By Dr. Charles M. Russo  |  08/10/2018

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Deciding what degree to pursue is a big decision for students. It depends somewhat on what career the student wants to pursue, but not entirely. Many fields require a bachelor’s degree, but do not require a major in a certain field of study.

For example, a police department may have a requirement that an officer have a bachelor’s degree but will usually not require the degree be in criminal justice. While it may seem to make sense that an aspiring officer should get a degree in criminal justice, that may not actually be necessary. Officers may benefit just as much, if not more, from pursuing a degree in homeland security, for example.

It’s important for students who are studying criminal justice or homeland security to understand each program—including the limitations—so they can decide what works best for their career aspirations.


Criminal Justice vs. Homeland Security

Many universities house homeland security degree programs in their criminal justice departments. While criminal justice and homeland security both fit into the public administration or safety realm, the theory, concept and applications of each field are distinct.

Criminal justice teaches students about the all-encompassing system of law enforcement and the upholding of society’s codes. The deterrence and mitigation of crime involves police, lawyers, courts, and corrections, which are together responsible for establishing and enforcing criminal penalties, proceedings, and the resulting punishment and rehabilitation. Criminal justice degrees prepare students for careers in the field of law enforcement and public safety, while the field of homeland security involves more than law enforcement and adjudication.

Inherently an American term, “homeland security” is used to describe efforts to ensure the critical infrastructure of the U.S. is secure and resilient against all natural and man-made threats and hazards, including natural disasters and terrorism. The term was enacted through the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and implemented in March 2003 in response to the terrorist attacks in September 2001. Homeland security promotes prevention, response, recovery and resilience strategies to hazards that affect American citizens or national interests, thus minimizing damage in an event.

Homeland security degrees train students in preparation for working to protect the country and its citizens from a variety of national and domestic threats. Students should have a good idea of their career aspirations (law enforcement centric versus homeland security/intelligence) by the end of their first year of studies. What they can do is discuss their potential career path with counselors, advisors, professors, and industry practitioners to get the best idea of what degree program matches with their strengths and goals.


Resources to Consider When Choosing a Degree Program

It is essential that students choose a reputable university with a well-established program in their chosen field. There are a few resources aspiring students can explore to help them make their decision:

Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has both the University and Agency Partnership Initiative (UAPI) and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS), but these entities do not currently set any standards for homeland security degree curriculum or programs. According to UAPI, they bring together institutions nationwide dedicated to advancing homeland security education. Their efforts seek to increase the number and diversity of students receiving a homeland security education, accelerate the establishment of high-quality academic programs, and provide opportunities for collaboration that create an intellectual multiplier effect that furthers the study of homeland security.

The CHDS has been located at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California since 2003. It conducts a wide range of programs focused on assisting current and emerging leaders in the field develop the policies, strategies, programs and organizational elements needed to overcome public safety threats across the United States. The programs are developed in partnership with and sponsored by the National Preparedness Directorate, FEMA.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Emergency Management Institute currently holds a voluntary list of colleges and universities that have a homeland security degree program (undergraduate, graduate and doctoral). The FEMA Emergency Management Higher Education Project does not endorse any specific course of study, program or institution, but does encourage careful examination of materials, commitments and claims of all providers of higher education.

Other associations such as the International Association for Intelligence Education has established standards for undergraduate and graduate programs and recommends that these standards are met by academic programs with “intelligence” in their program titles. It also supports competitive (business), law enforcement, homeland security, and national security intelligence activities.

Criminal Justice

While homeland security has no accrediting body, criminal justice looks to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) for its competencies and standards. The ACJS has been established as the body of accreditation for institutions that grant criminal justice degrees and programs. It provides a forum for disseminating ideas related to research, policy, education, and practice within the criminal justice field. ACJS attributes its success in creating this dynamic professional association to the composition of its membership. Through the vital interchange of ideas among these groups, ACJS members develop and share knowledge about critical issues regarding crime and social justice.

ACJS has established seven categories in professional standards. Within each category is a set of competencies and sub-competencies that programs must demonstrate as part of the assessment:


Professional Standards ACJS

Administration of Justice
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the contemporary criminal justice system
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the major systems of social control and their policies and practices
  • Demonstrate knowledge of victimology
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the juvenile justice system
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the history, theories, and practice of corrections in America
  • Understand the development of correctional philosophy
  • Demonstrate an understanding of incarceration, diversion, and community-based corrections
  • Discuss the appropriate treatment of offenders
Criminological Theory
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the nature and causes of crime
  • Be able to discuss typologies of crimes, offenders, and victims
Law Adjudication
  • Demonstrate knowledge of criminal law and criminal procedure
  • Demonstrate knowledge of how the prosecution and defense work
  • Demonstrate an understanding of court procedures and decision-making
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the history, theories, and practice of law enforcement in America
Law Enforcement
  • Demonstrate knowledge of police organizations, police discretion, and police subculture
Research and Analytic Methods
  • Demonstrate an understanding of quantitative and qualitative methods for conducting and analyzing criminal justice research
Ethics and Diversity
  • Engage in a systematic examination of diversity issues in criminal justice
  • Employ ethical perspectives and judgments in applying concepts of diversity to problems

In any profession, there are specific knowledge, skills, and abilities that formulate into competencies. Criminal justice and homeland security are no different. Whether a student has aspirations of becoming a law enforcement officer, corrections officer, special agent, or an intelligence analyst, they must possess a level of competency to perform the position.


About the Author
Dr. Charles M. Russo

Dr. Charles M. Russo is an instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Public University. He possesses a PhD in Public Safety Leadership from Capella University and an MA in Intelligence Studies from American Public University. Charles served in the US Navy for 17 years as an Intelligence Specialist and has taught Criminal Justice, Homeland Security and Intelligence at American Public University, Colorado Technical University and several other state universities. He is a retired US Intelligence Community Intelligence Analyst after serving over 26 years, which included the US Navy, US Air Force, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is the CEO of Intelligence Career Services, a provider of mentoring and assisting individuals looking to become active in the IC. He is also a consultant supporting intelligence, law enforcement and emergency response training and education efforts across state and local government. He currently lives and works in Carson City, Nevada. To reach him, email [email protected].

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