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Top 10 Master’s in Criminal Justice Programs

When it comes to ranking higher education in the United States, the lists generated by the publication “U.S. News and World Reports” tend to be the gold standard. Education is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and sometimes a lower-ranked school may be a better choice for an individual based on criteria like faculty members’ specialties or even cost and location. But for a strong and unbiased examination of the very best, “U.S. News and World Reports” is the place to start.

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In addition to ranking undergraduate and graduate programs, “U.S. News and World Reports” has also produced a number of reports ranking schools by discipline. For its criminal justice rankings, the publication surveyed academics within criminology asking them to rank programs on a scale of one to five at various institutions. Below are the results in reverse order.

CUNY – John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Ranked 10th, this New York City university offers the only master’s degree in Forensic Mental Health Counseling in the United States. Other specialties include International Crime and Justice, Forensic Science and Forensic Psychology. The actual Criminal Justice specialty itself is a general degree that covers everything from research methods to the corrections system and more as well as specialized courses in areas such as cybercrime and terrorism. Students may have the option to write a thesis or may take a series of comprehensive exams before exiting the program.

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey – Newark
The next three programs in the list all tied for seventh place. At Rutgers, students take a mix of required and elective courses and are also expected to complete fieldwork. Required courses include examinations of law in the criminal justice system, statistics, and planning and management. The elective courses are the ones in which students can choose a specialty that may range from juvenile justice to adult incarceration to the study of different types of crime such as organized, white collar and violent. Faculty specialties are wide-ranging and include gender and crime, computational criminology, social conditions and crime, human smuggling, families and incarceration and more.

Michigan State University
Tied with Rutgers is this program out of Lansing, Michigan that can boast of being the longest continually-running degree program in criminal justice. These years of experience have made Michigan State’s programs leaders in such areas as cybercrime, extremist groups, policing and security, violence prevention and more. Students have the opportunity to attend classes online or in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. Following a number of required courses, students have the option to choose between writing a thesis or a class in policy analysis in addition to taking several elective courses.

Florida State University
The Tallahassee campus of Florida State University tied with Michigan State and Rutgers for seventh place, and it also includes both online and offline options. With a focus on applied research, the school is particularly interested in turning out students who use that research to shape policy. Small class sizes and faculty members at the top of their profession make this a sought-after school for master’s candidates. Students may choose between a master of arts or master of science degree with foreign language and humanities requirements for the arts. Students have three options for graduation: coursework only, coursework plus a paper focusing on a particular area of interest or coursework plus a thesis.

University of California – Irvine
One of two schools jostling for fifth place, University of California at Irvine sets itself apart from other schools of criminal justice in its interdisciplinary approach that combines criminology with the study of law and society. Several previous presidents of the American Society for Criminology as well as former Law and Society Association presidents and fellows of the American Academy of Political and Social Science comprise the faculty. The master’s program is conducted online and is thus flexible for professionals already working in the field. The program aims to advance careers as well as prepare students for doctoral study.

Penn State University – University Park
Penn State’s criminology program receives consistently high rankings from a number of organizations and ties the University of California for fifth place in the “U.S. News and World Reports” ranking. With a diverse mix of graduate students ranging from working professionals to young people fresh out of an undergraduate program, the program offers small classes taught by faculty with prestigious research and publication backgrounds as well as excellent student support. The program also offers students an opportunity for a quantitative criminology certificate alongside the master’s. Because the university’s criminology department is part of its school of sociology, a number of unique interdisciplinary options are also available. Faculty specialties include violence and victimization, deterrence and program evaluation among others. The program is primarily aimed at students who plan to go on to doctoral work in the field.

University of Missouri – St. Louis
The master’s program at the University of Missouri prepares students to enter management and research careers. While a thesis option is preferred, students may also opt for extra coursework in lieu of thesis writing. Faculty specialties range across many different topics such as intimate partner violence, immigration and crime and juvenile delinquency. Following required courses in statistics, research methods, and criminology theory, students can take elective classes in such subjects as property crime, corrections and law and social control.

University of Cincinnati
One of the top three schools for criminal justice in the United States, the University of Cincinnati offers both an online masters and a traditional brick-and-mortar education. Both are designed to benefits students seeking entry-level careers as well as mid-career professionals. The master’s program has a broad remit and seeks to educate people to become law enforcement officers, policy makers, social scientists and more. Students are not required to enter the program with a background in criminal justice and may have a bachelor’s degree in any subject.

University at Albany – SUNY
The master’s program in criminal justice at the University of Albany is designed for both career professionals and students seeking to go on to doctoral programs. In partnering with police from both the city and state of New York as well as the Japanese National Police, the program caters to a diverse student population. The degree also gives students the chance to pursue a joint master’s in social work or to focus on public administration. Students may also concentrate on information technology. In addition, undergraduate students have a unique opportunity to begin pursuing a master’s degree beginning in their junior year.

University of Maryland – College Park
At the top school for a criminal justice master’s degree in the United States, the program is designed for students who will go on to apply their knowledge at an agency or in research although it can also lay the groundwork for students who wish to continue on to a doctorate. Students also have the option for a joint education at Nanjing Normal University in China. Finally, a master’s can be combined with a law degree from the University of Maryland’s Baltimore campus. Faculty are drawn from a number of prominent national criminal justice organizations including the American Society of Criminology and participants from the National Academy of Science. Research within the department focuses on crime and justice decision-making, crime control and prevention, juvenile delinquency, life-course criminology and violence.

Students choosing a program for a master’s degree in criminal justice should carefully consider their aims and career goals before selecting the programs that are likely to be the best fit. Considerations like cost and location are important, but it’s also important that the program focus match up with student interest. By considering national rankings alongside personal needs, students can make informed decisions about the best programs for their situations.


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