Are you considering getting an associate degree in criminal justice? Criminal justice (CJ) is an interesting path that can lead to rewarding career opportunities. The question is: will it pay off? And in the field of criminal justice, can an associate degree help? The short answer is YES.

Let’s explore the ‘how’ in detail.

Whether you’re looking to learn just enough to land an entry-level job in criminal justice, or if you’re looking to switch career paths, or work towards a higher degree in the field, an associate degree can set you up for success. 

In general, you’ll get a basic understanding of the justice system in America. From courts to corrections, there’s a lot to learn. Associate-level programs help you quickly grasp these systems, focusing on getting you job-ready right after graduation. Here’s a quick look at some of the subjects you could expect from a criminal justice associate degree program. 


The coursework and curricula can vary significantly in different criminal justice associate degree programs. In this field, you can either choose an Associate of Arts (AA) or an Associate of Science (AS) in criminal justice. There aren’t significant differences in the coursework, but an AS program usually includes more practical subjects with math and science courses, while an AA program often covers humanities, social studies, etc. 

Here’s what the coursework in a typical associate degree in criminal justice looks like, using the catalogs of schools like Post University and Fisher College as reference:

  • Introduction to Criminal Justice
  • Introduction to Law Enforcement
  • Introduction to Corrections
  • Introduction to Security
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Crime
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Criminal Law
  • Principles of Criminal Investigation
  • Criminal Court Processes
  • Deviance and Social Control
  • Introduction to Sociology 
  • Forensic Science
  • Quantitative Methods

Besides these, many programs also include classes on communication skills, reading, comprehension, and similar subjects to prepare students for field roles in criminal justice.

Related: Criminology vs. Criminal Justice vs. Criminalistics: Explained 

criminal justice associate degree student

The approximate cost of a regular 2-year associate degree in criminal justice can range from $17,000 to $67,000, according to information from EducationData.Org, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and various other sources. 

The exact cost of your criminal justice associate degree can vary based on the following factors:

  • Type of institution (private, public, for-profit, non-profit, community college, etc.)
  • The program timeline you opt for (full-time vs. part-time)
  • The program mode you opt for (online vs. campus-based)
  • Whether you’re attending in-state or out-state, if campus-based
  • Your financial aid package (including scholarships and need-based aid)

Tuition, textbook, technology, boarding, and other fees can vary significantly with each university. In general, online criminal justice associate’s degrees tend to be relatively more affordable. 

An associate degree in criminal justice typically takes 2 to 2.5 years to complete (full-time), though some may take longer, depending on the program and institution. Most programs require 60 credits for graduation. In some cases, there may be additional training for specific roles, which may extend the duration of your degree by a few weeks. 

An associate degree in criminal justice can open the door to a variety of entry-level positions within the criminal justice field. Here are some roles you can pursue:

Role Median Pay (2022)Job Outlook (2022-2032)
Police Officers / Detectives$69,160 per year3% (As fast as average)
Patrol Officers$65,790 per year2% to 4% (Average)
Probation Officers$59,860 per year3% (As fast as average)
Private Detectives$52,120 per year6% (Faster than average)
Correctional Officers$49,610 per year-7% (Slight decline)
Bailiffs$49,100 per year-2% or lower (Slight decline)

Police Officers / Detectives

Median Annual Pay (2022):
$69,160 per year

What they do:

Police officers and detectives enforce laws, investigate crimes, and aim to protect the public. They respond to emergencies and gather evidence to solve cases. A degree in criminal justice can provide foundational knowledge of law enforcement practices and procedures, which can help prepare individuals for the physical and intellectual demands of this role.

See data on Police Officers and Detectives from the US Bureau of Labor Services (BLS).

Related: How to Become a Detective

Patrol Officers

Median Annual Pay (2022): 

$65,790 per year

What they do:

Patrol officers monitor assigned areas, respond to calls for assistance, and often work in specific areas of law enforcement. They maintain public order, investigate accidents, and assist with emergencies. Pursuing an associate degree in criminal justice can offer insights into criminal behavior and law enforcement techniques, enhancing your readiness for the responsibilities of patrolling and responding to community needs.

See data on Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers from O*Net Online. 

Probation Officers

Median Annual Pay (2022): 

$59,860 per year

What they do:

Probation officers work with individuals who have been placed on probation to ensure they comply with court-ordered conditions. They monitor progress, provide support, and report any violations to the court. An associate degree in criminal justice can arm you with an understanding of legal processes and rehabilitation strategies, aiding in the effective supervision and guidance of probationers.

See BLS data on Probation Officers

Private Detectives

Median Annual Pay (2022):
$52,120 per year

What they do:

Private detectives conduct investigations for individuals, businesses, or attorneys. They gather information, analyze evidence, and uncover facts related to legal, financial, or personal matters. Pursuing a degree in criminal justice can enhance your investigative skills and knowledge of criminal procedures, strengthening your capabilities in conducting thorough and ethical investigations.

