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Criminal Justice and Law have always been reliable career paths – society always needs people working to keep us safe and to represent our interests in the justice system. But in our post-9/11 world of heightened security, there are more career avenues than ever in the field. Not only are the conventional options, such as police and lawyer, just as secure as they’ve ever been, but increases in Homeland Security mean all sorts of new positions (such as cybersecurity) and increased need (such as border patrol).

Of course, you can’t just walk in off the street and become a lawyer, a police officer, a judge, or a clerk of court. A solid education is a requirement for just about all careers in the justice field. There are jobs at all education levels, but as in any profession, a higher education means a path to higher status and salary.

Degree Program Types

AS: An associate’s degree can be earned in around two years through a community college or college. The associate’s can open the door to many career paths, including police officer, corrections officer, legal assistant, or evidence technician.

(Check out: What is the Benefit of Going to a Community College?)

BS: The bachelor of science degree is a 4 year degree earned through a college or university. Many municipalities require a bachelor’s degree for police and parole officers, and most technical roles such as crime scene investigator need at least a BS.

MS: Any criminal justice job will pay more and open up more responsibility with a master’s degree – usually a two-year program, though in recent years one-year accelerated programs have become more common. Government agencies such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, and others prefer a master’s for agents.

JD: To become an attorney, the Juris Doctor (JD) degree is necessary. The JD is what people mean when they say they have a law degree – it’s the only one. A JD usually takes three years of graduate study, though you must also pass the Bar exam to practice law.

Online vs. Residential Programs

Online degrees in Criminal Justice are plentiful, since most occupations in the field are office work. You can obtain as associate’s degree in criminal justice online conveniently and relatively easily, and be prepared to work as a legal assistant or clerk right away while working on an online bachelor’s degree for further career advancement. It’s also a simple way to start a career as a police officer, parole officer, or prison guard, though it is only the first step, as further training will be necessary.

(check out: Are Online Degrees a Good Investment?)

Some career areas in criminal justice, such as the general area of crime scene investigation, may benefit from residential programs, but laboratory experience is not necessary in most job markets. Online JD programs are becoming more common, and again, there is no inherent reason a residential program is better than online. However, the perception of online degrees may still present a stigma on the job market, if you want to become a prosecutor or join a firm. If you plan to start your own practice, it’s hard to say there’s any advantage to residential.

Best Value Residential Programs

Top 50 Best Value Colleges of 2015

Top 50 Best Value Graduate Schools of 2015

Top 50 Best Value Criminal Justice Programs of 2016

Best Value Online Programs

Top 50 Best Value Online Colleges of 2015

Top 50 Best Value Online Graduate Schools of 2015

Top 50 Best Value Online Criminal Justice Programs of 2016

Top 50 Best Value Online Graduate Criminal Justice Programs of 2016

Cheapest Online Programs

Top 10 Cheapest Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs of 2015

Top 10 Cheapest Online Master’s Degree Programs of 2015

Top 10 Cheapest Online Criminal Justice Programs of 2015

Financing Education

Just about everyone’s experience with financial aid begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The results of your FAFSA will determine what aid you are eligible for based on your ability to pay on your own and your need. Your FAFSA results are the basis for Pell Grants, Federal Work Study (in which students work in exchange for tuition), and federal student loans. While grants and work study do not need to be repaid, student loans, of course, do.

If these methods do not cover your tuition and/or living expenses, private loans through banks are available for students and their parents, but students taking out loans should think carefully about the investment they are making. Private loans typically have higher interest rates and stricter repayment terms than federal loans, so you should have a reasonable expectation that you will be able to make your payments.

Working adults should also look into tuition reimbursement plans from their employers. Many corporations and businesses offer programs to pay all or part of the costs of a higher degree, since better-educated employees means better-performing employees. Obviously, most of these programs require the degree to be directly related to the job, so don’t expect the paper products company you work for to finance your poetry MFA.

(check out: 50 Top College Scholarships for 2015-2016)

Career Paths

There are plenty of career opportunities for those pursing the major Criminal Justice. Police officer may be the first position to come to mind, however, protecting and serving can translate to other titles like: parole officer, prison guard, detective, crime scene investigator or border patrol. Most people interested in these kinds of careers have strong analyzing and fact-finding skills. Other paths in the legal sector may include: attorney (defense, prosecutor  tax, corporate, real estate), clerk, paralegal, bailiff, court reporter. Another option is working within a government agency, such as homeland security or maybe conducting cyber security for public or private companies.