Best Master's in Criminal Justice Degree Programs

Nov 05, 2021

What Is a Master's in Criminal Justice Degree?

The criminal justice field encompasses all aspects of the prevention, investigation, apprehension, trial, and punishment for criminal offenses. Students with a Master's in Criminal Justice could work in law enforcement, probation, or corrections. As experts investigate the effectiveness of the current incarceration system, an increasing emphasis is being placed on alternative solutions and early interventions. This opens the door to graduates for careers in government developing policy in this area. Public safety and criminal justice are also ongoing concerns and recurring election issues for federal and state governments, meaning the demand for criminal justice specialists is unlikely to abate in the foreseeable future.

Although criminal justice has roots in political science, the master's degrees of the two specialties are quite distinct. Political science focuses on political systems, principles relating to government, and the institutions that support the political system. In contrast, criminal justice focuses on all aspects of criminal offenses and has its foundation in the legal system.

The Best Master Degree Programs in Criminal Justice

School Tuition* Acceptance Rate Graduation Rate Financial Aid % Placement Services Career Services Accepts
1 Saint Cloud State University $8572 90% 48% 94% Yes Yes AP Credits
2 University of Baltimore $15404 78% 41% 97% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
3 CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice $11532 41% 52% 85% Yes Yes AP Credits
4 Westfield State University $6498 87% 61% 86% Yes Yes AP Credits
5 University of Colorado Denver $8069 67% 52% 82% Yes Yes AP Credits
6 Michigan State University $18858 71% 81% 70% Yes Yes AP / ACE Credits
7 University of Massachusetts-Lowell $15160 73% 66% 90% Yes Yes AP Credits
8 Rutgers University-Camden $20145 79% 65% 99% Yes Yes AP Credits
9 Saint Leo University $7296 72% 49% 100% Yes Yes AP / ACE / NCCRS Credits
10 Ferris State University $7608 87% 47% 95% Yes Yes AP Credits
11 George Mason University $15648 87% 71% 74% Yes Yes AP / ACE / NCCRS Credits
12 The University of Texas at Arlington $10248 83% 51% 90% Yes Yes AP Credits
13 Florida International University $11106 58% 63% 90% Yes Yes AP Credits
14 University of North Florida $10857 72% 67% 84% Yes Yes AP Credits
15 Washington State University $13095 76% 60% 89% Yes Yes AP / ACE Credits
16 Concordia University-Saint Paul $8550 98% 51% 98% Yes Yes AP / ACE Credits
17 California State University-Sacramento $8802 82% 55% 85% Yes Yes AP Credits
18 University of South Florida-Sarasota-Manatee $10039 24% 47% 84% Yes Yes AP Credits
19 University of Central Florida $8872 44% 72% 92% Yes Yes AP Credits
20 Stockton University $14931 76% 77% 91% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
21 Southeast Missouri State University $5959 86% 50% 96% Yes Yes AP Credits
22 University of Central Oklahoma $7853 84% 36% 91% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
23 SUNY at Albany $13403 54% 63% 85% No Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
24 University of Cincinnati-Main Campus $14468 77% 71% 75% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
25 California State University-Stanislaus $8976 89% 59% 90% Yes Yes AP Credits
26 California State University-Long Beach $8268 39% 74% 81% Yes Yes AP / ACE Credits
27 University of Nebraska at Omaha $7138 83% 50% 85% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
28 University of South Florida-Main Campus $10428 48% 75% 93% Yes Yes AP Credits
29 Fitchburg State University $5742 88% 58% 91% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
30 Tarleton State University $7215 56% 49% 87% Yes Yes AP Credits
31 University of Mississippi $8828 88% 66% 86% Yes Yes AP Credits
32 Florida Atlantic University $6693 63% 50% 82% Yes Yes AP Credits
33 University of North Texas $7788 74% 56% 82% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
34 University of Missouri-Kansas City $11006 61% 50% 92% Yes Yes AP Credits
35 Eastern Kentucky University $10450 94% 45% 98% Yes Yes AP Credits
36 Curry College $16430 87% 52% 100% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
37 The University of Texas of the Permian Basin $6038 88% 40% 91% Yes Yes AP Credits
38 Portland State University $13218 96% 48% 82% Yes Yes AP / NCCRS Credits
39 Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis $9947 81% 50% 89% Yes Yes AP Credits
40 Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania $12659 71% 68% 92% Yes Yes AP Credits
41 McNeese State University $8120 81% 47% 99% Yes Yes AP Credits
42 West Chester University of Pennsylvania $12340 75% 77% 81% No Yes AP / ACE / NCCRS Credits
43 Rowan University $15787 74% 73% 86% Yes Yes AP / ACE / NCCRS Credits
44 Texas State University $8664 81% 54% 76% Yes Yes AP Credits
45 Texas A & M International University $6190 54% 47% 97% Yes Yes AP / ACE / NCCRS Credits
46 California State University-San Bernardino $8386 69% 55% 93% Yes Yes AP Credits
47 University of Toledo $15809 96% 50% 95% Yes Yes AP / ACE Credits
48 The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley $7128 80% 46% 90% Yes Yes AP Credits
49 Weber State University $8326 No Available Data (2019-2020) 34% 91% Yes Yes AP / ACE Credits

