Learn how we reviewed 107 programs

From the start of our research we wanted only to do two things: compile a list of all criminal justice bachelor's degree programs offered online, and then to figure out which one was the best. To us, “the best” meant a program you'd have no problem recommending to a friend or family member if they asked. What did such a program look like?

Coming up with a recommendation wasn't as simple as finding the cheapest or most expensive degree out there. But it was not as complicated as the peer assessment surveys or social mobility scores of national school rankings either—though we knew these were important things to consider. The selection process had to be smart, transparent, and believable: we wanted students to completely understand how we came to our conclusions, and to be able to reach those same conclusions using their own deductive skills.

What did we need to research before selecting our favorite online criminal justice bachelor's degree programs?

Accreditation standards

Accreditation is an official endorsement of quality, much like how a diploma is an official endorsement of a graduate's knowledge. Accreditation agencies in the United States analyze colleges in a peer reviewed system, and schools which meet specific criteria for academic excellence then become accredited. It is a school's responsibility to maintain this standard of quality, and legitimate accreditation agencies perform periodic reassessments of every school they accredit.

But there is one caveat: a school must apply for accreditation, which means colleges are responsible for ensuring their own quality. Makes sense, right?

Well, this also means that employers (and even other universities) probably won't respect a graduate's degree if it's granted by an unaccredited institution– after all, there is no guarantee you have the knowledge which that degree suggests. This can cause problems for a student. Some graduate schools will not accept you into their program if you have an undergraduate degree from an unaccredited college. And, especially in technical fields like engineering, a degree that isn't accredited usually means you can't get a job. For these reasons we excluded all programs from unaccredited universities in our analysis.

There are two types of accreditation relevant to the discussion of online criminal justice programs: institutional: where an agency recognized by the United States Department of Education reviews an entire university, and programmatic: where a similar agency reviews a specific degree program within a college. Usually, programmatic accreditation is a prerequisite for professional licensure. For instance, the American Dental Association (ADA) is responsible for accrediting dental education programs. In almost every state, you cannot obtain a state license to be a practicing dentist unless you have graduated from an ADA-accredited program.

For criminal justice, the only accreditation that applies is institutional.There are no accrediting agencies specifically for criminal justice because there is no licensure exam or process for criminal justice professionals. You only need to have a high school diploma to become a police officer in most states, for example.

The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), a professional criminal justice organization founded in 1963, does provide a programmatic certification process. For the purpose of our analysis, schools which had ACJS certification received a small “bonus” — but we did not penalize any program for lacking this credential.

For more information about what accreditation is, who accrediting agencies actually are, and how the US Department of Education decides who to recognize, this guide answers deeper questions.

Metrics that objectively measure the quality of an education

We looked into the methodologies of other known rankings, like US News and Forbes, to see how they measured performance. Each magazine collected graduation and retention rates of the institutions they reviewed. Graduation rates are useful—but far from perfect—in helping to identify a quality school, and retention rates measure how many freshmen return for their sophomore year, which is a very telling statistic. The higher these two numbers are, the more effective a university appears to be.

Student debt statistics are also used by both publications. The motivation for collecting this data is the belief that high quality universities have low student loan default rates because their graduates are better prepared to pay off their debt.

Even though Forbes uses a few other measurements—the number of student awards and notable alumni, to name a few—we decided to stick with graduation and retention rates. Ideally, we wanted to use department-specific statistics, however they were not readily available from department websites. And, when we requested this data personally, very few faculties responded back because with numbers, saying they don't track these statistics at the department level.

This led us to use institution-level data as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator (NCES). We did, however, try keep in mind the limitations of graduation and retention rates, so their weight was not over-applied in our final methodology.

Reputations and strengths of each criminal justice department

Relying solely on institutional data isn't the best way to rank programs, since those statistics reflect every degree track in a university rather than just the criminal justice department. So, we needed to identify what aspects of a criminal justice department affect a student's experience enough to differentiate it from another.

Employment was a good starting point. We researched common careers students enter into after receiving their criminal justice degree. PayScale ran a survey of its own, and the most common job titles were: police officer, paralegal, probation officer, and correctional officer. We looked into a few other careers, like security officers and loss prevention agents (you can view all our findings in our career report), and decided to use these findings to create questions for criminal justice departments like:

  • Where do your graduates end up?
  • What kind relationship does your department have with nearby employers like city, county and state parole divisions?

