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. People who attend online forensics colleges don’t need to sacrifice quality for accessibility.
Bay View Analytics (formerly the Babson Survey Research Group) has been tracking online learning outcomes for 15 years. The 2017 Distance Education Enrollment Report found that there were more than six million students enrolled in online higher education courses. Thirty percent of all higher ed students were enrolled in at least one distance-based course, and 68 percent of those learners were concentrated in public institutions. An impressive 42 percent of these online students were learning at out-of-state schools. In 2016, in their final “online report card” publication, Bay View reported that 71.4 percent of academic leaders (e.g., program administrators) believed online learning to be equal or superior to face-to-face instruction, and 63.3 percent held online learning to be critical to their school’s long-term strategy. It’s clear that distance learning is not only here to stay, but it’s also on the rise.
Many top-rated schools 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. A growing number of programs, particularly those tailored to working professionals who have already completed their lab and field training, are available 100 percent 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.
There are three main types of online programs:
One of the more flexible options is the online bachelor’s program in forensic accounting at Franklin University. It offers 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 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 degree-granting institutions such as the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), however, offer discrete start-dates and application windows. UMGC’s online master of science in digital forensics and cyber investigation program has registration deadlines in January and May. For programs with more on-site or group coursework, 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.
Overall, program start dates and course schedules 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.
Application processes and requirements for online programs vary widely by degree level, although like many programs themselves, the admissions processes can generally be completed 100 percent online. In general, candidates for online forensics programs may be asked to submit:
Since online forensics programs can be taken from home, these options may even be more affordable than traditional brick-and-mortar campus experiences for several reasons:
Prices vary by degree level, specialization, institution, residency status, and other factors. Broken down by degree level, here are some cost-per-credit figures for out-of-state students as of fall 2017:
Online associate degrees in forensics:
Online bachelor’s degrees in forensics:
Online master’s degrees in forensics:
Although neither programmatic or institutional accreditation are required to practice forensic science, students are wise to seek out accredited programs since these agencies are concerned with the quality of instruction, coursework, program outcomes, and other measures that can promote student success. 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.
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 through its 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.
There are also a number of organizations that accredit entire schools or institutions. Forensic science schools may also be accredited through special regional agencies approved by the nationally recognized Council of Higher Education Agencies (CHEA). These include:
Since forensics is a broad field of study, many areas of expertise have their own professional body to certify individual specialists or recognize training programs. Ten of these specialty boards are accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB), including those in criminalistics, forensic toxicology, computer investigations, arson investigations, and document examination, among others.
Lastly, there are varied agencies which recognize particular specializations within forensics. Forensic nursing programs may be accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) at the master’s level. Forensic psychology schools may be accredited through the American Psychological Association (APA), but only at the doctoral level. And finally, forensic accounting undergraduate and graduate programs may be accredited through the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
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 forensics 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 must be completed in person, requiring hands-on training in medical or laboratory environments. That said, 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.
CSI programs focus 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 how to create plausible, research-based narratives of criminal events to be used in courts of law.
Please note that due to the essentially hands-on nature of crime scene investigation, there are limited options for people seeking 100 percent online certifications or degrees. Please check out the online CSI master’s degrees page for more information.
Criminal justice programs teach students how to deter and mitigate crime, particularly through the work of governmental institutions such as law enforcement. These professionals are trained to uphold the law, paying thought to the larger issues of social control and rehabilitation of offenders.
Cybersecurity degrees focus on the nascent threat of cybercrime and aim to teach people how to protect digital systems from intrusions. As technologies become more sophisticated, these trained specialists need to keep abreast of emerging threats in the theft, destruction, and unlawful access to data.
To learn more about advanced distance-based programs in this area, check out the online master’s degrees in cybersecurity page.
Computer forensics—the discovery, extraction, evaluation, and presentation of digital evidence—is a growing field amidst increased threats to personal and corporate cybersecurity. It’s used to uncover a wide range of crimes, including fraud, cyberstalking, identity or data theft, espionage, and child pornography. Please note that “digital forensics” is a broader term than “computer forensics,” encompassing crimes with computers as well as other digital data storage devices.
To learn more, please check out the online master’s degrees in digital forensics page
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.
To learn more about advanced programs in this field, check out the online master’s in forensic accounting page.
Forensic nursing involves 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.
To learn more about advanced distance-based programs in this subfield, check out the online master’s degrees in forensic nursing page.
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 professionals may be called upon to assist accused criminals (or victims) with mental healthcare screening, therapy, and crisis management, among other areas.
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.
Legal studies programs allow students to learn about the law, legal institutions, and processes in the discipline. These typically impart the fundamentals of legal ideas, including how to think critically, express oneself clearly, and construct compelling arguments. Typical courses are in philosophy, economic regulations, criminal justice procedures, and non-western legal systems.
Berkeley College has campuses throughout New York State and offers an online associate of applied science (A.A.S.) and an online bachelor of science (B.S.) in legal studies. The former has instruction in computer applications, contract law, professional responsibilities and legal ethics, legal research and writing, torts, and real property law, among others. The latter features an in-depth dive into the discipline with additional coursework in advanced legal research, writing, and advocacy. The total estimated cost for program tuition and fees was $50,100 (associate degree) or $102,600 (bachelor’s degree).
Southern New Hampshire University of Manchester provides a 120-credit online bachelor of science (B.S.) in criminal justice with an emphasis in legal studies and advocacy. Classes include ethics, judicial administration, international criminal justice, legal traditions, administrative law, and forensic psychology, among other cornerstones of the field. It costs $320 per credit-hour or $225 for active military service members and their spouses.
Bellevue University in Nebraska has a 127-credit online bachelor of science (B.S.) in legal studies with classes in the theory and practice of law; legal research, analysis, and writing; constitutional law, liberty, and emerging policy; and professional responsibilities and ethics in law, among others. It costs $410 per credit-hour.
Washington University in St. Louis, MO has an online master’s of legal studies (MLS) program. It comprises 24 credits and can be completed in one year. In addition to a required course in the U.S. legal system, students can choose among various electives to fulfill the credit requirements; these electives include professional responsibility, legal writing, constitutional law, legal writing, corporate compliance, and many others. Notably, students can attend optional on-campus learning sessions for a weekend in the spring and fall. For a customized tuition assessment, interested students are encouraged to contact program administrators.
Albany Law School in New York has a specialized online MLS degree with a focus on cybersecurity and data privacy. In addition to foundational coursework in law and lawyering, it has niche instruction in the principles and practices of cybersecurity, global data protection law, financial services in cybersecurity and data protection, and cybersecurity in the public sector, among others. This two-year program consists of 30 credits and costs $1,000 per credit.
For more information about graduate-level programs in legal studies offered in a distance-based format, check out the online MLS programs page.