What’s the best online criminal justice program?
We reviewed 107 online criminal justice programs and selected the four best programs for a bachelor's degree
This all started by wanting to answer the question: “What’s the best online criminal justice program?” To do this, we began on the bachelor’s level and explored every available program offered online. Over 40 professors then helped us create an original methodology used to narrow our list of 107 programs down to the top four in the nation. And to tie all of this together, there was great emphasis placed on transparency and the explanations behind our thought process—with the goal to have anyone be able to follow along and understand why certain programs outperformed others.
Everything presented here was carefully researched to be the most accurate and truthful as possible. Our team spent hundreds of hours verifying every data point with universities, collaborating with department professors to better understand their program and the discipline, and constructing an easy to understand methodology.
You’ll find the most important data and reviews in the navigation section called “Bachelor’s Rankings” (look at the top of the page). In that section you’ll see who performed the best, who were the worst, along with explanations for the results. We cover everything else in the “Advice” section, and also don’t miss out on reading the results of our professor surveys.
Want to jump right in and see what program came out on top? Just continue reading below.
Best Online Criminal Justice Degree Programs of 2016
The highest scoring program
Our #1 program is Washington State University: We loved how the program is a part of their Global Campus, which provides online students with exclusive career fairs and access to career consultants. Their faculty is one of the best we reviewed—led by Craig Hemmens, who served as President of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and includes successful police chiefs and award winning criminal law scholars. To top it off, the entire online campus at WSU won the 2013 Sloan Consortium award for Quality Online Education. Although students pay a relatively steep $570 per credit to attend (this is above the $365 median cost of online criminal justice programs), we think this is money well spent.
#1 Washington State University (Pullman, WA)
Tuition: $570/credit (for both in-state and out-of-state)
Department Website: Link
WSU was the only program to score perfectly on our evaluation
And when we picked up the phone to discuss their program, we spoke with advisor Emily Chandler. Emily provided us with the most impressive phone response out of all the programs, informing us that the online degree program is taught by the exact same faculty, and uses the same curriculum, as the on-campus one.
- Read our full review of WSU.
The other top programs
#2 Arizona State University (Phoenix, AZ)
#3 Sam Houston State University (Huntsville, TX)
#4 Penn State (College, PA)
21 other programs made our final list, reviewed here.
WSU, Penn State, and ASU report some of the highest graduation and freshman retention rates of all the 107 departments we reviewed. WSU and Penn State both had their online campuses awarded by the Sloan Consortium for academic excellence. If you’re concerned with the quality of teaching at these schools, don’t worry: all our recommended programs are taught by faculty with outstanding credentials. WSU’s program is taught by previous police chiefs; Sam Houston’s by D.E.A. special agents; and Penn State’s by probate court judges. Additionally, notable faculty include creators of police officer training courses (Sam Houston), fellows of the ACJS (ASU), and fellows of the National Institute of Justice (ASU). To put this in context, there are many criminal justice programs at other schools that don’t even list their faculty information on their websites at all. This quality does come with a small premium on price: all of our recommended programs cost somewhat more than than the median tuition for online criminal justice programs.
Are these online programs for me?
Who these programs are best for: The flexibility an online program offers can be a great fit for students who are working full time, but want a criminal justice degree. A number of programs reported having many successful graduates who were employed as active police officers during their studies. Professors told us that many of their students are able to graduate and obtain careers as police, probation, corrections and parole officers, victim advocates, and investigators — while at the same time working in federal agencies, and local, county, and state municipalities.
Who these programs may not be best for: Depending on where you live, you may have access to cheaper, in-state options which have strong ties to places where you would like to be employed. Here are a few examples for Florida and Louisiana residents:
- University of Central Florida charges one of the most affordable in-state tuitions and has an excellent reputation in Florida, graduating directors of federal police training programs, chiefs and deputies of police squads, and various federal agents. When we spoke with him, Professor Eastep said that they have a great active internship program, which has an internship coordinator who helps students find a local placement.
- Northwestern State University of Louisiana has one of the most affordable tuitions of all 107 programs we considered. Their faculty is led by veteran criminal investigators, detectives and administrators of federal correctional institutions. Program head Joe Morris says their graduates have found work all throughout Louisiana and Texas in federal agencies, border patrol, customs, and as U.S. Marshals.
How we collected our data
Initial data collection: The first thing we did was generate a complete list of online programs from NCES College Navigator. To make sure every program was included in our data set, we also searched for related majors such as Justice Studies and Justice Administration. We felt that these programs had similar enough curriculums to be considered under the umbrella of Criminal Justice. However, we did not include any criminology programs because they are part of a different discipline than criminal justice. Other more specific programs such as “Law Enforcement Administration” and “Economic Crime Investigation” were also cut. This gave us 348 online programs.
*Every program came from a university already verified as being accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
We didn’t include for-profits. Read our comparison of for-profit programs to learn why
Filtering the data set: We decided to remove for-profit schools from consideration. In general, these schools are very expensive but fail to score adequately on indicators of quality such as graduation rates. By removing them, we narrowed our list to 160 programs. Additionally, we removed any hybrid or degree completion programs. We only wanted to review programs where you can complete your degree — in its entirety — fully online. Since criminal justice does not require hands on training (unlike, for example, programs in the medical field), we felt this would still leave us with high-quality programs. We also removed any programs not reporting their graduation or retention rate. This resulted in a final set of 107 programs.
