Financial Aid and Scholarships for Criminal Justice

Criminal justice scholarships help law enforcement and forensics workers afford college. Learn more about how you can fund a criminal justice degree.

Updated January 26, 2023 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Funding degrees for future criminal justice professionals

There's one element that many of the television shows about lawyers, FBI agents, judges and other criminal justice professionals often leave out: all the hard work and studying it takes to land these careers. And it's not just the actual work that's difficult—it's funding it. Scholarships, grants and loans can help criminal justice students earn their degrees in a time of steadily rising college costs. This guide shows prospective criminal justice students what's available to them and provides tips on how to receive financial aid and scholarships.

Search Criminal Justice Scholarships

Criminal justice encompasses several different disciplines, but most have a strong emphasis on public service. Therefore, police unions, law offices, government groups and community organizations all have a vested interest in stocking the field with quality recruits, and many facilitate this through scholarships for criminal justice students. Some awards are more specific than others, so applicants should look for their specialty, such as law or forensics. The search tool below breaks down available scholarships even further, allowing users to filter not just by subject but also by financial considerations, minority affiliation and other categories.

Criminal Justice Scholarships
Scholarship Max Amount Deadline
Criminal Justice Scholarship Award N/A August 1
John S. Atwater Scholarship $3,000 February 1
Drinko Criminal Justice Scholarship $4,000 May 1
North Carolina Sheriffs' Association Undergraduate Criminal Justice Scholarship $2,000 February 15
Wade H. Stroud Scholarship $800 February 15
Law Enforcement Memorial Scholarship $1,000 February 15
ACJA/LAE National Student Paper Competition $150 December 30
ACJA/LAE National Scholarship $400 December 31 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Tips for Landing a Criminal Justice Scholarship

No matter the size of the award, criminal justice scholarship applicants can expect to have competition. Therefore, they should take care during the application process to write a captivating essay, gather multiple endorsements and put in extra studying time for standardized tests. Continue reading to see what criminal justice students can do to stand out from the sea of scholarship applicants.

Writing a Standout Essay

Essays are not afterthoughts—they are difference-makers. Many applicants will have similar GPAs and test scores and, if they've chosen their references well, most will also have great recommendations. In this case, a considerable weight hinges on the personal essay; this is the applicants' opportunity to explain why he or she should receive funding for their criminal justice education. Here's how to make your essay stand out:

  1. 1

    Start by reading the instructions.

    It can be tempting to reuse or recycle portions of a previous application essay. Although that can sometimes work, applicants should clearly frame their essay to each individual scholarship committee by reading the question or prompt and restating it in the introduction. Students applying to general scholarships in addition to the criminal justice ones should keep essay prompts separate and pay close attention to the audience for whom you are writing.

  2. 2

    Highlight relevant academic achievements.

    While colleges may be equally concerned with a student's grades in Spanish and calculus, a criminal justice scholarship committee is most interested in classes and academic accomplishments relevant to the field. Highlight these areas, and if there isn't a direct link, find one. For example, good grades in a computer science class are important for a career fighting cybercrime, while a foreign language award looks great for those who want to work in homeland security.

  3. 3

    Align your passions with your activities.

    An essay is not about creating a list of all the impressive things an applicant has accomplished. It is an opportunity for the writer to identify how relevant experiences lead him or her on a trajectory to a criminal justice degree. This is the time to talk about volunteering at the local police station, interning at the county court office or shadowing a security guard.

  4. 4

    Talk about the future.

    People give money to a charity because they have a positive image of how that money will be used. Scholarship applicants, however, sometimes neglect to mention their plans for the money. Applicants should explain what they'll be studying and how they envision their professional futures in the criminal justice field.

  5. 5

    Be an insider.

    Have someone with a criminal justice background help with editing. Ask if the vocabulary rings true or if there are other industry-specific words or phrases that might resonate more with the scholarship committee.

Nailing the Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation should not read like junior high school yearbooks. Their purpose is to demonstrate to the committee that an applicant is well-respected by people who know the applicant well and can speak to his or her potential in the criminal justice field. This includes teachers, extracurricular advisors and community members in a position of authority.

Just as students compete for scholarships, they also compete for references. The best policy is to ask at least a month in advance. That will give the person plenty of time to write it and the applicant enough time to make sure it gets done. It's best to make a formal request to your potential reference writer via email; here's an example of how to ask:

To: [email protected]

Subject: Request for Scholarship Reference

Dear Ms. Johnson,

I'm applying for the Wyoming Sheriffs Association Scholarship. The application is due on March 31. Because you've been my advisor in student government as well as my civics teacher, I am asking if you would write a letter recommending me for the scholarship. The letter should focus on my participation in student government and my ability to work with others.