To get a more in-depth look at our school ranking methodology, please visit our ranking methodology page.

*Tuition information is based on published tuition and required fees, per data by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Common Undergraduate Degrees for Criminal Justice

A number of schools offer undergraduate degrees in criminal justice; however, students should be aware that not all schools offering master's programs in the area have a related undergraduate program. Law, legal studies, police studies, social work, and law enforcement are some of the more popular undergraduate programs for master's students in this field. Other students pursue a Master's in Criminal Justice after gaining an undergraduate degree in areas such as political studies, criminology, psychology, and sociology.

Admissions Requirements for Criminal Justice Master's Programs

Admission into a master's program in criminal justice typically requires students to have completed courses in this area. Those students without any background in criminal justice are not prevented from applying for the master's program, but may be required to complete a foundation course first. These courses ensure students have the necessary background to successfully participate in the master's program at the respective school.

Entry into master's programs in criminal justice is competitive, with most schools requiring a GPA of 3.0 or better, although some schools accept applications from students with a 2.5 GPA. Most schools also factor in a standardized test, such as the GRE General Test, to evaluate whether students' quantitative and verbal reasoning skills are sufficient for the level of study.

Some schools require students to complete an admissions essay or provide letters of recommendation as part of the admissions process, while others take into account work experience in the criminal justice area. The emphasis placed on these aspects varies by school and, in some instances, means the door may not be completely closed for students who do not meet strict academic requirements.

How to Chose a Master's in Criminal Justice Program

Students need to take into account the specialty areas of criminal justice available for study when selecting a school. This is especially relevant if there is a particular area they wish to focus on or a specific career they intend to pursue, as not all schools offer the same program options.

For students looking to complete their degree in under the usual two years of full-time study, it is essential to consider whether the school offers an accelerated learning program. Schools offering accelerated learning programs often allow students to complete aspects of the course online at their own pace or provide classes over the summer break. Program flexibility will also be a key consideration for students that have work or other commitments. These students need to consider the part-time study options that each potential school offers, as some schools require students to complete a minimum number of credits in a given timeframe.

The cost will also play a role for most students when considering schools with tuition fees varying considerably. Many schools require higher costs for out-of-state students, which is usually at least double the tuition of an in-state student. If students are planning on applying for financial aid to complete their studies, it is a requirement that the school they attend is accredited.

Master's in Criminal Justice Program Accreditation

In the field of criminal justice, accreditation from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) is considered the gold standard. The ACJS accreditation is evidence that the program provided by the school is of a consistently high standard. It means that independent assessors have reviewed the program and determined that the content is appropriate to the level of study, the presentation of materials is balanced, and the methods of evaluation fair. The accreditation also ensures that the course of study to achieve a Master's in Criminal Justice at a particular school is comparable to other schools offering the same qualification. The ACJS accreditation is well known and respected by those in the field, contributing to positive job outcomes for students.

Criminal Justice Master's Degree Courses

A typical criminal justice master's program will require students to complete a combination of core and elective courses. All students are required to pass the prescribed core courses. The core courses provide a foundation for more focused study in a specific area, imparting the background knowledge necessary to complete elective courses successfully. The elective courses allow students to focus on a particular aspect of criminal justice that they are interested in or holds specific relevance to the career they wish to pursue.

