Have you always wanted to work in the law enforcement field? Do you love putting together the pieces of a puzzle to solve a mystery? Maybe you have a passion for reaching at-risk youth to prevent a life of crime or helping victims of crimes.
Whatever your passion, you have connected it to the criminal justice degree, and you are thinking about taking the plunge. Whether you have already enrolled, or you are just considering going to college for a criminal justice degree, you likely have many questions about the field. We have compiled some of the most frequently asked questions about earning a Criminal Justice Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree to answer some of your burning questions.
What Exactly Is Criminal Justice?
Not sure what goes into criminal justice? It is a complex field with many different components that extend beyond the role of police officers or judges.
Criminal justice describes the entire system designed to enforce laws, prevent criminal behavior, and apply consequences when those laws are broken. The three main parts of the system include:
- Law enforcement: Police officers and detectives make up the bulk of this section of the criminal justice field, which aims to patrol streets and prevent crimes, as well as investigate after crimes are committed.
- Judicial system: This is also known as the court system and includes judges, attorneys, and prosecutors. This part of the criminal justice system comes into play after a crime is committed to determine the innocence or guilt of an accused individual.
- Correctional system: When an individual is found guilty, he or she enters the correctional system, which may include jail time, probation, or rehabilitation.
Degrees in criminal justice give you the opportunity to work in certain roles throughout the criminal justice system, depending on your interests and talents.
Is a Criminal Justice Associate Degree Only for People Who Want to Be Police Officers?
No. A criminal justice degree prepares students for a variety of careers related to criminal justice and social services. The degree gives you a foundation in the criminal justice system and laws designed to prevent criminal behavior.
The criminal justice system is vast and covers everything from preventing crime and rehabilitating violators to supporting victims and reaching at-risk youth. While many criminal justice students do plan to become police officers, the field offers many other career paths.
What Type of Career Does a Criminal Justice Associate Degree Prepare Me For?
A Criminal Justice AAS program prepares graduates for a wide range of entry-level careers in law enforcement, court system jobs, and similar fields. Police officers often come to mind at the mention of criminal justice, but that is not your only option. Here are some possibilities once you earn your Criminal Justice Associate Degree:
- Police officer
- Private investigator
- Correctional officer
- Crime scene technician
- Security officer
- Victim advocate
- Probation officer
- Game warden
While the Criminal Justice program supplies you with the skills and knowledge necessary to enter the criminal justice field, some career paths may require additional training. For example, when a police department hires you, they may send you to the police academy before you actually begin working as a police officer. Other criminal justice careers may require on-the-job training during your initial employment period.
What Type of Employers and Agencies Hire Someone With a Criminal Justice AAS?
Just like the career options, the companies and agencies that hire students with a Criminal Justice AAS vary. The list includes government and private companies, agencies, and organizations.
Here are a few examples of employers who might hire a criminal justice major:
- Local police departments
- State police departments
- Secret Service
- Homeland Security
- Border Patrol
- State warden service
- Domestic violence shelters
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Departments of correction
- Retail businesses
- Insurance companies
- Other companies needing security or investigative services
Do I Really Need a Criminal Justice Associate Degree to Work in Law Enforcement?
The specific job requirements for most law enforcement or other criminal justice fields vary from state to state and even from city to city. Private employers who hire private investigators, security guards, and similar positions set their own hiring standards, so it is difficult to say what the specific education requirements will be for your desired position.
Some law enforcement positions have a base requirement of having your high school diploma or a GED, while others require at least some college credits to even qualify to apply. Keep in mind, this is the bare minimum. While you could get hired with just a high school diploma, having a Criminal Justice Associate Degree on your resume is a great asset when you apply for positions in law enforcement.
Why would an employer care? With a solid foundation in criminal justice principles, you are already ahead of your peers with no law enforcement experience and no degree. You have foundational knowledge on how to handle courtroom procedures and understand criminal behavior. You will know the basics of criminal law and victimology. Hiring for law enforcement jobs is often competitive, so giving yourself that advantage of having a degree could be the difference in getting the job.
Taking the time to earn an associate degree also shows that you have the dedication to learning and bettering yourself. You show that you are committed to the criminal justice field and want to know as much about the field as possible.
The degree may help you earn more and get promotions in the criminal justice field. Many employers offer a higher salary to a candidate with a degree. Your AAS in criminal justice could bump you higher on the pay scale right out of the gate.
When the agency needs to promote someone, a degree could put you higher on the list of prospects. In fact, many positions beyond entry-level law enforcement jobs will likely require a degree of some sort. Earning your degree now sets you up for promotions later, which means greater responsibilities and a higher paycheck.
So while a high school diploma may be enough to qualify you to apply for a job, earning that AAS in criminal justice gives you a competitive edge with more earning and advancement potential once you land a job.
What Will I Learn in the Program?
