The introduction of online and hybrid programs in forensics has made attending college more convenient, flexible, and accessible for everyone. For aspiring students with full-time jobs, family responsibilities, or other important commitments, attending a traditional college campus can be a challenge, and people who attend online forensics colleges don’t need to sacrifice quality for accessibility.
In fact, Babson Survey Research Group has been tracking online learning outcomes for 13 years. In their 2014 publication, they found that 74.1% of academic leaders (i.e., program administrators) believe online learning to be equal or superior to face-to-face instruction. The most recent report also found that 70.8% of these leaders hold online learning to be critical to their school’s long-term strategy, and federal data reveals that there are 5,257,379 students taking distance courses in the U.S., more than ever. It’s clear that distance learning is not only here to stay, but it’s on the rise.
Many of the top-rated schools of criminal justice offer online forensic science degree programs to connect with working and stay-at-home students, giving them a chance to earn a degree or certificate on their own terms. Many programs, particularly those tailored to working professionals who have already completed their lab and field training, are available online, and in some cases may be completed 100% online. In other cases, hybrid programs—those combining classroom and distance learning—may require in-person campus attendance for hands-on instruction in laboratory procedures, for instance, while much of the didactic coursework can be completed online at the student’s convenience.
To learn more about the variety of online and hybrid forensics programs—including their structure, affordability, and accreditation—read on below.
Synchronous learning, or that which occurs “at the same time,” offers teleconferences, web-presentations, chats, classroom meetings, and other types of learning experiences in real time. These forms of live communication can occur in traditional classroom settings or can be facilitated by the use of webcams, chat services, and other modern tools. One type of synchronous learning is the fixed time online course which is taken 100% online, but requires students to log in for assignments, meetings, and lectures at a set time. Almost all degree-granting programs in forensic science tend to be at least partially synchronous.
Asynchronous learning, or that which occurs “not at the same time,” often sets weekly or monthly deadlines for coursework and assignments which can be completed at the convenience of the student. One type of asynchronous learning providing the most flexibility is the open schedule online course. These allow students to make their own learning schedule within some deadlines. Some certificate programs in forensic science may be asynchronous.
Hybrid distance learning combines synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences, providing for both invaluable, concurrent interaction between students and teachers through scheduled meetings, in addition to the completion of some assignments and course material at the student’s discretion within a timeframe. There are a number of forensic science degree and certificate programs which offer hybrid learning options.
One of the more flexible options is the online bachelor’s program in forensic accounting at Franklin University. It offers program coursework year-round and the free new student applications are processed within 48 hours. It has six-, twelve-, and fifteen-week classes with multiple start dates and evening options available as well. Admissions advisors are available five days per week and select Saturdays. This can be an especially attractive option for students who have already completed some college since Franklin accepts up to 84 eligible transfer credits toward the completion of their degrees.
More typical of degree-granting institutions, however, are others such as the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) which offers only spring and summer sessions. UMUC’s master of science in digital forensics and cyber investigation online program has registration deadlines in January and May. For programs with more on-site or group coursework required, there is generally less flexibility in enrollment and starting dates due to the availability of instructors.
While many online and hybrid degree programs start at a set time per year organized by semesters or quarters, other types of certificates and continuing education credits for forensic sciences may be taken whenever a student desires. For those seeking the most flexibility in an introduction to crime scene investigation, the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) offers a 16-hour certificate program that can be completed at any time.
Program start times and course schedules will vary by subject, degree granted, type of institution, whether the program requires clinical practicums, the availability of instructors, and other factors. It’s important to check with specific schools for program details.
List of Top Online Forensics Programs
There are some types of degrees and sub-disciplines of forensic science for which online and hybrid programs are more common. Generally, post-baccalaureate degrees (e.g., master’s) and certificate programs in forensic science provide more online learning opportunities, both synchronous and asynchronous. Although there are exceptions, this is likely because much of the fundamental coursework, training, or internships for undergraduate programs in areas such as forensic nursing and forensic science must be completed in person as it may require hands-on training in medical or laboratory environments. By contrast, working professionals seeking certification in various subfields of forensic science may be able to find asynchronous, ultra-flexible course options, even at the undergraduate level.
Online Forensic Science Programs
Forensic science programs at all levels offer a broad-based understanding of gathering, evaluating, and presenting evidence to explain what happened in a past event, particularly in criminal cases. With courses such as forensic chemistry, anthropology, and biology, this discipline imparts a comprehensive understanding of investigation techniques and laboratory analyses.
University of Florida offers four master’s degrees and four specialized graduate certificates in Forensic Science and related fields such as Forensic DNA & Serology and Forensic Toxicology. The programs cover a wide array of relevant topics in an online format designed to accommodate students with busy schedules. With more than 1,000 graduates from over 40 countries, this program is a global leader and winner of the Award of Excellence in Distance Education.
