Associate’s Degree vs a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice?

When people consider a career in criminal justice, they often have a lot of questions about education. For example, what kind of education does a person need for a criminal justice career? Is a bachelor’s in criminal justice worth it? Is an associate’s degree in criminal justice worth it? And when it comes to getting an associate degree vs bachelor degree in criminal justice, which one makes the most sense?

To understand what choice might work best for you, take a look at how each type of degree works and what each one entails.

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What is the Difference Between an Associate’s and Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice?

An associate degree is a two-year degree. It’s not a prerequisite to a bachelor’s degree, but some students do choose to earn an associate’s degree first. Others may choose an associate degree alone if that’s all the higher education they require.

A more general associate’s degree would focus on core education courses like math and English. This type of associate’s degree can make a good choice for students who aren’t sure what subject they want to major in just yet. These students might earn an associate’s degree, figure out what they want to do from there, and then earn a bachelor’s degree that matches their career goals later. The general education courses can be applied toward their bachelor’s degree requirements, so when these students do begin their bachelor’s degree, the process won’t take as long as it might have taken otherwise.

Then there are career-focused associate’s degrees, like an associate’s in criminal justice. These degrees cover the basics that a person would need for an entry-level job. They require few, if any, general education courses. A career-focused associate’s degree can make a good choice for people pursuing specific job goals. Some jobs don’t require a degree beyond an associate’s degree. If a student wants one of these jobs, they might simply stop at an associate’s degree and move directly into the workforce. This way, they won’t have to spend a lot of time or money on their education.

When it comes to getting an associate degree vs bachelor degree in criminal justice, there are three main differences: time, money, and courses covered. Time is one of the biggest reasons why some students get an associate’s degree first. Again, for full-time students, associate degrees usually take about two years to earn. For a bachelor’s degree, on the other hand, a full-time student could finish the degree in four years. However, either one of those degrees can take longer for part-time students, so keep that in mind when making your choice. They can also take less time if a student pursues an accelerated degree pathway.

Some students choose one degree or the other based on how much time they have to dedicate to their studies. For instance, a lot of younger students choose a bachelor’s degree because they have the time to earn it. On the other hand, many working adults choose an associate’s degree because they can balance it more easily with their current responsibilities.

Next, there’s the monetary investment. Associate’s degrees cost less than bachelor’s degrees, so some students choose the associate route when they want to save money. However, jobs that require a bachelor’s degree usually come with higher salaries than jobs that only require an associate’s degree. Some students may have to do some math to figure out which choice will make the better investment. Potential factors can include student loan options, immediate financial needs vs long-term financial needs, and the cost of living in the area where the student lives.

Associate’s and bachelor’s degrees have different focuses, too. In criminal justice, an associate’s degree would focus entirely on degree-related skills like criminology and criminal investigation. A bachelor’s degree would usually include general education courses such as math, literature, and writing. With a bachelor’s degree, students often take their general education courses during the first two years of the degree program. During the second two years, students can focus more fully on their specialized career courses and electives.

Why Would I Get an Associate’s in Criminal Justice?

Is an associate’s degree in criminal justice worth it? Is an associate’s degree better than a bachelor degree? It might be, as long as it helps you reach your specific goals. Those goals might include saving money, finishing your education quickly, or taking fewer courses. Each of your goals may have different priority levels, so take some time to think about which goals matter most to you.

If you want to save money, for instance, an associate’s degree can help you reach that goal. By taking fewer classes, you’ll invest fewer tuition dollars into your education. Plus, associate’s degrees are available at community colleges, which are generally cheaper overall than state schools and other universities. In some places, you may even be able to get a community college education at no cost.

For these reasons, some people earn an associate’s degree first, even when they know that they’ll want to earn a bachelor’s degree later. With an associate’s degree, a person can start working quickly, save some money, and then earn a bachelor’s degree at a time when they can minimize their student loans. Or they can earn an associate’s degree first and then immediately apply to a four-year school, applying their associate’s degree courses to their bachelor’s degree. Either way, the associate’s degree can help these students save money on their courses and cut back on the time spent at a more expensive school.

Some people choose an associate’s in criminal justice for speed and convenience. Most criminal justice careers are attainable with an associate’s degree alone. If your ideal criminal justice job is one of those options, then you may choose an associate’s degree to finish your education quickly. An associate’s degree can get you started with entry-level jobs right away, so you won’t have to wait to get to work. This option can be especially appealing to students who don’t particularly enjoy academics. For these students, an associate’s degree can help them minimize the time they spend inside a classroom.

