
We’ve ranked the most affordable online master’s degree programs for those who would like to prepare for a leadership role in law enforcement, corrections, human services, and related fields while keeping your current job. With these programs, you can add to your qualifications without leaving the organization you’re serving now. Each one is regionally accredited – the highest level of accreditation for academic excellence.
University of North Texas
Total Cost: $9,100
Located in Denton, Texas, the University of North Texas is a public research university that offers a broad range of degree programs in both residential and online settings. Among those programs, the Department of Criminal Justice is one of the ten largest in the university, which means you’ll have plenty of support and company in attaining your educational goals. In fact, the online Master of Science in Criminal Justice is ranked #2 in Texas and #18 in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report. This is a two-year, 36-credit-hour program consisting of twelve credit hours of required core courses, 21 hours of electives from criminal justice (including 9 hours of electives, and 3 hours of a capstone course that will help you integrate what you’ve learned into a practical setting.
The career options open to you on completing this degree span the discipline of law enforcement and human services. As the program website explains,
- You may enter the corporate world as an investigator or a contingency manager, assisting in investigations of internal theft and fraud.
- You may work as a police officer or investigator in a city, county, state, or federal law enforcement agency.
- You may serve as a probation or parole office at the county, state, or federal level. You may work as a detention or custodial officer in a city, county, state or federal jail or prison.
- You may become a victim’s advocate, an administrator with a criminal justice agency or a researcher or analyst in crime and law enforcement.
Whatever your goals, you’ll be taught by a faculty that is experienced in the field and that contributes to research on the national and international level. The University of North Texas is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
University of the Cumberlands
Total Cost: $9,765
Located in Williamsburg, Kentucky, the University of the Cumberlands is a small liberal-arts college that also offers several online graduate programs for distance learners. Its master of science in criminal justice administration program is open to students looking to enter the field as well as working professionals hoping to advance to leadership positions within their agency. Requirements for the degree include 18 credit hours of core courses, plus 12 credit hours of electives in your specialty. The program concludes with a capstone project.
Within the criminal justice administration program, a number of sub-specialties are available depending on your current and future career path. They include:
- Law enforcement
- Homeland security
- Juvenile justice
- Family services
- Addiction studies
While the law enforcement specialization is tailored to Kentucky standards, other areas are directly relevant to students from across the country. The University of the Cumberlands is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Total Cost: $9,900
Designed for current law enforcement or criminal justice professionals who want to progress to careers in the FBI, CIA or other federal security agencies, the master of science in criminal justice program at Lamar University focuses on both practical skills and theoretical knowledge. Coursework is focused on both the U.S. criminal justice system and policy and the theoretical foundations of crime control. Students will gain an understanding of analytical tools, planning and evaluation, correctional issues, homeland security, police and constitutional law, ethics and criminal justice leadership.
Although this program doesn’t require a thesis, it does require a comprehensive exam after you complete 18 hours of coursework and before you complete 27 hours of coursework. After you graduate, you’ll be prepared to serve as a member of upper level staff in an administrative, management, treatment, or planning position in criminal justice agencies. Lamar University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Sam Houston State University
Total Cost: $16,254
Sam Houston State University is another Texas public university that offers an online master of science degree in criminal justice at an affordable cost. And if you’re looking for academic excellence as well as affordability, SHSU may be right for you. According to the Journal of Criminal Justice education, the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University was the top producer in the nation of peer-reviewed faculty publications in the field from 2010-2014. So if you choose SHSU, you’ll be studying with some of the leading scholars working in criminal justice research today. The online MS in criminal justice will prepare you to work in various areas of the criminal justice system including field positions, administration, organizational management, and social policy. However, note that if you’re potentially interested in applying for a Ph.D. program, you should complete the Master of Arts in Criminal Justice and Criminology instead.
The 36 credit hour degree includes 21 credit hours of required core classes and 15 hours of electives. Regardless of your area of interest, you’ll learn research methods, quantitative analysis skills, and technology applications that will help you lead contemporary criminal justice organizations according to the best practices in the field. Sam Houston State University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
St. Cloud State University
Total Cost: $16,524
There are two programs available through Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University that may be of interest to criminal justice professionals with varying levels of experience. One, the master of science in criminal justice, is a 36 to 42 credit program depending on whether or not a thesis is written. (The thesis option requires 36 credits while the non-thesis portfolio option requires 42). The other, a 36 credit hour master of science in public safety executive leadership program, is available for applicants with least two years full-time paid employment by a public safety-related organization.
Within the criminal justice degree program, three specializations are available: criminal justice administration, criminal justice counseling, and an elective track that allows you to design a unique program of study to fulfill your career objectives. After completing this program, you will be qualified for a variety of positions such as:
- FBI agent
- Police officer
- Probation officer
- Family services
- Public safety specialist
- Customs agent
- Secret Service agent
St. Cloud State University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
Texas A&M International University
Total Cost: $16,632
Located in Laredo, TX, Texas A&M International University is part of the larger Texas A&M University system, serving more than 7000 students with residential and distance learning programs. As part of its distance learning portfolio, it offers an online master of science in criminal justice degree. The MSCJ prepares graduate students to actively participate in the development of knowledge and policy responses to contemporary crime problems. A focus is placed on criminological theory, the administration of justice, corrections, ethics, and legal studies. Graduate students engage in research and are encouraged to take active leadership roles as professionals in the field of criminal justice or juvenile justice. The program has three specific aims:
- Encourage students to analyze crime issues in contemporary settings given theory and the practical constraints of the justice system
- Enhance students’ critical thinking, writing and analytic skills
- Ensure that students are well prepared for future studies and/or employment.