Oklahoma State University has a two-year hybrid master of science (M.S.) in forensic science program. It offers abundant flexibility for students with many classes online, including thesis and non-thesis program tracks with specializations in forensic biology, psychology, pathology, toxicology, document examination, administration, and arson and explosives investigation. (FEPAC-accredited, on-campus programs available at this school)
American Intercontinental University offers a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree in criminal justice with a specialization in forensic science. This accelerated three-year program imparts the essential skills of a forensic scientist such as how to process a crime scene, postmortem lab tests, and the preservation of evidence, in addition to engaging overviews in criminal profiling, lie detection, and even hypnosis.
Saint Leo University offers a notable hybrid master of science (M.S.) degree program in criminal justice with a forensic science specialization. It instructs students on the history of criminalistics and how to properly collect and document evidence. In order to successfully complete this program, students must take five courses in criminal justice, four in forensic science, and two electives.
Ashworth College provides a forensic science diploma program which can be completed in as few as four months. This online school boasts a 91% student satisfaction rate and the curricula can be completed at a student’s pace. The coursework provides broad overviews of the cornerstones of the field including identifying a body, drugs and forensic toxicology, and document examination.
CSI programs hone in on the collecting, processing, and evaluation of forensic evidence. Through coursework in areas such as crime scene photography, fingerprint analyses, and blood stain analyses, CSIs learn a multidisciplinary approach to helping law enforcement to reconstruct the events of a crime, as well as to create plausible, research-based narratives of criminal events to be used in courts of law.
National University has an online, seven-course CSI certificate program for those interested in careers in law enforcement or criminal evidence. It offers classes such as forensic pathology, fingerprint analysis, and digital evidence. Upon completion, students may be eligible to apply the program credits to a masters degree in forensic science.
Kaplan University hosts a 44-credit online crime scene technician certificate program which imparts the investigative methods of forensic science such as supervisory practices in criminal justice and forensic chemistry. Seventy-one percent of program enrollees in 2013-14 completed the program in one year, and the coursework is designed for professionals in law enforcement, the military, or the criminal justice system who are looking to enhance their credentials and abilities.
The National Forensic Science Technology Center offers a low-cost ($129), 100% online introductory option for aspiring CSIs. This 16-hour course series offers a certificate upon completion, and provides an overview of topics such as biological evidence collection, crime scenes, and firearm evidence collection. It may be an especially useful and convenient training option for working law enforcement personnel.
Pikes Peak Community College based in Colorado Springs hosts a 42-credit online associate of applied science (A.A.S.) program in criminal justice which has turned out several crime scene investigators as well as law enforcement personnel of all levels. This school may be an attractive option for students in the military.
Please note that due to the essentially hands-on nature of crime scene investigation, there are limited options for people seeking 100% online certifications or degrees.
Online Forensic Accounting Programs
Forensic accounting—also referred to as forensic auditing—is the process of investigating crimes such as money laundering, tax fraud, business insolvency, and other business-related negligences or crimes. This field also may cover marital law to determine income available for child support or equitable distribution.
Franklin University has an online bachelor’s program in forensic accounting for those interested in investigating white-collar crime. Though coursework in subjects such as fraud examination, electronic discovery, and regulatory compliance, students are primed to become “financial detectives.”
Northeastern University hosts a graduate certificate program in forensic accounting open to those with at least a bachelor’s degree. The 16-quarter credit curriculum includes coursework in forensic accounting principles, dissecting financial statements, and litigation support. These more advanced courses are designed with working professionals in mind.
West Virginia University has a forensic accounting and fraud examination (FAFE) certificate program which includes prep course to help graduates with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) exam. With limited campus visits—only two-day residencies at the end of each semester—this predominantly online program aims to prepare students for careers in a number of government agencies. (FEPAC-accredited, on-campus programs available at this school)
Florida Atlantic University provides a master’s of accounting program with a concentration in forensic accounting. This two-year online program is ideal for busy professionals looking to advance their skills in areas such as fraud prevention, dispute resolution, expert testimony, and money-laundering investigation.
Online Forensic Nursing Programs
Forensic nursing involves the working with victims of trauma (e.g., domestic violence, assault). These specialists typically become nurses first and then further specialize with their knowledge of wound identification, evaluation, and documentation. They’re also trained to consult with medical and legal authorities, as well as to give testimony in court.
Duquesne University of Pittsburgh offers a flexible masters of science in nursing (MSN) degree program with a concentration in forensic nursing. All of the coursework is offered online, including classes such as healthcare ethics, pathophysiology, and theories of violence, making it an ideal option for full-time nurses. As part of the curriculum, students are required to complete a supervised clinical externship in forensic nursing, which can be done at one of many conveniently located, affiliated clinics. (FEPAC-accredited, on-campus programs available at this school)
The University of California at Riverside hosts a 16-unit forensic nursing certificate program for LVNs/LPNs, paramedics, and other medical workers. It provides California Board of Registered Nursing (BRN) credit for these licensed professionals with coursework in areas such as occupational considerations of forensic nursing, approaches to domestic violence, and mental heath assessment.
Monmouth University has a master’s of science in nursing (M.S.N.) program with a forensic nursing specialization for those with their BSN degrees. As one of the only programs of its kind in the nation, Monmouth specializes in teaching nurses injury documentation, risk-reduction strategies, and testifying in court.