You might also choose an associate’s degree for the attainability. A bachelor’s degree can seem intimidating, especially for those who have to balance their education with careers, children, and other responsibilities. An associate’s degree can be more attainable in light of these demands. The less intimidating the goal, the more likely you’ll be to achieve that goal. Plus, once you earn an associate’s degree, earning a bachelor’s degree can seem much more attainable, since the remaining courses likely won’t take any longer to earn than the associate’s degree courses.

Finally, you may start with an associate’s degree if you have a willingness to wait. You may want a bachelor’s degree in the future, but if an associate’s degree works better for your current goals, then you might choose the associate’s degree first and earn your bachelor’s degree later. This option takes longer overall, but for some students, the wait makes the most sense in light of their current needs.

Why Would I Get a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice?

On the other hand, is a bachelor degree in criminal justice worth it? Is a bachelor degree better than an associate’s? Again, it depends on your goals and how much each goal matters to you. For some students, a bachelor’s degree fits their goals and makes more sense overall than an associate’s degree.

Some people pursue a bachelor’s degree because they want a “full” college experience. In other words, they want to spend four years getting to know their classmates, living on campus, and taking all of their courses in the same place. Younger students who have recently graduated from high school may choose a bachelor’s degree for these reasons, while non-traditional students may consider them less important.

Of course, other priorities can influence why you might rather earn a bachelor’s degree instead of an associate’s degree in criminal justice. Just like with an associate’s degree, time-related goals can lead a person toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. For example, some students know that they want a bachelor’s degree, and they know that they want to earn their degree as quickly as possible. If the end goal is a bachelor’s degree, then the fastest way to get there is to dive straight into it without making a pit stop for an associate’s degree. The four-year time investment can make more sense upfront than spreading that time investment across several years. For instance, a person without children may know that they want children eventually. This person may want a bachelor’s degree now, so they won’t have to combine their studies with their parenting responsibilities later.

Others choose a bachelor’s degree for convenience, just like with an associate’s degree. Depending on your needs, you may actually find a bachelor’s degree more convenient than an associate’s degree, especially if you think you’ll want a bachelor’s degree at one point or another. If you know you want a bachelor’s degree eventually, it may be simpler to take all your courses at the same college instead of transferring credits from one place to another. In this case, you won’t have to double-check to make sure that your courses transfer. You won’t have to wait while people review your files, and you won’t risk any snags that may come from the process.

Next, there are general education courses. Some people choose an associate’s degree to avoid taking general education courses. Others choose a bachelor’s degree because they want to take those courses. Liberal arts classes can help provide a well-rounded, timeless educational experience. Plus, general education courses can help you in your criminal justice career, specifically. For example, language courses can help you communicate with more people and reduce language barriers on the job. Courses like psychology and sociology can help you understand why people break the law. Some courses, like math, can help you with any career path.

Next, consider career needs. Some choose a bachelor’s degree because they have specific career goals, and a bachelor’s degree provides the best pathway for them to meet those goals. While an associate’s degree can cover the basics of criminal justice, a bachelor’s degree can help you dive deeper into criminal justice topics. You can take your knowledge to the next level and go beyond the basics. Plus, you can add a concentration or a minor to tailor your degree to your career goals. For instance, instead of just studying criminal justice, you can study juvenile justice or victim advocacy.

Furthermore, a bachelor’s degree can open a wider range of career options for criminal justice professionals. Although many criminal justice jobs only require an associate’s degree, some do require a bachelor’s degree. If you want a leadership or management position in criminal justice, you’ll likely need a bachelor’s degree. If you earn that degree upfront, you might move through the ranks more quickly without needing to go back to school for more training.

You may also gain a competitive edge with a bachelor’s degree instead of an associate’s degree alone. If most of a job’s applicants have an associate’s degree, then employers will likely take notice when an applicant has a bachelor’s degree instead. That degree may provide just the push you need to stand out in the job market.

Finally, you might consider a bachelor’s degree if you want to earn a more advanced degree later. In any field, the highest paying jobs usually require a master’s degree or higher. Starting with a bachelor’s degree can put you on a more direct pathway to an advanced degree.

Does a Bachelor’s Pay More Than an Associates?