What we looked for in each program
1. Institutional Performance: We only wanted programs coming from schools that reported above the national average graduation and retention rates because it’s generally understood these are indicators of university quality. While these numbers are general to the entire school (not to the specific program), we felt the easiest way to remove a large portion of mediocre programs would be to use this as a threshold and remove any program from a school that fell below it. There’s also not a whole lot of department-specific data, so if it got down to two similar criminal justice programs, we’d probably pick the one coming from a school with the superior graduation/retention rate. We set the thresholds for graduation and retention rates at 52.8% and 71.9%, respectively. Most schools did not make this cut; 79% were removed by this threshold.
Highest graduation rates
- Penn State – 85%
- Texas A & M University-Central Texas – 79%
- Saint Louis University – 70%
- DeSales University – 70%
- Drexel University – 70%
Highest retention rates
- Penn State – 92%
- Texas A & M University-Central Texas – 92%
- Drury University – 89%
- Saint Louis University – 88%
- University of Central Florida – 88%
There is no publicized ranking for criminal justice programs, so we used the next best lists
2. Major Ranking: We also wanted to find programs from schools that had placed on at least one major ranking. If no one else is at least mentioning a school or program, we saw that as a mark against it, and if everyone was liking the school, we felt that was important to note too. The rankings surveyed were carefully chosen so that we would have a variety of methodologies to pull from. This includes US News National Ranking (2014), US News Online Bachelor’s Programs (2014), US News Top Criminology (2009), Forbes Top Schools (2014), and Washington Monthly National Rankings (2014).
3. Quality Factors: We then measured each program by ten quality factors, which looked at things such as their faculty and whether or not they had active criminal justice clubs or internship options for students. The number of times they received a mention on one of the rankings we considered was also a factor in the final score.
Programs with the highest quality scores (10 maximum points)
- Washington State University – 10
- Arizona State University – 8
- Sam Houston State University – 8
- Penn State – 8
- University of Central Florida – 7
47% departments responded to our questionnaire. Here are the results
4. Email Response Quality: Now we emailed each program a set of survey questions and graded their responses to our inquiries. In this process, we confirmed whether the diploma and transcript you receive has the same wording as a diploma earned entirely on-campus. Additionally, we asked them a series of questions to determine their department’s strengths, such as: “does your faculty possess professional experience with law enforcement, probations, corrections, or the court system?” We looked for programs that went above and beyond a normal response to our requests, which we feel is an indicator of the program’s effort and the degree to which they strive to accommodate students.
Programs with the best response scores (3 maximum points)
- Sam Houston State University* – 3
- University of Central Florida – 3
- University of Toledo* – 3
- Washington State University – 3
- Northwestern State University of Louisiana* – 3
*These programs were originally filtered out but received recommendations because of an exceptional response score.
5. Phone Call: Once the scores were tallied up, we realized there needed to be one more step. A handful of programs all had great academic statistics, department resources, and placed on every ranking — deciding on the best would be difficult without one more metric. So we picked up the phone and had a conversation with an advisor from each of the three highest scoring programs. From this conversation, we were able to get a genuine feel for the strengths of each program, allowing us to decide on our favorite program.
Summarized, our methodology was as follows:
- Filter by graduation and retention rate thresholds
- See how the school offering the program fares in five national rankings
- Determine how many department resources exist
- Grade their response to our emailed student inquiries
- Call up the top scoring programs to decide who we felt was the best
What we did not use to rank
Before we got started, we surveyed professors and they all agreed: criminal justice curricula are going to be similar—so you should choose programs based on your needs, preferences, and the reputation of the school. In a few cases we needed to examine curricula, but typically we ignored curriculum specifics because it would be difficult to measure in terms of affecting a student’s education. Just because one program has two extra courses on corporate security does not make it necessarily better than a similar program that doesn’t.
We omitted other considerations including specializations, the exact method of delivery (on the technology side), the quality of faculty research, and graduate salaries. This is because some points could be embellished or misreported, such as salaries, so we decided to leave it up to you, the student, to decide if a school’s particular online classroom is the best for your style of learning.
Price was taken into account but it was not a significant factor in our considerations. Specifically, we used it as a tiebreaker between two similarly performing programs, giving extra points to programs that were able to score highly on our assessment while charging very affordable tuition. However, more expensive programs were not docked for simply being more expensive.
Want to more thoroughly dive into our process?
Arriving at these specific criteria was the culmination of a long process. To understand more about how we developed our ranking process and for an in-depth walkthrough of every factor, visit our methodology page.
What about all the other programs?
What about an Associate’s or Master’s in Criminal Justice? We are in the midst of researching and reviewing community colleges and universities that offer online associate’s and online master’s in criminal justice. Some of the departments that had bachelor’s programs we liked also offer online master’s programs.
- We have started to highlight other degree levels in our Associate’s and Master’s program reviews.