Is a Criminal Justice Degree Worth It or Worthless?

Since this blog has been in existence, I received countless emails and comments asking whether a criminal justice degree is a waste of time. The questions were usually similar, but came with slew of different meanings:

  • Is a criminal justice degree worthless?
  • Is a criminal justice degree really worthwhile?
  • Is a criminal justice degree a good degree? a bad degree?
  • Is a criminal justice degree a waste of time?
  • Should I take a criminal justice degree in college?

I even tackled a question on whether a criminal justice degree is good for law school candidacy – and probably the most common one: is a criminal justice degree program hard or easy? But, we’re here to find out if it’s worth it.

Is a Criminal Justice Degree Worthless or Worth It?

Answer: Yes, it’s worth it!

There seems to be a perception out there that those pursuing a criminal justice degree are spending their hard earned money on a degree that’s going to be worthless. The truth is that it’s a desirable degree when coupled with a quality program at a reputable college or university.

So why all the negativity out there? Simply put, many not so reputable schools, and especially those with deep advertising budgets, are giving the industry a bad name. The drive-thru effect of graduating students ill-equipped for the real world job market leaves much to be desired.

The reality is that most popular degree programs – not only criminal justice – fall under this presumption and the advent of online learning has its many critics.

Suggestion: Aim higher. Don’t just apply to the first school you saw on TV or in your search results – look deeper for the best fit. Even if your grades sucked in high school or college, aim higher and apply to at least several schools. And probably the biggest thing of all, pick a reputable school that is properly accredited. Yes, reputable online colleges and universities, like some of the ones listed in Best Criminal Justice Schools in America are just fine.
Just like when you were a kid, when you wanted that sweet cherry or extra sprinkles on top of your ice cream, the recruiters are looking for the best and often with “a cherry on top.” Who really wants a person with a questionable academic record, a shady character, or a total slacker-like attitude working in the criminal justice system; enforcing laws and protecting people, of all things? No one.

But is it worth it financially? Will I make big $$$?

It can be fairly lucrative when used in conjunction with your education, size of the organization you want to work for, and overall time on the job. For example, in terms of law enforcement job opportunities, like those of a police officer, a Sheriff’s deputy, a detective, or a FBI Special Agent, those applying in mid to large municipal, county, state or federal agencies are often required to have a college degree at the time of application.

These mid to large-size agencies usually pay much better than smaller ones and can pay significantly for each level of education above the standard requirement. There’s a big push for four-year college grads, so, those taking an Associate’s degree, may want to think about upgrading to a Bachelor program.

Keep in mind that entry level salaries may seem low, but they are ENTRY LEVEL. After you go through your probationary period, thus increasing your seniority, your salary should go up (oftentimes significantly) and advancement opportunities should become more available (keeping in line with the law enforcement example above). Small departments, like those located in villages and townships may require as little as a high school diploma or a GED, but you get pay that is commensurate with that minimum educational requirement.

It’s not uncommon to see law enforcement officers making high five-figure salaries when performing duties at larger agencies.

I’m not done, yet. Read on… You probably want to know if it’s good or bad for your purposes.

Is a Criminal Justice Degree Good or Bad?

Answer: It’s definitely bad if you are planning on becoming a Marine Biologist, or a Chemist, or a Pre-school Teacher… Or, you know, one of those people who is taking a degree just to have one, but has no TRUE intent of working in the field the degree mostly applies to.

If you are interested in working within the criminal justice system; for example, in correctional or law enforcement fields, then you picked the right degree, but be mindful that even when a college degree is a requirement in order to apply or obtain the job, you don’t have to take criminal justice – degrees in business, accounting, and law are very desirable, too (amongst others). My rule of thumb, if a degree has substance / real world application to the criminal justice system (even if just a little), and YOU LOVE that field, then I think you should pursue what you love. It’s much easier going to work when you like what you do rather than when you despise each day you clock out.

