What Are the Drawbacks to Studying Criminal Justice?

Students walk across the UCLA campus in 2012 in Los Angeles.

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Answer by Tim Dees, criminal justice technology writer and consultant:

There are a couple I can think of:

Criminal justice is viewed as a nonrigorous program. In most schools, there is not a lot of reading, writing, and critical thinking within the program. It’s possible to make it a rigorous program by beefing up courses and requirements, but many schools don’t want to do that. If their programs becomes too difficult, students will drop out in favor of attending other schools where the programs are easier. Unless the person evaluating your credentials has some insight into how difficult the program is where you obtained your degree, the degree may be devalued because of the reputation of criminal justice programs elsewhere.

It’s sometimes regarded as superfluous or vocational. Most law enforcement agencies require only a high school diploma to apply. Some require college credits roughly equal to what an associate degree would require, but the degree itself is not required. Only a handful require applicants to have degrees, and when they do, the area of study is seldom specified. So, some employers view an applicant with a criminal justice degree to be overqualified. This is more likely to occur in agencies where most of the executives don’t have degrees themselves or have degrees from nonaccredited diploma mills.

There is nothing wrong with vocational programs, but they don’t carry the status of academic degree programs. Vocational programs are usually associated with trades, such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical, surveying, medical or dental assistant, etc., focusing on skills above academics. These programs can lead to well-paying, satisfying careers, and many people would be happier and more successful if they were steered toward vocational programs instead of academic degrees. Law enforcement is regarded by some to be a blue-collar job by many people and as a white-collar job by others, and the perception can be altered by the assignment the cop has. The fact of life is that detectives are usually uniformed patrol officers who don’t wear uniforms, and getting that assignment is as much a function of politics as of skills. But the detective who comes to work in a suit has a higher perceived status than a uniformed patrolman in the view of some people.

The degree doesn’t lend itself well to other vocations. An employer might want salesmen, managers, technicians, and people to fill other jobs where having a degree is helpful. Once the employer finds you have a criminal justice degree, he or she is often thinking, How do you think that prepares you to work here? even if he or she doesn’t say it. Couple that with the fact that some people just don’t like cops, and having the criminal justice degree might be worse than having no degree at all.

The program of study doesn’t give you all the requirements or qualifications to get the job. You can be a straight-A student in criminal justice, but you’re probably not going to get a law enforcement job if you’re obese or otherwise in poor physical condition, have a criminal or poor driving record, have financial or credit problems, or you lack real-world life experience. This last requirement is one of the reasons that veterans are often prized applicants in law enforcement. Veterans, regardless of assignment or service, have had to work with others very different from themselves to accomplish a mission. They have often traveled to foreign countries and experienced different cultures. They understand how to serve in a rigid hierarchical organizational structure. You don’t learn those things in a criminal justice program.

When I was teaching, about 10 percent of my students went on to careers in criminal justice, most in police or sheriff’s departments, but a few in probation, corrections, and as investigators in other government branches. The rest got married and lost interest, were disqualified from the start due to the reasons I listed above, couldn’t pass the required academic courses to get the degree (English composition and college algebra were usually the big hurdles), or couldn’t find it within themselves to take the initiative and go outside their comfort zone to try something new. I could counsel them on how to overcome these things, but many discounted what I said, often because they knew how things really worked from watching cop shows on TV.

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