The faculty is composed of active scholars who are nationally and internationally recognized for their scholarship and commitment to understanding and responding to critical justice issues.
The MSCJ program has two tracks: thesis and non-thesis. The thesis option requires an original paper that demonstrates your ability to organize and conduct a research study, as well as to write a professional manuscript that makes a substantial contribution to ongoing work in your field. The requirements for the non-thesis option for a master’s degree are satisfied by completing additional semester hours of coursework instead of the thesis. Texas A&M International University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Concordia University of St. Paul
Total Cost: $17,100
For more than 100 years, Concordia University of St. Paul (MN) has worked to fulfill its mission as a liberal arts college associated with the Lutheran tradition. One of the most affordable private colleges in Minnesota, Concordia of St. Paul offers a number of online degrees to complement its residential programs. Education at Concordia is marked by a commitment to teaching values as well as academic knowledge – a combination aimed at preparing its graduates for fulfilling careers and meaningful lives. Its students come from a diverse range of backgrounds, faiths, cultures, and age groups, making for a dynamic learning environment.
The online master of arts degree in criminal justice leadership is a 36 credit hour program designed with the challenges of working adult learners in mind. As the program website notes, the degree is especially intended for students already working in the criminal justice system in some capacity. Courses are designed to enhance current professionalism and prepare students for leadership opportunities. Current students in the program come from a variety of backgrounds, including law enforcement, military, social service and corrections. With required coursework in areas including management and administration, correctional design, ethics, legal and legislative issues, and mental health, you’ll be well prepared to lead a law enforcement agency, correctional institution, or related organization into the future. A capstone project allows you to synthesize what you’ve learned and apply it to your current career field. Concordia University of St. Paul is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
University of North Alabama
Total Cost: $18,660
The University of North Alabama is a regional state university within the Alabama public university system located in Florence. Along with its programs in the liberal arts, health sciences, and education, UNA offers several degrees in criminal justice including an online master of science. At 30 credit hours, this is one of the shorter programs we ranked. However, a comprehensive exam, taken on-site in the Criminal Justice Department over the course of two days, is also required for the completion of the program.
The online program is geared towards working criminal justice professionals, and is intended to prepare them for positions of greater responsibility within their organizations or new opportunities. Graduates of this program may also choose to pursue further advanced study at the doctorate level and move towards a career in teaching and research. Along with the three required core classes in theory and research methods, a number of electives are available that allow you to tailor your program to interests ranging from juvenile justice to forensic investigation to legal issues. The University of North Alabama is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Saint Leo University
Total Cost: $19,260
From its beginnings as a military college, Saint Leo University has been involved in education for public service – and it’s been educating criminal justice professionals for more than three decades. As their website explains, “In the Catholic spirit, we base our criminal justice model on a steadfast moral consciousness that recognizes the dignity, value, and gifts of all people.” If you’re looking for a program that combines professional knowledge with a serious commitment to ethical service, Saint Leo may be right for you.
The online master of science program in criminal justice requires 36 credit hours to complete: 18 credits in required core courses and 18 in electives. In your coursework, you’ll explore topics such as:
- Ethical and legal issues in criminal justice administration
- Public policy-making, evaluation and implementation
- Leadership, management and supervision
- Offender treatment methodology
- Human resources issues and innovations
- Forensic science and medicolegal death investigation
- Hostage negations
- Terrorism information resource systems and technologies
- Fiscal resource management for short and long-term planning
- Personnel law
- Major trends and conditions in the future of criminal justice
Having completed the program, you’ll be prepared to lead in criminal justice organizations with effectiveness and professionalism. Saint Leo University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Total Cost: $20,340
From its modest beginnings as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971, Liberty University has grown its programs and expanded its reach to become the world’s largest Christian university and the fifth largest university of any kind in the United States. Much of that growth has come about due to its commitment to online education. And, among its many other online programs, Liberty offers a master of science degree in criminal justice, either with or without a specialization in public administration. While both options require 36 credit hours to complete, the public administration option also requires the completion of a thesis for the degree.
Liberty’s program offers students a solid foundation in the criminal justice system that prepares its graduates to become leaders and decision makers in the criminal justice system. You’ll learn how to develop and execute criminal justice policy, and how to lead and manage criminal justice organizations. With strong master’s level foundational courses, ethics, and leadership education, Liberty’s program prepares students to take on the challenges of the criminal justice system. Potential career fields for graduates include:
- Elected Official
- Homeland Security
- Police Administration
- Urban and Social Policy
- Social Services
- Sustainable Resource Development Management
Liberty University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.