A criminal justice program typically covers a wide range of topics, including criminal law and courtroom procedures. You will learn the basics of the criminal justice system, including the laws designed to prevent crime, court procedures when a crime is committed, and supporting the victims of crime.
Criminal justice programs typically cover a broad range of topics to give you exposure to the situations you are likely to encounter to better prepare you for your career. Unlike criminology, which focuses more on theory, criminal justice courses hone in on criminal behavior and crime. The courses provide real-world skills you can apply in a criminal justice career.
An associate degree program typically also includes some basic subjects, such as math, computer science, and English composition. Those skills are more important than you may realize in a law enforcement career, so refreshing your brain gives you a strong foundation and a well-rounded education in preparation for your new career.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Criminal Justice Associate Degree of Applied Science?
The length of time it takes to complete an Associate of Applied Science degree may vary somewhat. Whether you attend part time or full time affects how quickly you finish the required coursework. Associate degrees often take about two years to complete but will take longer if you only take classes on a part-time basis.
At Vista College, learning takes place at an accelerated pace, putting you on track to finish the program in 70 weeks with continuous, full-time enrollment with successful completion of your coursework. This gets you out in the workforce faster than many other associate degree programs.
Can I Earn the Degree While I Work?
Earning your associate degree in criminal justice is possible while you continue working your current job if you choose a college with flexible programming. Vista College offers both daytime and night classes, giving you the flexibility to work around your current commitments. That means you can keep working while you work toward a new career. Taking classes on a part-time basis can also help you fit in courses around your current work schedule, but keep in mind, it will take you longer to complete the program.
How Is an Associate Degree of Applied Science Different From Other Associate Degrees?
An Associate of Applied Science degree is similar to an Associate of Arts and an Associate of Science degree, but with a key difference. The AAS degree prepares students to enter the workforce right after completion of the program, while AA and AS programs typically prepare students to transfer to a longer program.
When you earn your Criminal Justice AAS, you get the training you need to start a career in criminal justice without the need to go on for a bachelor’s degree. That means you start making a difference and earning a paycheck sooner.
What Is the Earning Potential for Someone With a Criminal Justice AAS?
The earning potential with an AAS degree in criminal justice depends on the specific avenue you pursue within the field. As we already covered, the job options are varied, so the salary potential is varied as well.
Police officers and detectives earn a median salary of $60,270 as of May 2015. Detectives and criminal investigators earn a medium salary of $77,210, while the median wage for police and sheriff’s patrol officers is $58,320. Uniformed officers and detectives may also earn overtime. The growth is expected to be 4 percent between 2014 and 2024, slightly lower than the average of all occupations.
Private detectives tend to come in slightly lower, with a median annual salary of $45,610. The median varies slightly within different industries. Government positions come in at $49,540, finance and insurance positions make about $48,950, and retail positions come in at around $33,180. The projected job growth is on pace with the average for all industries at 5 percent between 2014 and 2024.
What Should I Look for in a Criminal Justice Associate of Applied Science Program?
Since the goal of an AAS degree is to prepare you to enter the workforce right away, you need a quality program that gives you relevant skills and knowledge you can apply on the job. Those skills are what will set you apart from other candidates and help you succeed early on in your career.
Not sure how to choose an AAS program for criminal justice? Here are some tips for choosing the best program to prepare you for your criminal justice degree:
- Experienced instructors: If you want to prepare fully for your criminal justice career, you need to learn from experienced professionals who know firsthand what they are teaching. At Vista College, your instructors are professionals who have real-life experience in law enforcement fields. That type of field experience lets the instructors share that firsthand knowledge to better prepare you for your own field work.
- Flexibility: A degree program should fit your schedule and lifestyle, especially if you have other commitments, such as a family or a job. Choose a college with a flexible criminal justice program that lets you decide when to take classes based on your current commitments.
- Accelerated learning: Your time is valuable. Once you decide on your new career path, you want to get that new career started as soon as possible. A college that offers accelerated learning helps you maximize your time and financial commitment while getting you into the field sooner.
- Varied courses: What will the college teach you? Review the coursework required for the Criminal Justice AAS before committing to a college. Choose a program that teaches a wide range of skills applicable to the criminal justice field. Since an associate degree program is relatively short, you want to learn as much as possible about the field during that time.
- Lifetime career services: Look for a college that offers lifetime career services. This means the school continues offering up career services the entire span of your career, not just at graduation time. We offer lifetime career services for all of our graduates. Whether you need help finding your first job in criminal justice or want to change to a different criminal justice career in 10 years, we are always here to assist you in your job search and other career services needs.
Start Your Criminal Justice Associate Degree of Applied Science Program Now
Now that you are educated on the most frequently asked questions about a Criminal Justice AAS degree, it’s time for you to start working toward your degree. Make sure to find a college that fits your needs, so you can fit in your criminal justice classes around your commitments.