Generally, a Master's in Criminal Justice will require students to complete between 30 and 36 credits, which would usually take two years of full-time study. Several schools give students the option of completing a thesis as part of their program of study. Some schools have built work experience and internships into their programs.

Criminal Justice Foundational Courses

There is some variation in the required core courses between the schools. Schools with a reputation for having a strong program in a particular area of criminal justice are likely to weigh the core studies toward that area.

Most accredited schools have core courses that cover the following material:

  • Administration of Justice - covers the legal system, policy, and procedures
  • Corrections - teaches students about the legal environment and theories of correction
  • Criminological Theory - includes the nature of crime and offenders
  • Law Adjudication - relates to the court processes and the players in those processes
  • Law Enforcement - typically focuses on the role of the police
  • Research and Analytic Methods - teaches students the theory behind research methods in the area

Criminal Justice Specialist & Elective Courses

Most schools offer a wide range of elective classes that enable students to tailor their students to the areas that most interest them. Some schools offer a thesis, work experience, or internships as elective options. With work experience becoming increasingly desirable when applying for jobs, this is often a popular elective option.

Given the broad nature of criminal justice, schools tend to offer a range of classes that can be taken in unison to provide a comprehensive understanding of a niche area. For example, those interested in enforcement may take electives in law enforcement intelligence operations, police administration, homeland security, private security, or law and policy relating to corrections.

Other popular elective options may explore how the legal system impacts specific groups such as women or African Americans. They may also consider theories relating to offending and punishment among similar groups and how the legal system addresses any disparities between the groups.

Licensure & Certification in Criminal Justice

Several careers in criminal justice require a license. This includes those working as private detectives or investigators, with 22 states requiring those working in the area to be licensed. Students are typically required to sit a state examination to obtain a license. Licenses are also required by attorneys and judges. All attorneys must pass the state bar examination in any state they wish to practice in. There are ongoing continuing education requirements that must be met to maintain the license.

Although licenses are not obligatory in law enforcement, there are several requirements that a person interested in working in the field must meet. Most law enforcement agencies require the candidate to be a US citizen for example. Common disqualifiers include a felony conviction, history of poor credit, gang affiliations, or a poor driving record.

There are a multitude of different certifications available to those working in criminal justice. Examples of the certifications available in law enforcement include the drug recognition certification and crime and analysis certification. Investigators in specialist areas are required to hold certifications. They are often used to establish credibility when giving testimony in court. Most have ongoing continuing education requirements to ensure those in a particular area are up-to-date with recent developments in the field. Examples include arson investigators, narcotics investigators, crime scene technicians, and forensic technicians.

Post-Graduate Options After Master's in Criminal Justice

For most students in the criminal justice field, a master's is known as a terminal degree. A Ph.D. (or doctorate) is available. This qualification is predominantly pursued by those looking to embark on a career in either research or teaching. It is also a requirement when becoming a forensic psychologist. Doctorates have requirements relating to the coursework a student must complete and will typically require the student to write a thesis. There is significant freedom in the courses students complete, enabling them to choose classes that complement their thesis. A typical Ph.D. will take between 3 and 5 years to complete and comprises 50 to 75 credits.

Criminal Justice Professional Organizations

There are a range of professional organizations available to those with a master's degree in criminal justice. Those working in the field will typically join the organization that most closely aligns with their work.

For criminal profilers, this could be the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). The AAFS describes itself as a multidisciplinary organization. Some of the benefits of being a member of the AAFS include networking opportunities, peer support, mentoring, opportunities for continuing education, and access to up-to-date research and standards that ensure best practice is being followed. The organization is divided into subgroups based on specialty. Different types of membership are available from student through to fellow. Each subgroup has its own membership requirements, the common features being of sound moral character, the payment of a registration fee, and attendance at a minimum of two meetings over the year.

For those working in law enforcement, a likely professional organization is the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA). The benefits of joining the NCJA include access to funding information, continuing education opportunities, discounts with certain businesses, an annual conference, the opportunity to have input into government policy, and an exclusive members-only job board. Membership is available at an individual level from tertiary student-level upwards. NCJA also offers several different group membership options.

What Can I Do with a Criminal Justice Master's Degree?

A graduate with a Master's in Criminal Justice could work in a range of different areas in this specialty, including law enforcement, corrections, and probation. When coupled with a law degree, there are opportunities to work as an attorney for the prosecution or defense; some graduates may even sit as judges in the criminal court system. For those interested in criminal justice at a policy level, there are opportunities to become a government analyst, developing new policy and guiding legislative reform.