I've attached a rough draft of my personal essay and the application guidelines so you can get a sense of what they are looking for. If you are able to help me with this, I'd love to set up a meeting to talk further. Would this Friday work?


Jane Reynolds

Sending Test Scores and Transcripts

Most scholarship committees want to see applicants' grades, and some may also want to see test scores. Transcript policies are determined by the issuing school, but it is always a good idea for students to be on friendly terms with the registrar, especially if they'll be making multiple requests for transcripts.

In terms of test scores, both main standardized tests, SAT and ACT, allow students to send their scores electronically to scholarship providers. The first several are free, and additional results can be sent for a fee. For the ACT, the fee is $12 ($16.50 for rush delivery) per send. For the SAT, it is $11.25 ($31 for rush delivery). Students can log on to their accounts with the testing company to send scores.

Gathering Financial Information

Some scholarships take financial need into account when comparing applicants. To cover their bases, applicants should plan on filing taxes early—or ask their parents to do so, if they are still dependents. As soon as taxes are filed, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) can be submitted. It is highly advantageous to send in your FAFSA as close to October 1 as possible because some aid is first come, first served. Once the FAFSA® is sent, students can easily apply for scholarships.

The best online resource for questions about financial documentation is the Federal Student Aid website, but high school guidance counselors should also be familiar with the guidelines.

Scholarship Application Timeline

Earning a scholarship starts with the application process. Students must plan carefully to hit deadlines and meet requirements, especially when applying to multiple scholarships. Since many scholarships are tied to financial need, the starting point for any scholarship application process is not just finding out what awards are available but also submitting the FAFSA®. After that, everything else can fall into place if students follow a simple timeline.

Finding Scholarships

  • 20 Weeks Before Deadline: Use scholarship search tool and other online resources
  • 17 Weeks Before Deadline: Inquire about scholarships at local law enforcement offices and financial aid offices of colleges you've been accepted to
  • 16 Weeks Before Deadline: Make a spreadsheet with scholarship deadlines and requirements


  • 5 Weeks Before Deadline: Write rough draft
  • 3 Weeks Before Deadline: Get editing help
  • 2 Weeks Before Deadline: Polish final draft

Letters of Recommendation

  • 8 Weeks Before Deadline: Ask for letters of recommendation
  • 5 Weeks Before Deadline: Check in with letter-writers
  • Application Deadline: Send thank you notes to referees

Test Scores and Transcripts

  • 5 Weeks Before Deadline: Gather emails and addresses of scholarships that you will be sending to
  • 4 Weeks Before Deadline: Request transcripts from school
  • 1 Weeks Before Deadline: Send test scores & transcripts electronically to scholarship committee

Financial Information

  • 20 Weeks Before Deadline: File taxes
  • 19 Weeks Before Deadline: File FAFSA®
  • 1 Weeks Before Deadline: File state grant and loan paperwork

Paying for Your Criminal Justice Degree: Loans

What Is a Loan?

A loan is money that must be repaid, typically with interest. While it's possible to secure private loans for school, federal loans have at least three distinct advantages: they come with lower interest rates, the interest can sometimes be deferred until after graduation (or even later), and the loans can be forgiven in certain situations (the following section provides for more information on loan forgiveness). Refer to the table below to compare different federal aid programs that can help criminal justice students fund their education.

Federal Financial Aid
Loan Who Is Eligible? Lender Annual Amount Interest Rate
Federal Perkins Loan Undergraduate and graduate students with financial need The college Up to $5,500 for undergraduates; $8,000 for graduates 5%
Direct Subsidized Loan Undergraduates with financial need U.S. Department of Education $3,500-$5,500 4.29% (deferred interest)
Direct Unsubsidized Loan Undergraduates and graduate students U.S. Department of Education $5,500-$20,500 4.29% for undergraduates; 5.84% for graduates
Direct PLUS Loans Graduate students and parents of undergraduates; good credit history is required U.S. Department of Education Up to total cost of attendance6.84%
Direct Consolidation Loan After graduating or switching from full-time status, students can bundle their loans into one with a single monthly payment and fixed interest rate Consolidation servicer recognized by U.S. Department of Education Up to combined values of all loans Varies

State Financial Aid

State governments also set aside funds for students attending programs within their borders. This type of financial aid includes state-funded loans, grants and scholarships. The California Student Aid Commission, for instance, runs Cal Grant programs, which give tuition assistance to low- and middle-income students who meet basic academic standards.