Also, USE YOUR COMMON SENSE: if the NSA needs a computer specialist, it probably wants someone with a computer programming or information technology (IT) educational background – OR – if the State Police wants to solve crimes through bullet trajectory analysis, lift latent prints, get a definite photo or video enhancement, or DNA test materials you should probably look closer into the field of Forensic Science; where, degrees like Physics, Chemistry, Digital Photography, and Biochemistry will play a huge role.

So, besides the common sense and my wholehearted optimism, a degree in criminal justice has its limitations… It’s for those that want to pursue one of the many careers in criminal justice. I covered the possible speed bumps in my What Jobs Can I Get with a Criminal Justice Degree article. Check it out.

Last one… for all the marbles.

Is a Criminal Justice Degree a Waste of Time?

Answer: No, especially if you have aspirations to work within the criminal justice field, have a good credit history and a clean criminal record.

You may find taking a criminal justice program imprudent:

  • if you have a criminal record that’s filled to the brim with domestic violence and felony convictions
  • if you have DUIs that are recent or repetitive. I covered law enforcement employment and DUIs already.
  • if your credit sucks (collections, judgements, bankruptcies). Still, those with recovering credit, showing significant improvement may still be considered.
  • if you’re nearing the national average cut off age of 36
  • if you have little interest in the field
  • if you only want a desk job / office job – other degrees are more suitable
  • if you don’t want to carry a fire arm

Saying that, a graduate degree in Criminal Justice or Criminology may be of some help for those interested in research and teaching opportunities; where restrictions on age, work environment and lethal accessories are a non-issue. Remember, that even if you get your shiny Master’s or a PhD degree, real-world experience is often preferred as an accompaniment to your education.

Should you take criminal justice in college?

You might also like:

Article written by Radek Gadek

Radek holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University. He is currently doing consulting work and runs this blog to provide relevant information on criminal justice degrees, colleges and related careers.

80 comments… add one
  • Kelsey L.

    What do you mean by “if you’re nearing the national average cut off age of 36”? Does that mean that you have to retire from Law Enforcement at a certain age?

    • Radek M. Gadek

      That’s right. Many law enforcement positions have an age limit (from around 35-37, and in some cases, to 40 years of age) due to mandatory retirement age requirements.

    • chris

      No. What he means is that you cannot apply to be a police officer if you are over the age of 36. It just means that you are too old to enter the academy.

      • Barb.

        Tell then why are they pushing seniors to get the degree in cj?

        • Brad

          Colleges will push anyone to get a degree in anything they can make money off of. (It’s that simple!) If you want to be a police officer at the local, county, state, tribal, transportation (i.e. airport and railroad), educational (i.e. college & university police) or federal level, you have to get through police academy by a certain cut-off age limit.

          If you are someone who has been through the academy, and decide to go from one dept. to another at age 39 or 44, you can do so as you’ve already been through the academy.

          If you go from a local police dept. to a state or federal one, they’ll more than likely require you to go through their own academy, but it all depends on the needs and requirements set forth by a particular agency. Some police officers retire from all different ranks and departments and go on to work part-time for smaller ones like Amtrak police or campus police for a local community college or state university. Even a smaller town police dept. too.

          Again, the rules all vary from place-to-place, but it’s pretty well safe to say, cops never fully retire. They end-up getting into private detective and security work, start their own security companies, provide security consulting to businesses, and other things like that to not only make them extra side money to complement their pensions, but to keep them active and their minds busy.

    • Johnny Law

      They’re referring to federal law enforcement. In general, you can’t work for the feds past the age of 36. They’re only talking about the feds. I spent 5 years working in law enforcement and I never was required to have a degree. It isn’t a requirement in most cases.

  • Kathleen Tan

    Hi Radek,

    Great site! I appreciate this site and have gotten valuable info in the few minutes that I have been reading your blogs.