Forensic psychology is an emergent field training professionals in mental health to give expert testimony in the judicial system. Combining clinical, forensic, and legal specialties, these specialists may be called upon to assist accused criminals (or victims) with mental healthcare screening, therapy, and crisis management, among other areas.
Southern New Hampshire University offers an online bachelor’s degree program in forensic psychology with classes such as criminal psychology, forensic law, and the American legal tradition. Most notably, it’s a 120 credit program, and 25% of those credits can be taken as electives tailored to the interests of the student. This coursework is designed to help students identify criminals’ motivations and patterns of behavior.
Walden University hosts a range of online forensic psychology programs—a bachelor of science (B.S.), a master of science (M.S.), and a PhD degree—and the master’s program is especially worthy of attention. Walden offers five distinct specializations for its M.S. candidates: general forensic psychology, forensic psychology in the community, mental health applications, psychology in legal systems, and program planning and evaluation in forensic settings.
The University of North Dakota has a unique, online, 34-credit master’s degree in forensic psychology. It’s designed to be completed in two years and offers in-state tuition rates to all students, regardless of location. It can be an affordable, flexible option to those interested in the psychological underpinnings of criminal investigations.
The University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) offers a 100% online master in psychology (M.A.) degree program with a forensic psychology concentration. The coursework draws from ULM’s esteemed criminal justice and mental health departments, with engaging in-depth explorations in areas such as intelligence testing, sociology of law, and advanced theories of crime and delinquency.
Online Computer Forensics Programs
Computer forensics—the discovery, extraction, evaluation, and presentation of digital evidence—is a growing field amidst increased threats to personal and corporate cybersecurity. This field is used to uncover a wide range of crimes, including fraud, cyberstalking, identity or data theft, espionage, and child pornography.
Champlain College, winner of SC Magazine’s 2013 “Best Cyber Security Higher Education Program,” offers an online undergraduate degree in computer forensics and digital investigations. This school boasts an accelerated curriculum and regional accreditation, offering students classes such as criminal law, financial accounting, and digital forensics analysis to be taken at their convenience. Additionally, Champlain offers 100% online certificates in computer forensics, forensic accounting, and cybersecurity.
Utica College offers an online master of science (M.S.) in cybersecurity with three distinct specializations. In the computer forensics track, students gain an understanding of advanced cybercrime investigations, network forensics, and even a cybersecurity capstone project—an opportunity to add to the growing body of research in an area of computer forensics.
The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) hosts a 36-credit master of science (M.S.) program in digital forensics and cyber investigation. The coursework can prepare students for careers in homeland security, auditing, and law enforcement, and is an especially attractive option for mid-career professionals looking to enhance their credentials and knowledge. UMUC was also ranked as one of U.S. News and World Report’s top criminology schools in the nation.
The University of Colorado in Denver has a unique masters of science (M.S.) program in recording arts with an emphasis on digital forensics. This MSRA-MF degree can prepare students to fight crime in the digital age. Classes in subjects such as computer forensics, mobile phone forensics, and speaker recognition are presented in a hybrid format with a maximum of six credit hours per semester. It can be perfect for working students since it requires only five weeks spent in residency over two years, with the majority of the learning taking place though online lectures, discussion boards, and video conferencing.
Application Process and Affordability
Application processes and requirements for online programs vary widely, although like the programs themselves, the admissions processes can generally be completed 100% online. Since online forensic science programs can be taken from home, these options may even be more affordable than traditional brick-and-mortar campus experiences for several reasons.
First, students in these programs can save on housing costs since they have no reason to relocate to a dormitory or campus-based housing.
Second, many of the online programs such as Southern New Hampshire University also offer financial aid or tuition reimbursement to select students, or significant discounts to active-duty military and their spouses.
Finally, as program materials migrate online, students may save money on books and course readers that used to be required by more traditional campus-based programs.
Forensic Science Program Accreditation
Although neither program nor institutional accreditation is required to practice forensic science, students would be wise to seek out accredited programs since accrediting agencies are concerned with the quality of instruction, coursework, program outcomes, and other measures that can promote student success. Furthermore, some employers may require graduation from an accredited program. So, while graduating from an accredited program may not technically be a prerequisite for employment, some employers treat it as such, and moreover accreditation indicates the merit of the curricula, faculty, and facilities available to students of a program.
There are a number of agencies involved with forensics program accreditation. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) accredits undergraduate and graduate forensic science programs generally through the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Council (FEPAC). FEPAC evaluates factors such as a school’s mission statement, institutional support, and student outcomes. While FEPAC does not accredit all sub-disciplines of forensic science, certificates, or associate degree programs, it can serve as a starting point for students interested in bachelor’s and master’s programs, particularly in general forensic science.
Since forensics is a broad field of study, many areas of expertise have their own professional certification body, to certify individual specialty. Seventeen of these specialty boards are accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB), including arson investigation, computer investigation, forensic toxicology, and several types of International Association for Identification (IAI) certifications, including crime scene investigation certification.
Finally, there are a number of organizations that accredit entire schools or institutions. Forensic science online schools may also be accredited through special state accreditation agencies or the nationally recognized Council of Higher Education Agencies (CHEA).