Unlike many other professions, entry-level positions do not always require a post-secondary education; however, such a qualification unlocks a range of possibilities for students. A master's degree will open the door to positions in leadership and specialist roles that would not otherwise be an option. Careers for graduates with master's degrees in the field include detectives for law enforcement agencies, correctional facility managers, probation officers, and policy analysts.

One of the more unique opportunities may see students pursuing a writing career that focuses on criminal justice. This includes roles as journalists or crime writers.

Job Outlook for a Master's in Criminal Justice

The diverse range of jobs available in the criminal justice field makes it difficult to predict growth at an industry level; however, with the US crime rate remaining relatively steady, it is unlikely that demand for criminal justice professionals will decrease. This is coupled with a general trend toward non-custodial sentences and early intervention to prevent petty offenders from committing more serious crimes. These interventions are generally more labor-intensive, suggesting demand for criminal justice specialists is likely to increase in the coming years.

In the law enforcement field, a growth rate of 5% has been forecast for 2019 to 2029. The legal profession, which includes lawyers, judges, paralegals, court staff, and legal assistants, also has a predicted growth rate of 5% over the same period.

A Master's in Criminal Justice is a universal qualification. This means the opportunity exists for graduates to work internationally in this field.

How to Become a Criminal Profiler

A master's degree in criminal justice provides students with the necessary skills to become a criminal profiler. Criminal profilers work with law enforcement agencies to identify those who have committed serious crimes. The role requires them to evaluate crime scenes and evidence, develop a psychological profile of offenders, read and write reports, and give expert testimony in court. Criminal profilers work closely with law enforcement agencies and play a vital role in the apprehension of offenders.

Some criminal profilers may work with criminal defense lawyers, offering an alternative perspective to the prosecution profilers in court proceedings; profilers may also play a key role in jury selection for criminal proceedings.

There is potential to progress to the level of a forensic psychologist, although this would require the completion of a doctorate program.

No salary information is available that relates specifically to criminal profilers. They are broadly classified as criminal investigators, who, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics have an average salary of $86,030 in 2019. Most of the job opportunities in this field are in larger metropolitan cities, with the highest average salaries in Alaska, Hawaii, and California.

How to Become a FBI Special Agent

Criminal justice is one of the fields that the FBI looks to when recruiting agents. Promotion to a special agent is an option for those that are experts in certain fields. Special agents have unique skills and complement mission-critical work. For a graduate with a Master's in Criminal Justice, this could mean a career in behavioral science, organized crime, or counterterrorism units, or a position on the evidence response team, to name just a few of the opportunities.

Obtaining a position as an FBI is a competitive process. A master's degree is advantageous, with the experience requirement decreased for candidates with this qualification. The application process encompasses a range of physical and intellectual challenges to assess candidate suitability.

The average salary of an FBI agent, according to Payscale is $65,595. FBI agents have a predetermined pay scale which is applied as their career progresses. This scale takes into account their experience, area of expertise, education, and performance. This career pathway may require travel, but a potential downside is, at least initially, agents may have limited control over where they are posted.

Master's in Criminal Justice Program Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources

Students studying for a master's degree in criminal justice can apply for financial aid. Financial aid may be available in the form of grants, loans, work-study arrangements, and scholarships. Applications are determined based on need. Students who require financial assistance will need to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Applications may take some time to process, so it is essential students apply early to ensure that the necessary support is available in time for the proposed semester start dates.

State governments also offer a range of financial aid packages. Information on the packages provided by individual states is available through the relevant state agency. Similarly, most schools have financial aid options available for students. The details are available at the financial aid office of the respective schools.

There are a number of national scholarships available to students wishing to study for a master's degree in criminal justice. For example, the criminal justice honor society Alpha Phi Sigma provides a number of scholarships to its members. Among these, the V.A. Leonard Scholarship is awarded annually to one graduate Alpha Phi Sigma student. The scholarship is based on merit, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and an essay. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners also offers a number of scholarships to its members. Notably, the Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship is awarded annually to a student that has a special interest in fraud examination.

Next: View Schools
Created with Sketch. Link to this page

Additional Master's Degrees Programs

View More

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?