    My son wants to pursue Criminal Justice as his major. He got a 3.4 GPA at Westchester Community but unfortunately due to limited slots for transfer student, he didn’t get in the CJ major program. However, he was admitted in the Psychology major and I advised him to take that and have a minor in CJ. We looked at other SUNY schools that have CJ programs and here is my question: Is it really important to major in CJ? Which is better: a minor in CJ at UAlbany or a major in CJ in different SUNY school, like Plattsburgh? His dream is to work with the FBI. And I advised him, that the FBI usually look for candidates with JD/ Masters degree under their belts anyway. Therefore, after college, he will have to work, then go back to school for his JD. And I know Albany also has a good JD program so the transition won’t be too difficult.

    What do you think? Most appreciate your input.

    Thanks!

    • Radek M. Gadek

      I have an article on FBI Special Agents under the “Careers” section at the top. And, it’s not really important to major in CJ (considering his aspirations).

      As for the FBI, you’re right Master degree holders or JD and MBA grads are desired, but are not the only ones getting in. If I was aiming this high, I would stick with U Albany (or better). It’s a great institution and it has some well ranked programs.

  • Scott M

    Radek,

    Hi, first off I love the site, as I have been reading way too many open opinions on google about obtaining an MA in Criminal Justice. I have just graduated from Kansas State University with a BS in Criminology and have just been accepted in to Arizona State University for the Online Criminal Justice Masters program. I’m extremely excited to start in the fall of 2012. However, I do have some concerns.

    I want to work federal at some point in my life, as I know that jumping straight in to federal can be some what of a hurdle. So my plan is to gain my Masters and work at my new job (Armored Car Service, Dunbar Armored). I’m hoping with the Masters and my experience as an armed courier will be sufficient in opening doors, even if it is with a local law enforcement agency.

    However, my biggest concern is with my past. I have a clean record, although I have had my high school and college experience with marijuana, often times as an everyday thing. I’m very concerned that this will disqualify me right off the bat, even with a BS and an MA in Criminal Justice. I am a very clean cut person and am very smart, however, and think that this is just a small obstacle that I can hopefully over come with blunt honesty.

    If you could tell me your thoughts that would be great.

    Thanks!

    • Radek M. Gadek

      Hey Scott,

      One thing you didn’t mention is the time interval between now and when you last used drugs. I just don’t know how old you are. However, given what you have said, even with prolonged prior use you can apply for law enforcement positions. Most LE agencies have specific requirements on “how long ago” is acceptable, what type of drugs were used, how often, and if you plan on using or associate with persons that use.

      There are many people who have “experimented” with drugs that seized to do so years prior to applying for a law enforcement position and were able to obtain a job. The caveat: you’ll have to be honest on your application – and if you advance – you must be honest during the panel interview. Take into consideration that certain departments polygraph, as do most Federal agencies.

      * This is a general representation. Law Enforcement Agencies may have varying views. Hence, some are more OR less lenient. Although prior drug use can be considered a hindrance, for example, factors like your career experience, education, character, and financial history can play a more positive role.

      As for Arizona State University, congrats! It’s worth it… But, if you’re still not feeling at ease, remember that there are other great degrees which you can consider and fall back on. It’s not that easy to fall back on a criminal justice degree if you have to end up working outside the criminal justice system.

    • K

      Hello!
      I am in the MACJ program at ASU about to graduate this month. It is an excellent program and it is getting national recognition. I can tell you certain agencies do not exclude candidates because of past marijuana usage. However, you may be limiting your federal career opportunities. Three letter agencies do not overlook such details. Many state/county agencies in AZ have a three year rule (last use has to be more than three years ago). Hope this helps!

  • Former Officer

    Hello, I am a former Probation & Parole Officer who obtained an undergraduate and graduate degree in Criminal Justice – and I AM SO GLAD I MADE THE DECISION. Crime was here before me, it’s here now, and it will exist when I am six feet under; therefore, the job market is plentiful. What many people don’t tell you is the bigger picture—–RETIREMENT. If you choose a career in Law Enforcement you do not have to work no more than 25 years and guess what, your retirement is at a higher percentage because law enforcement officers are considered “high risk” jobs which earn approximately up to 5% as opposed to the 2.5% (of your base salary) which most careers earn. CO’s, PO’s, firefighters, etc retire with over a half million dollars compared to teachers, nurses, etc with maybe $150,000.00-$300,000.00. This does not include other investments, ie. money markets, CDs, Roth Iras, etc.

