Selecting the Right Criminal Justice School

Selecting the Right Criminal Justice School

Written by Robert Costello, PhD
Robert Costello, PhDRobert Costello is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Criminal Justice Department at Nassau Community College and an Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Hofstra University. Dr. Costello has been granted a Fulbright Senior Specialist Award by the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Dr. Costello achieved his doctoral degree in Educational Administration from Dowling College, his Juris Doctor degree and a Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice from SUNY Albany.

As the number of criminal justice degree programs in higher education keeps rising, selecting the right one for you can seem like an arduous task.  Colleges and universities utilize advertising methods like other businesses including slogans, glossy brochures, and branding. As a student-consumer, you must go beyond this information to learn whether or not a particular criminal justice degree program is right for you.

As a criminal justice educator and department chairperson, I offer the following factors for consideration during your decision-making process.

Learn as Much as You can about the Criminal Justice Department

Your experience as a criminal justice student will largely be an extension of your experiences with the criminal justice department. Therefore, you must learn as much as possible about the particular department and its criminal justice program. A great starting point is the department website. Read through it for important information such as the number of full-time faculty members as well as their academic and professional biographies. You may want to research their names on the Internet to garner any additional information such as publications and student comments posted on teacher sites.

Learn the Criminal Justice Degree Requirements

If you plan to study for either two or four years in a particular program, it behooves you to learn what the degree requirements are. There is a wide variance in criminal justice degrees as some are steeped in the liberal arts curriculum while others are based in professional/vocation direction. The college catalog or bulletin also found on the school web page will list all the classes offered by the criminal justice department along with a brief description of each.

Extracurricular Opportunities

Some of your fondest memories and lifelong connections will be made outside the classroom in organized college activities. Explore whether the criminal justice program you are considering has any clubs or honor societies specifically for criminal justice students. These clubs will often provide guest speakers who will educate you about careers, organize trips to police departments or prisons, and offer socializing with your fellow criminal justice students. Think about what the program offers you outside the classroom in the form of clubs, academic advisement, career help, and access to faculty members for mentoring, and so on. These experiences are equal to your classroom experiences.

Schedule a Visit

As you finalize your list down to three, visit each one with a preference to see it during a typical school day as opposed to a weekend so the experience is authentic. Before your visit, arrange a meeting with the department chairperson or a full-time faculty member. The best information you need to make a fully informed decision is at the department level as opposed to the college-wide admissions office, as they are overwhelmed with the amount of programs they must know. Admissions knows the basic information, but the department will have the deeper knowledge you need. Prepare a list of questions such as the number of majors, academic advisement help, class-size limits, career help, curriculum requirements, and so on. A second component to your visit should be sitting in on a couple of criminal justice classes. Nothing could replace the experience of observing two classes during your visit. It is equally as important to speak with students before and after the classes to gauge their opinions on the program and interview them using the same questions from your meeting with the department chair or faculty member. Students will normally be very receptive to you as they were in your position a very short while ago and would be happy to express their opinions on something very important—but seldom asked about—in their lives.  Remember, however, a few students can offer valuable opinions, but it is not possible to generalize about the entire program from them.

While this may seem like a stressful decision, the more engaged you are in the process the better the likelihood that you will select the right criminal justice degree program for you. And if you select the right one, you will have a lifetime of appreciation and gratitude.