These questions were used in our survey that we distributed to school departments, and helped us discover programs that had solid records of getting their graduates employed despite lower graduation and retention statistics (Sam Houston was bumped to our top group and the University of Toledo received an honorable mention in our analysis because of their reputations).

We then looked into departmental curricula and specializations. Like having evidence of strong employment prospects, a program's large catalog or special emphasis on a particular subject would help us recommend one department over another. For example, Saint Leo's program has two specializations: criminalistics and homeland security. Cumberland has three tracks, including corporate security and forensics. If all other things were equal, this type of extra information is useful to students and we wanted to report it. We integrated questions in our survey to extract this information as well.

Faculty types in residence

Criminal justice departments have two types of professors: the academic researcher, and the experienced professional of the field. The academic possesses a PhD in criminal justice, criminology, or a similar discipline and has little or no field experience in a related profession like law enforcement or corrections administration. Zachary Hamilton from WSU is an example of an academic.

The experienced professional may only have obtained a master's degree, but they are also accomplished leaders of county, state, and federal agencies: police chiefs, directors and deputies of correctional facilities, and special agents. Michael Flint from University of Central Florida is an example of an experienced professional: he was a chief of investigations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

We found benefits to both types of faculty members. Professor David Persky from Saint Leo University says professionals provide expertise you can immediately apply, especially for working professionals:

“Our faculty are all seasoned practitioners in the field of Criminal Justice and bring their “hands on” (real world) experience to the classroom.  The Saint Leo program is geared toward working professionals and we provide our students with the skills and knowledge they will need when they are out on the job or get into the field if they are new to Criminal Justice and law enforcement.”

Professor Thomas Gutteridge from University of Toledo explains academics whose research has ties with nearby criminal justice agencies:

“The faculty members are also actively engaged in research and service, much of this with Toledo area criminal justice agencies.”

We saw having both instructor types as useful and details of each department's faculties were another data point we requested in our email surveys.

Other useful lists to help rank criminal justice programs

Our initial scrub of college data already included the rankings of the US News Best Colleges and Forbes Top Colleges. In addition to this we found another set, The Washington Monthly College Guide, for further reference

We also looked at the US News Best Online Bachelor's and their 2009 Best Criminology Departments. These got us closer to what we wanted, but we realized no publication had specifically ranked criminal justice departments. Performing Google searches to see what other websites said about online programs was difficult. Sites had all types of recommendations (or just random lists) and it was unclear how they performed their research. If you're interested, you can read all our opinions on these rankings.

What we settled with

Sorting by institutional graduation and retention rates (threshold)

In a perfect world we would have access to department statistics, but this data at least allow us to separate the worst universities from the better ones. We wouldn't feel good about recommending a program if it came from a terrible school, considering students take elective classes outside the department, too. In order to focus only on the good schools, we created a threshold where if the school reported a graduation or retention rate below the national average, it was removed from our final list. Beyond that, we didn't award bonus points for simply having a higher statistic than the next school.

We also removed all for-profits from our starting group. Read our comparison of for-profit to learn why.

Making sure the program or school placed on one major ranking

We referenced the five rankings discussed earlier and determined which schools failed to appear on any of them. This is a similar filter to the graduation and retention rate threshold, in that we believe a strong indicator of quality is making at least one of these rankings, especially knowing that Washington Monthly was created to reward different schools than US News and that the Forbes list is over 500 schools long. We also wanted to track how many times a program's school made a list, but we didn't worry about the exact placement, since little differences in rank are likely due to methodology.

Although not a ranking, we wanted to also track which programs came from universities that had been awarded by the Sloan Consortium, an organization that recognizes online campuses for excellence.

Rewarding programs with useful student resources

Programs with chapters of the criminal justice honor society (Alpha Phi Sigma), active criminal justice clubs, and direct placement internship opportunities specifically for the department (like Sam Houston's) were given higher marks than those which did not. Not having any of these resources did not hurt any program's standing.

Asking professors about their department

Here we started getting into department reputations and their faculty. We wanted to identify who were the most responsive professors: who took the time to answer our questions and explain the strengths of their department? Adding in this step allowed great programs that barely missed the statistical or ranking filter to be recognized, and acted as a tiebreaker for us between similarly ranked programs.

