Criminal Justice Degree Programs: Education with a Purpose

When asking criminal justice students on the first day of class what their career objectives are, the instructor should be prepared for a wide variety of responses. Not many students in the course will answer that question with “I want to be a police officer!” This may come as a surprise to many instructors new to the classroom, particularly those with a background in law enforcement, but many students enrolled in criminal justice degree programs have little or no interest in careers in law enforcement.

Individual Student Goals

As it turns out, if one looks at this situation closely, the presence of these students who do want to enter law enforcement in the criminal justice classroom should raise more questions for a dedicated instructor or advisor. When considering the students’ chosen career goal, it’s important to ascertain why they enrolled in a criminal justice degree program. Very few agencies in the United States require any postsecondary education for law enforcement recruits.1 Why didn’t these students just enroll in the peace officer academy to begin with? Could it be that the students’ strategy is to obtain the degree now and the certification later, attempting to make themselves more marketable candidates to specific agencies? Are they concerned that when working full-time for an agency, it would be difficult for them to complete a degree due to time constraints? If they risked waiting to start their college education until after beginning a career in law enforcement, would they ever have the opportunity to finish their degree? Historically, this question has been a dilemma for criminal justice students seeking a career in law enforcement—put the career (and paycheck) on hold and obtain the degree, or go right to the academy, obtain employment with an agency, and then try to figure out how to go to school and work their shifts at the same time.