Beyond rankings

While we highly recommend our top four criminal justice programs, including Washington State University and Penn State, we do not advise students to blindly enroll in these degree tracks without considering alternatives. This is because our evaluation model ranks programs in a general sense—it does not take into account certain student scenarios, like whether or not you are a resident of a certain state, whether you prefer a faculty of seasoned professionals (attorney, director of a state agency) or academics (editor of National Institute of Justice), or whether you only require a degree to receive a promotion at work. Once you begin to decide what you require out of a criminal justice program, many Unranked and Honorable Mention programs could be competitive with our top choices.

Some programs that we did not rank highly are better for certain students

For example, a Minnesota resident who: needs a very affordable education, does not require a large catalog of electives, and wishes to be a corrections officer is better off finding the most affordable program with ties to local corrections facilities. Bemidji State University meets those requirements (department chair Dr. Gilbertson reports two-thirds of each graduating class goes into law enforcement and corrections). At $365/credit, it is less expensive than WSU, Penn State, ASU, or Sam Houston. Even though we gave it an Honorable Mention designation, it is clearly a program this Minnesota prospective student should consider along with our top choices.

Below is our guide to determining the best online program for your needs. The first section explains personal preferences our methodology does not fully cover. The second section is a guide on contacting schools of interest to determine which is the best fit.

What else do you need to take into consideration?

1. Specialization / Electives

The size of a program's course catalog is important for some, but not for others. A Florida student who really wants to work for the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, may end up at Saint Leo over the University of Central Florida or Florida Gulf Coast University since it offers a specialization in Homeland Security.

2. Type of faculty

There are two types of criminal justice professors. The first kind are seasoned professionals like former police chiefs, federal agents, probation officers, and prison administrators. The second are pure academics with little or no professional experience; instead, their expertise is developed by performing research for journals and consulting on crime policies.

  • What are some views that professors have on the types of faculty present in a program? Park University department chair Greg Plumb says there are benefits to having real world experience:

“Of course, I am biased, but faculty with real world experience helps keep the curriculum current and practical. Our focus is on the professional, including administration, approach to all areas of criminal justice. We have three areas of concentration: law enforcement, corrections, and security.”

  • When asked how to judge criminal justice programs, Arizona State University foundation professor Dr. Decker says academic success of the faculty is important:

Look at the professional success of the faculty members in regards to publications and research, and student satisfaction.”

3. Residency and Tuition

Always check your in-state options for the most affordable program

Many programs are very affordable for residents of the state of origin, but their out-of-state tuition makes them a bad choice for anyone else. An example is SUNY College of Technology-Canton, where the in-state tuition is $245/credit (fantastic for New York residents); however, at $638/credit for out-of-state students, you're better off with one of our four top choices if you don't live in New York.

Another example is University of Arkansas – Little Rock. The tuition is $197/credit for residents and $546/credit for non-residents. At that price, Arkansas residents might consider this program over our other recommended programs.

4. Where you want to work

We learned each department has a different strength when it comes to employment prospects. Residency also ties into this point because most online programs utilize their campus reputations with local and in-state employers to help students find placement after graduation. In many cases there is is an added benefit of attending an online program that is close to where you are going to end up working.

  • There are some programs, like Montana State University, that succeed at training students to become police, detention, correctional, and parole officers. Professor Michael DiBrizzi told us their program succeeds specifically because of its internship opportunities:

We've had students do internships with local attorneys, the County Prosecutor's Officer, the Public Defender's Office, State Probation and Parole, the County Detention facility.  Every location has been willing to hire our students after they performed their internships.  Of the 5 graduates we had this year, 2 were already Police Officers (one a local Officer and one a Tribal Police Officer on a rueservation).  One girl will be working with a local youth facility that accepts juvenile delinquents in a Diversion program, and the last 2 are looking to get jobs as a Probation Officer and a Police Officer”

  • Other programs, like University of Toledo, report graduates working mainly outside of law enforcement in places like prisons, social service agencies, and private security. Department chair Thomas Gutteridge explains where his graduates eventually end up:

While some of our graduates go into law enforcement, the majority of our student alumni work in the corrections, and human services field as correctional officers in jails and prisons, counselors in jails, prisons, and group homes, probation officers, parole officers, case managers, and other social service personnel.  We also have graduates who work in the courts as court administrators and as private investigators for defense attorneys. In the private security field, some work as security guards and managers, loss prevention specialists, and fraud investigators.”

How we would research the perfect program

1. Determine your in-state and nearby options

First, compile a list of programs from surrounding states, and then filter out anything we labelled Not Recommended.