We sent each department a questionnaire asking:

  1. Are all department classes taught by the same faculty as the campus classes?
  2. Other than price, what sets your program apart from others?
  3. Is there a way to compare online criminal justice curriculums versus others? What makes a good one versus poor one? Do you have a specific emphasis?
  4. I've researched a few notable programs from WSU Online / ASU Online / Penn State World Campus. How would you say your program compares to theirs?
  5. Other than tuition, how would I go about deciding between programs that all seem the same?
  6. Do you have examples of what jobs your recent graduates received? Testimonials would be great!
  7. Do you have employment statistics?
  8. Do you have any examples of career progressions from older alumni?
  9. I know lots of CJ majors become police officers or paralegals, but what are less common professions that you would recommend?

Finally, we ended up calling the two highest scoring programs on the phone to determine our favorite. This last step let us ask even more personal questions and to see how accommodating the school was.

End-to-end filter walkthrough

1. Initial data pull from NCES database: 348 schools

  • Include all semantically related majors: Justice Studies, Justice Administration, etc.
  • Exclude any program not fully online (e.g. hybrid, on-campus requirements)
  • Collected from http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/

2. Filter by NCES academic data

  • Filter out for-profit: 114 schools remaining
  • Filter out any without NCES retention or graduation rate: 107 schools remaining

*This was our initial group of programs we started with

  • Filter out any with lower graduation rate than national average: 28 schools remaining
  • Filter out any with lower retention rate than national average: 26 schools remaining

3. Filter by major rankings

  • Filter out any without at least one placement on one of our five selected rankings: 15 schools remaining

US News Best Schools (campus)
US News Best Online Bachelor's (online)
US News Best Criminology (campus)
Forbes Top Schools (campus)
Washington Monthly National University Rankings (campus)

4. Give a quality score (10 maximum points)

  • Faculty bios available  (1)
  • School has a chapter of Alpha Phi Sigma (1)
  • School has a criminal justice club (1)
  • School has direct placement internship opportunities for criminal justice students (1)
  • How many times a school placed among the selected five major rankings (5)
  • If a school won a Sloan Consortium Award (1)

5. Give an interaction score (3 maximum points)

  • Did they respond to our email enquiry? (1)
  • How well did they answer all our questions?  (2)

*We included some filtered out programs who provided an exceptional response in our final group.

6. For the two highest scoring programs, give each a phone call to determine our top choice

We did not include some things in our methodology

Trying to grade curricula

We really wanted to learn whether or not there is such a thing as a good and bad criminal justice curriculum. Professors, however, told us that curriculum evaluation depends on the student, his or her interests, and what area of the discipline the student like to work in. They also told us curricula will look similar or are exactly the same, just with some difference in focus, like coursework emphasizing research, forensic science, or administration (you can find their responses to this question here). Also, when you think about it, we would be unable to verify all any details beyond the name of the courses, such as the actual reading lists and assignments. We chose to avoid grading curricula and only looked into it when it was necessary to differentiate programs.

Trying to grade programs by their faculty research

Counting up the number of scholarly citations, grants, or research awards didn't make sense because it would favor departments within research-based universities over everyone else. Not many students enrolling in online criminal justice programs mean to continue their education with a master's degree or PhD (where prospective graduate students would benefit from a research-based faculty), so we did not want an emphasis on research to heavily influence our rankings. We instead looked into the accomplishments of faculties only for the top scoring programs to differentiate them.

Having tuition directly affect a program's score

Cost was taken into account only in certain circumstances once everything was tallied up: Punishing a low scoring program that also has a very expensive tuition (University of Great Falls, for example) and rewarding a high scoring program that costs significantly less than others (University of Massachusetts-Lowell was bumped to the final group and received a full recommendation due to its low cost of tuition).

Final thoughts about the results

We are confident about the programs that ended up on top. To reach number one, a program had to pass a gauntlet of tests: be a part of a university with stellar graduation and retention rates, provide more department resources than others, amaze us with useful answers to our survey, and even answer more questions over the phone. WSU did it all. You can read more about our number one choice in our write-up of their bachelor's program along with the other three top scoring programs here.

WSU is our top choice, but after reviewing hundreds of programs, we also realize many programs that scored low would still be good choices for certain students. Cost is an important preference, and many of our top choices are not the cheapest of the bunch. There are even advantages of enrolling in a program near your intended place of employment. Departments often have reputations with local, county, state, and sometimes federal agencies. We encourage everyone to review these personal factors in our guide to choosing a program because in a few cases our top programs, like WSU or ASU, would not be optimal.