When people ask “Is a bachelor degree in criminal justice worth it?” they’re often asking whether they can make more money with a bachelor’s degree than with an associate’s degree. Generally speaking, the answer is yes. That answer applies across all careers, too. On average,bachelor’s degree holders make 31% more money than associate’s degree holders. (Both bachelor’s and associate’s degree holders make more money than those with a high school diploma alone.)

Criminal justice degrees are no different. Those with bachelor’s degrees earn more money than those with associate’s degrees. The average salary for someone with an associate’s degree in criminal justice is $51,954 per year. For someone with a bachelor’s degree, it’s $58,778. Furthermore, specific criminal justice jobs require a bachelor’s degree instead of an associate’s degree. These jobs tend to be management and leadership positions, which make more money than lower-level positions.

For a lot of students, the upfront cost of a bachelor’s degree is worth having a higher salary right out the gate. Keep in mind, though, that starting salaries are usually lower than mid-career salaries, no matter the degree level. Furthermore, other factors, such as the area you live in, can play a part in how much money you make overall. You may have to do some calculations to figure out which choice will fit best with your money goals.

Should I Get My Associate’s First or Go Straight to the Bachelors?

Is a bachelor degree better than an associate’s? Or is an associate’s degree better than a bachelor degree? Is an associate degree in criminal justice worth it if you plan to earn your bachelor’s degree anyway? Again, it all depends on your goals and priorities. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), there’s no right or wrong answer to the question of which degree you should pursue.

So if there’s no right or wrong answer, how do you make the best decision for your needs? Start by thinking about what you want most from your criminal justice education. Consider your goals and priorities, and then choose the path that aligns best with them. It’s easier said than done, of course, but you can make the process simpler by breaking it down into smaller steps. Once you’ve clarified your priorities, you can make your degree decision that much easier. This upfront work may save you a lot of time in the long run.

First, think about your career-related goals. What do you want your career to look like? Do you want a higher-ranking position? Does your dream job require a bachelor’s degree? Do you want to reach your dream career quickly? If so, you might consider going straight for your bachelor’s degree without pausing for an associate’s degree first. On the other hand, does your ideal career only require an associate’s degree? Would you rather just get to work instead of studying with a specific career in mind? In that case, an associate’s will likely serve you just as well.

Next, consider your time-related goals. Budgeting your time is just as important as budgeting your money. Do you want to get to work as quickly as possible? If that’s your primary goal, an associate degree will provide what you need. Again, many criminal justice careers only require an associate’s degree, so you can get started in the field as soon as possible. It’s one of the advantages of pursuing a criminal justice career. On the other hand, do you want to finish your entire college education as quickly as possible? Then you might skip the associate’s degree and go straight for your bachelor’s degree instead. Having a bachelor’s degree may save you time overall, even if it does cost you some extra time upfront.

Finally, think about your money-related goals. An associate’s degree can help you save money on the cost of your education, even if you want to earn a bachelor’s degree later. Community colleges charge a lot less for the same course content, so an associate’s degree can help you reduce your education costs significantly. If you’ll need student loans to help cover the cost of your education, then starting with an associate’s degree may be your best bet. If you reduce your costs as much as possible upfront, you can avoid paying a lot of money on interest later.

On the other hand, a full bachelor’s degree can help you make more money faster, since bachelor’s degree jobs pay more than associate’s degree jobs, and that money can help you pay back the cost of your education. If you want to combine your money-saving and money-making goals, you might start with an associate’s degree to save some money upfront, then move on to your bachelor’s degree to grow your career potential. You can either earn your bachelor’s degree immediately after your associate’s degree, or you can work for a few years in between degrees. Either way, this option can help you make the most of your education.

Now, once you’ve considered those goals, think about how you prioritize each one. Not every student will have the same priorities, so what works best for one student may not be the right choice for another. For some students, saving money on their education is more important than earning a degree as quickly as possible. For others, it’s the opposite. And when it comes to money, some students would rather pay more to earn more, while others would rather save money now and start with a lower salary.

Once again, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to your priorities. What matters is how well each of these priorities fit into your own life and what matters the most to you specifically. If you’re still unsure, a career counselor may be able to help you make the right choice. You might also consider chatting with someone in the field. A seasoned professional can tell you about their own choices, what they liked about those choices, and what they wish they might have done differently.

Also, don’t underestimate your own instincts when choosing your criminal justice degree pathway. Your gut may know your best choice long before your brain figures it out. If a choice feels right to you, then there’s a very good chance that you’ve made the right one.


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