  • Tonya M.

    Hello, I am currently 43 years old and have an Associates and Bachelors degrees both in criminal justice and am working on my Masters. Unfortunately, I am passed the appropriate age for law enforcement careers. I was a correctional officer for 3yrs and then took a position as a correctional counselor. In order to utilize my education, am I confined to the prison system?

    Thanks

    • Richard

      Criminology degrees in my experience are totally worthless. It’s been 2 years since i graduated cum laude from ASU with my Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice and I’ve had nothing but rejection after rejection from even the most basic of entry level jobs, a lot of which don’t even require a degree. I’m stuck in a drab, unskilled $32,000 a year job with a massive student load to pay off which at this point is impossible.

      Since I graduated I’ve applied to the prison systems in Arizona many times. I even counted 13 times with MCSO in their CO division and I was rejected every single time even after posting amazing run times for a 40 yr old guy in the physical tests (12 minutes to run 1.5 miles). Having a degree made no difference. I have no criminal record, not even a speeding ticket and my work references are more than competent detailing my good work ethic and attitude.

      • Dominique

        You may want to get a masters in counseling or social work if your bachelors in CJ isn’t yielding th results. I have a BS in CJ but am a LPC and make decent money.

  • Knickerbocker

    Completing a quality Criminal Justice degree is always beneficial. If nothing else, after serving in law enforcement for several years, it can be the educational foundation to move into other specialized areas, the federal system, or to pursue graduate level work or a law degree.

  • brenda :)

    hi, my name’s brenda and im going to be a senior in high school this year. ive been looking around for options on what i want to major in and i began thinking about criminal justice. this website is really helping me out and the advice that you are giving is great! thanks for all this great information!

  • John

    Hi Radek
    I’m 42 years old and after reading your article should I be concerned after I finish school in two years

    • Radek Gadek

      What were your plans after your graduate? What degree will you have (including level)?

  • Batman

    In Massachusetts mostly all the cities employ police officers through the Civil Service exams. Mass. law gives veterans absolute preference on these exams. A non vet with a 4 year degree in CJ gets a 100 on the test, a veteran with a passing score of 70 and no degree will get hired before the non-vet with the 100.

    The Civil Service list would have to be completely exhausted of veterans for the non-vet to get a chance to get hired. By that time a new test is given and more vets, minorities, and women will also be on the list making it highly improbable for a white non-vet to get a police job for a number of years. Also the civil service requirements for police is only a high school diploma. You would be out of your mind to major in CJ if your a non-vet in Mass.

    Better off getting some other type of degree other than CJ and just keep taking the Civil service exam in hopes that you get called.

    • Radek Gadek

      Thanks for weighting in. In many agencies, small and large, this is a fairly common practice. The influx of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans is changing the landscape of law enforcement, just like it did after the Gulf War. Still, there are those that do well and are accepted with a 4-year degree and great test scores (no military experience). Law enforcement agencies are looking for well educated individuals to work in diverse environments and bring skills and ideas to the table. I recently spoke with several recruiters around the country and they are seeing an influx of military vets applying, but are still taking college grads with no military background into the next stages of hiring and the academy. Each locality may be different and may see smaller or larger flow of applications from military vets.

      As for Batman’s recommendation of a degree, it all depends on your interests and aspirations. The blog post above explains, with the help of a few linked articles, about potentially taking other degrees that do very well in the criminal justice / law enforcement fields.

  • Carlos

    Hello, thanks for the input. I’m 37 yrs old father of three and I’m getting my A.S. in CJ in six months, however I’m facing a financial crisis so I have to apply for Bankruptcy. Should I continued or give up? since a bad credit individual is not hireable?

