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The difference between the Associate’s Degree and the Bachelor’s Degree in criminal justice

The Associate’s Degree is a two-year degree and focuses on the general skills required of persons pursuing a career in criminal justice. Skill based practical courses such as basic police photography, traffic accident investigation, firearms management, unarmed self-defense, report writing, or crime scene protection are typical in the Associates Degree. In addition to the law-enforcement centric training, the Associates Degree typically includes basic general education requirements as well including, but not limited to; math, English or communication, sciences, history, general psychology, and other general sociological or behavioral topics.

While the Associates Degree in some cases is viewed as preparatory to the Bachelor’s Degree (which usually requires four years for completion), the focus area of the Bachelor’s Degree extends well beyond the practical found at the Associate’s level. Within the 120-126 credit hours of coursework required for the Bachelor’s degree, the program concentration will be more focused on advanced studies well beyond the basics covered at the Associates degree level.

For example, the baccalaureate degree seeking student can expect to be exposed to practical application of theories, research and analysis of laws and best practices. Central to criminal justice focus, students will develop skills related to teaming, management, supervision and leadership practices in criminal justice. They will also be exposed to other agencies, existing organizations and functional areas of interest with regard to criminal justice as a discipline.

The general intent of the Associate’s Degree in criminal justice is to better prepare students for introduction and access to initial entry-level positions in the criminal justice field. Whereas the Bachelor’s Degree in criminal justice is focused toward better equipping students to perform at the mid-level positions in the criminal justice field, regardless where they start in the discipline. The academic rigor expected at the baccalaureate and advanced degree levels are necessary to prepare criminal justice practitioner for the variety of situations they may encounter during their career.

So the question becomes which degree is best?
To best answer that question the individual must first have an established goal for use of their degree. Since a degree is not required in order to become a police officer in most states, the Associates degree may be sufficient for initial entry into law enforcement, if the goal is to be successful at the entry-level positions. For most state, government, nonprofit, and private sector organizations, the Bachelor’s degree is necessary for initial entry, and in order to be competitive for advancement.

Furthermore, although many detectives, analysts, and other specialization ranks do not require a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, most require a baccalaureate degree in some discipline or another. Degrees beyond the bachelor’s degree, including the Master’s and PhD are generally pursued by those interested in teaching, training, instructing, or research in the area of criminal justice.

Finally, where does one start their educational journey?
For most, the best place to start is at the local college or university, by asking questions of the criminal justice instructor, or the criminal justice advisors, regarding how to best plan the academic journey to result in academic success and job placement and/or advancement.

As the late Stephen Covey was quoted, it is important to "begin with the end in mind."

Eugene Matthews is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and teaches a local university in Missouri.

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