See BLS data on Private Detectives and Investigators

Correctional Officers

Median Annual Pay (2022): 

$49,610 per year

What they do:

Correctional officers oversee individuals who have been arrested or convicted and are serving time in correctional facilities. They maintain order, enforce rules, and ensure the safety and security of inmates and staff. An associate degree in criminal justice can give you insights into correctional policies and practices, helping you effectively manage inmate populations and promote rehabilitation within correctional settings.

See BLS data on Correctional Officers


Median Annual Pay (2022): 

$49,100 per year

What they do:

Bailiffs maintain order and security in courtrooms during legal proceedings. They escort defendants, jurors, and witnesses, and enforce courtroom rules to ensure fair and orderly trials. A degree in criminal justice can help you understand legal procedures and courtroom protocols, preparing you to enter the system right after graduation. 

See O*Net Online data on Bailiffs↗   

Besides these roles, a criminal justice degree, with the right specialization can also open up opportunities in emergency management agencies and non-profit organizations that work with inmates, rehabilitation centers, youth centers, and law firms. A CJ degree can also help you build transferable skills such as critical thinking, logical reasoning, etc. which can be applied to multiple roles across industries. 

Related: Law Enforcement Jobs You Can Get With a Criminal Justice Degree 

law enforcement criminal justice degree

Before applying for an associate in criminal justice, you should spend time carefully considering certain key factors, especially if you’re aiming to pursue a higher degree in the future. Here’s what you should look at:

Your Career Goals

Take some time to reflect on your career goals within criminal justice. Are you passionate about law enforcement, corrections, legal assistance, or some other area of CJ? Understanding your interests and desired career path can help you tailor your education to align with your goals.

Program Accreditation

Ensure that the college offering the associate degree in criminal justice is accredited by a recognized accrediting body. Accreditation ensures that the program meets established standards of quality and rigor, enhancing the value of your degree in the eyes of employers.


Review the curriculum of your criminal justice program to ensure it covers topics relevant to your career objectives. Look for programs that provide a comprehensive understanding of criminal law, investigative techniques, ethics, and criminal justice systems.

Practical Experiences

Look at whether the program offers opportunities for hands-on learning experiences, such as internships, practicums, or simulated scenarios. Practical experiences can enhance your skillset, provide valuable real-world exposure, and make you more competitive in the job market.

Transfer Opportunities

If you plan to continue your education beyond an associate degree, explore transfer options to bachelor’s degree programs in criminal justice or related fields. Clarify transfer credit policies and articulation agreements between institutions to ensure a smooth transition.

Financial Considerations

Assess the cost of tuition, fees, and other expenses associated with pursuing an associate degree in criminal justice. Explore financial aid options, scholarships, and grants that may help alleviate the financial burden and make your education more affordable.

Job Market Trends

Stay informed about current trends and projections in the job market for criminal justice professionals. Research employment opportunities, salary trends, and demand for specific roles to gauge the potential return on investment for your education.

Personal Commitment

Lastly, evaluate your personal commitment to completing the program successfully. Pursuing an associate degree requires dedication, time management skills, and perseverance. Be prepared to devote time and effort to your studies to achieve your academic and career goals.

By carefully considering these factors before enrolling in an associate degree program in criminal justice, you can make more informed decisions that set you on the path to a rewarding and fulfilling career in the field.

Not all heroes wear capes. Some flaunt an associate degree in criminal justice. Earning an associate degree is a great way to start your journey in this field. Criminal justice has a diverse range of challenging yet rewarding roles, and an accredited associate degree can help you prepare for them. 

An associate’s in criminal justice can be worth it if you are passionate about the field and are keen on pursuing a related career. However, if you aren’t sure about criminal justice, it may be wiser to get a degree in broader fields like business or communications, which may offer better short-term prospects.

Before enrolling, you should consider your own requirements and goals, and explore programs that match them. Our college program match tool can help you with the latter! 

Is an associate degree in criminal justice worth it?

Whether an associate degree in criminal justice is worth it depends on your specific circumstances and career goals. It can offer access to diverse career opportunities, potentially higher earnings, avenues for career advancement, and the ability to transfer credits for further education or specialized certifications. If you are passionate about criminal justice, it can be a great way to enter the field. However, if you aren’t certain, a degree in a broader field may help better. Ultimately, you should carefully weigh these factors and consider how an associate degree aligns with your personal and professional goals before making a decision.

Can I work in law enforcement with an associate degree in criminal justice?

Yes, an associate degree in criminal justice can qualify you for entry-level positions in law enforcement, such as police officer or sheriff’s deputy. However, additional training and certification may be required, depending on the jurisdiction and specific agency requirements. For more information, check out this article.