  • Let's say you are a resident of Colorado. Here is how your list would turn out:

Colorado Christian University, Colorado
University of Colorado-Denver, Colorado
University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, Colorado
Ottawa University-Phoenix, Arizona
Arizona State University, Arizona
University of the Southwest, New Mexico
Western New Mexico University, New Mexico
Fort Hays State University, Kansas
Ottawa University, Kansas NO
University of Nebraska-Omaha, Nebraska
University of Nebraska-Kearney, Nebraska
Bellevue University, Nebraska
Peru State College, Nebraska
Mid-America Christian University, Oklahoma
University of Oklahoma-Norman, Oklahoma

  • Reference our rankings to eliminate the very worst programs that received a ranking of Not Recommended and you would eliminate these programs:

Ottawa University-Phoenix, Arizona
Ottawa University, Kansas NO
University of the Southwest, New Mexico
Western New Mexico University, New Mexico
Mid-America Christian University, Oklahoma

2. Finalize a working list

The remaining programs can be organized by how we ranked each program, and their tuition prices (taking into account in-state and out-of-state differences):

  • Top

$442/credit: Arizona State University, Arizona
$368/credit: University of Nebraska-Omaha, Nebraska
$538/credit: University of Oklahoma-Norman, Oklahoma

  • Unranked

$182/credit: Fort Hays State University, Kansas
$220/credit: Peru State College, Nebraska
$283/credit: University of Colorado-Denver, Colorado
$299/credit: University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, Colorado
$368/credit: University of Nebraska-Kearney, Nebraska
$385/credit: Bellevue University, Nebraska
$498/credit: Colorado Christian University, Colorado

3. Review our data set to see how each program performed

Now you have ten programs to choose from, three  made our top group and the rest did not. Our hypothetical Colorado student would then browse our recommended programs and pay special attention to why certain programs, like Bellevue University, scored lower than Arizona State.

4. Contact all the nearby programs

We recommend our Colorado resident to explore each of these schools by contacting each department to learn about specifics and to give each one a shot, even if they performed lower by our methodology. Speaking to these departments on the phone or at least through email to ask them questions about how their program confirms whether they may or may not be a good fit for you. Peru State College missed most of our marks and scored very low, but because Dean Galardi spoke to us and explained the strengths of the school (multiple concentrations like Criminal Justice Counseling and Law and Society, and a solid record of graduating students who become deputy sheriffs and corrections case managers and officers), we think it could be great for some students who are going to work in the surrounding states.

  • Talking with a professor will answer these questions:
  1. Are there students like me who enroll here?
  2. Does the faculty align with my career interests?
  3. Does the curriculum match my career interests?
  4. Does the program support students in finding employment in the state I reside in?
  5. What is the experience like for an online student here?

For our Colorado student who really needed an affordable degree and who wanted to eventually work in corrections, we'd advise them to get on the phone to talk to Dean Galardi from Peru State College. At its incredible price of $220/credit, it's less than half of WSU and University of Oklahoma-Norman, and adding in its regional reputation, could be a Colorado student's best choice.

It is also useful to research our top choices like ASU so that you have an idea of what to compare a program like Peru State with. Take a look at ASU's faculty and curriculum, how they responded to our own student inquiry, and what we liked most about ASU.

  • Here is what we would tell the Colorado student to ask Dean Galardi:
  1. I plan on working in Colorado, how is Peru's reputation with local, county and state employers there? Can you tell me about Colorado-based students who enrolled in your program and ended up working in corrections?
  2. Is there anything in your course catalog that will strengthen my knowledge of corrections more than another program?
  3. Can you describe your faculty? Who has professional experience and who does not? Does anyone have professional experience with corrections?
  4. What sets your program apart from others? Specifically, those in surrounding states?
  5. How does Peru State create a great experience for an online student?

We would also have the Colorado student ask these questions to all of the nine other programs they're interested in.

Coming up with a final decision

It's a lot of extra work, but getting a feel for each criminal justice department definitely serves to inform your final best choice. Some departments, like WSU, accommodated all our requests–and that effort made it easy to place them as our number one. We were able to speak to a counselor on the phone, receive answers about employment and faculty members, and were also forwarded to other faculty members who wrapped up remaining questions.

We realize not every program will not respond as well as WSU, granted that this was our experience calling them; you may have different luck. When we emailed the University of Colorado-Denver, they only replied to a few of our questions and even then they were not as informative as Peru State. The other University of Colorado (at Colorado Springs) didn't respond at all! Calling schools and talking to real people on the phone may clear up these issues, but it was blatantly obvious from our email discussions that Peru State showed the most effort.

Ultimately you will decide from on a combination of costs, employment prospects, quality of instruction, and how you feel about your interactions with the program. After all, a college education is a product that you pay for. Make sure you get your money's worth.