    • Radek Gadek

      Given your age and a looming bankruptcy I would rethink any plans you may have in continuing your education past an Associate’s degree level in Criminal Justice. I would heavily consider other degrees if you plan on pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in the future. Saying that, I would have no shame in applying, and if asked, make it clear how you got into the financial mess and what you’re trying to do to remedy it. There are circumstances that may waive perceptions towards the more positive spectrum. I wish you all the best.

  • Melinda

    Hi,

    I have my bachelors in Criminal Justice and my masters in Administration of Justice and Security. I am finding it extremely hard to find a job in my field. I really want to do juvenile probation, but can’t seem to get the job. I volunteered for this position in undergraduate school and have been applying since I graduated in 2006! I am feeling like I picked the wrong field. I live in Richmond, Virginia. Should I move? I do not have any felonies. I experienced some financial problems a few years back that kind of brought my credit down, but I have been working on that. I am really feeling like this was the worst move for me career wise and I wasted close to a $100,000.

    Any advice?

    Melinda

    • Radek Gadek

      Melinda, I feel your pain. Right now, I feel this sentiment is prevalent in nearly all industries, not only criminal justice. Keep on applying and consider other places (cities, counties and even states) in your application efforts. Your financial situation can be a determinant, but it truthfully might not be at all (I don’t have all the information and different agencies evaluate financial problems differently).

      Keep your head up. And remember, you chose to pursue your education based on what you would like or love to do (I hope). Based on what you want to pursue, I don’t think it’s the degree as much as the “times” we’re living in.

    • Diana

      If you don’t mind moving to Canton, Georgia…my agency is always looking for good, honest, hardworking people. If your interested call and ask for Human Resources at the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office at 678-493-4200.

      • Angela

        I would love more information about this job opportunity. I’m planning moving to Georgia. And was a U.S. Navy Police officer. I work security now for game days at baseball basketball and football games. Also have Associate’s degree in Criminal Justice

  • Fady Louka

    I’m majoring in criminal justice and really do love this kind of stuff… My biggest fear is getting a bachelors degree and then just becoming a cop because that’s something I can do without college. I really wanna work for customs at an airport

  • Thomas

    Those with CJ degrees are often pushed to the back of the pack when applying to be an FBI agent. They want more specialized skills now days, such as computer science, accounting, and foreign language. My Special Agent spouse steered our own son away from a CJ degree for that reason. Major in computer science/minor in accounting is in high demand.

  • Jess

    Hi, Radek
    I have my Associates in Criminal Justice and am currently going to school for my bachelor’s. I have a small concern though. I have slight issues with my credit. It is less than perfect as a result of using them for textbooks and school expenses. I am planning to get a job to pay them off as soon as possible. Do I still have a chance to make it in the field? Other than that I have a clean record and no history of drug use. I’m just concerned.

  • kami

    hello
    currently getting a bachelors degree in criminal justice but i am 38 and past the age limit wondering if i am wasting my time i have never worked in this field before. Have a clean record and have worked for government agencies but just concerned that i will not find a job once i get my degree because of my age.

  • Adrian Silvis

    Hey there! This website was great because it gave me a lot of information I didn’t know. Right now I’m a senior in high school and I have always wanted to be a cop. I’m also interested in the military reserves so I can get my degree and have military experience under my belt. My biggest issue right now is finding a degree that I should get into. Criminal Justice has always been with me, but recently, a law enforcement officer told me that you don’t need a criminal justice degree to become a police officer! This opened so much more to me and I’m trying to find out which degree would be beneficial. My greatest goal is to be a part of a SWAT team. So what kind of a degree would be essential for that area?

    • Radek Gadek

      I mentioned some in this article. I also linked to another blog post that focuses just on what you’re looking for.

  • kim

    why would my credit history effect me being able to get a job in the criminal justice field??

    • Radek Gadek

      Hi Kim,

      Good question. In short, it’s to determine your level of reliability and trustworthiness. In long, it’s more than that. That is the topic of my next blog post coming out in mid-December 2012.

  • Brandon

    So here I am I class away from having my Bachelor’s Degree in CJ