Undergraduate Criminal Justice & Legal Programs

What Are Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees?

Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees encompass associates and bachelor degrees and offer students a ...

broad-based undergraduate education that might be the foundation to a career in law enforcement, corrections, politics, paralegal and legal fields. While criminal justice and legal studies represent the two sides of the United States judiciary system, both associates and bachelor’s degrees are available to either get you started academically or move your existing career and education to the next level. If you have a desire to serve your community and country, are interested in investigating cases, researching the law or working with lawyers and legal documents, an Undergraduate criminal justice program is worth considering!

Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees

Undergraduate Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees: Basics

Undergraduate Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees are offered as a 2-year criminal justice associates degree or a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Prospective applicants to both associate and bachelor degree programs in criminal justice and legal studies should have a high school diploma or GED, plus any school or program-specific requirements. Depending on the field you want to work in, you may be required to undergo a background check.


75% of Criminal Intelligence Analysts have a Bachelor’s degree, and 9% an Associate’s Degree[i]

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What Does it Mean to Be a Criminal Justice Major?

Criminal justice is a fairly broad field that incorporates practices and institutions in place at different governmental levels to uphold social control, deter and mitigate crime, sanction law violators with criminal punishment or rehabilitation efforts. In other words, criminal justice is heavily focused on the enforcement of criminal law and of course, the criminal justice system (law enforcement, the court system, corrections). An undergraduate criminal justice major will often study subjects such asii:

  • Statistics
  • Research methods
  • Criminal justice
  • Policing
  • The U.S. court systems
  • Criminal courts
  • Corrections
  • Community corrections
  • Criminal procedure
  • Criminal law
  • Victimology
  • Juvenile justice

Types of Criminal Justice Programs

Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees encompass both general and specific programs. Since the field of criminal justice is broad, you may want to narrow your search for either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree down to a more specific area. You can use the hyperlinks within the subject selection menu to browse by sub-fields such as:

  • Criminal Justice & Criminalistics
  • Forensic Science
  • Homeland Security & National Defense
  • Law Enforcement, Policing & Investigation
  • Legal Studies
  • Paralegal Studies

Types of Criminal Justice Degrees

Undergraduate Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees are awarded as Associates Degrees and Bachelor Degrees. Different criminal justice jobs have different entry-level education requirements, so if you are thinking ahead, you should research your career goal to see what type of degree is appropriate. In some cases, it also depends on where you want to work- for instance, correctional officers working in federal prisons are required to have a bachelor’s degree whereas at the state level this is not the case.iii

Associates in Criminal Justice & Legal  

Associates Degrees in Criminal Justice & Legal Studies are offered as Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.) and Associate of Applied Science in Criminal Justice and Legal Studies fields. The A.A. is typically a transfer degree towards the Bachelor of Arts, and the A.S. is typically a transfer degree towards the Bachelor of Science. In both cases, there are usually general education courses in the liberal arts, but the Associate of Science usually has a more technical and analytical (math, science) scope than the Associate of Arts. On the other hand, the Associate of Applied Science is considered a stand-alone degree, so whatever field in criminal justice you pursue studies in, your curriculum would provide more of a vocational orientation. Graduates usually enter the workforce after completion of the A.A.S.

Bachelors in Criminal Justice & Legal

Bachelor’s Degrees in Criminal Justice & Legal Studies are usually offered as Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and Bachelor of Science (B.S.). Some schools may offer the Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.) with a concentration in criminal justice, law enforcement or another area within the larger context. B.A. programs tend to be general which gives you a ‘well-rounded’ education in liberal arts with leeway in case you choose a minor. B.S. programs tend to have fewer non-major courses and a narrower focus, with again, more science, math, technology or applied science. B.B.A. degrees usually include a core set of business topics, so if you favor management and leadership, this may be a good fit.

Campus or Online?

Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees are available as on-campus and distance-learning program formats. If you prefer studying amongst others, making new connections, having hands-on instruction and participating in school activities, a campus-based program could be awesome, and you should think about location. Where do you want to go to school? If, on the other spectrum, you are working, live too far to commute or relocate, or have family duties, earning a criminal justice degree online may be convenient and viable. Many programs, due to their nature (lab requirements, leadership skills, group projects, demonstrations) are offered as ‘blended online’ or hybrid programs where most of your courses are online but you also have some intensives or a low residency campus component. Whatever suits your needs, use ‘campus’, ‘online’ or ‘hybrid’ to filter your search results for Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees in that category.


Accreditation for Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees come from one of the regional accrediting agencies recognized at the national level by the U.S. Department of Education or Council for the Accreditation of Higher Learning. There may also be program-specific accreditation that you can look into; for instance, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Continued Education

Just as some students use the associates degree as a stepping-stone to a Bachelor in Criminal Justice program, others may choose to follow their studies to graduate school. Depending on your career goals, you might earn a Master of Science in Criminal Justice, or a Doctor of Philosophy in Business Administration-Criminal Justice. Some forensic science technicians have an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences and a master’s degree in forensic science.iv Other students may decide to use their undergraduate degree as a base for law school and a J.D. Degree. Also, undergraduate Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Degrees may be rewarding programs to get you started with the academic background for a certain position, but you may have to undergo other on on-the-job training or seek certification in your field. 

Take the Next Step

Whether you would like to investigate crime scenes, research criminal behavior, track down cyber criminals or work for the FBI, many of the criminal justice jobs begin with your commitment to an undergraduate degree. Start reviewing sponsored listings for associate and bachelor criminal justice & legal studies degree programs. Make sure to contact the prospective schools so you can get more details on their curriculum and make an informed decision about your college education!

sources:[i] onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3021.06 |[ii] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criminal_justice |[iii] bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/correctional-officers.htm |[iv] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm |


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