Students should check with their state to see which financial aid programs they are eligible for. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list of contacts for state government loan and grant providers. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) is another great resource for browsing grants, loans and scholarships by state.

Private Student Loans

One benefit of private loans is that borrowers may be able to apply them to a wider range of expenses than tuition, room and board, and books. For instance, criminal justice students planning to head to law school should look into the Bar Study Loan, which can be applied to test prep courses, exam fees and living expenses for law students studying for the bar exam. maintains a helpful list of private student loans and the terms for each.

Tips for Taking out a Loan: Things to Consider

The Federal Student Aid office generally discourages prospective students from pursuing private loans from banks and other lenders until they've exhausted all other options since private loans tend to cost borrowers a lot more in the long run. This may be easier said than done, with federal aid capped at limits that may be lower than the total costs associated with attending school.

Students who need to pursue loans—private or government-funded—should make sure to do the following before accepting money:

  • Learn the payment structure

    Federal student loans defer payments until after graduation, but many private loans do not. In addition, federal loans are typically more flexible, allowing graduates to postpone their payments or reduce them until their salary catches up to their earning potential.
  • Calculate the interest.

    Some federal student loans are subsidized, meaning the government pays the interest until after graduation. Even those that aren't subsidized have much lower interest rates than what can be found on the open market. No matter which type of student loan being used, it's important for borrowers to estimate the total cost of the interest before committing.
  • Look for LIBOR-pegged loans

    There's no need to get caught up in the jargon, but the basic thing to remember is that some lenders use something called LIBOR to calculate interest rates while others use the Prime Lending Rate. The former is usually less expensive over time.
  • Consider your future career plans.

    Some federal loans qualify for debt forgiveness. Students planning to work in public service, which criminal justice students often do, may be able to get their federal loans discharged. Private loans don't qualify for loan forgiveness. Learn more about federal loan forgiveness in the section below.
  • Look beyond APR.

    Many people think they should look for a loan with the lowest APR (annual percentage rate, or other in words, the amount of interest on the loan). However, some loans offer a lower APR over a longer period of time, meaning that they actually charge more over time.
  • Don't get caught out by prepayment penalties.

    Some private loans actually don't allow borrowers to pay them back quickly. Check with private lenders beforehand about their terms.
  • Be careful before consolidating.

    Private loans and federal loans may not mix in consolidation. Students with federal loans should not consolidate them into private loans because they will lose the flexible payment structure that is the hallmark of federal loans.
  • Think strategically about repayment.

    Grace periods on federal loans can allow students some extra time before they have to make payments. In the interim, assuming they don't have prepayment penalties, they can start making payments on their private loans, which carry higher interest. Calculate it all ahead of time using the U.S. Department of Labor Repayment Estimator.

Student Loan Forgiveness for Criminal Justice Professionals FAQ

Criminal justice graduates may be in a favorable situation coming out of college, even if they have student debt. This is because many in the field go into public service, which qualifies them for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program for any federal loans they may have.

Q. What is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program?

The PSLF program allows students to have their student loan debt wiped clean if they have been making regular payments for 10 years and work in a public service job

Q. Which federal student loans are eligible for forgiveness?

Direct loans that are not in default are eligible for loan forgiveness. There are four types of direct loans: direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, direct PLUS loans and direct consolidation loans.

Q. What public service jobs qualify for loan forgiveness? Do I need to work full time?

Loan forgiveness is available to full-time workers at government organizations at the local, state, and federal levels. Areas relevant to criminal justice professionals include:

  • Emergency management
  • Military service
  • Public safety
  • Law enforcement
  • Public interest law services

Q. What are qualifying monthly payments? What are qualifying repayment plans?

There are five basic conditions for a payment to qualify: 1) It must have been made after September 2007; 2) It must be part of a repayment plan; 3) It must be for the amount billed; 4) It must have been paid within 15 days of being due; 5) It must have been made by working full time for one of the employers above.

Qualifying repayment plans determine how much to bill borrowers based on their income. Standard repayment plans also apply, but graduates should switch to an income-based repayment plan, otherwise they will have already repaid all of their loan by the time they are eligible for forgiveness.

Q. Where can I find more information on the PSLF program?

Read up on loan forgiveness at the Federal Student Aid website, which is run by the U.S. Department of Education.

Other Financial Aid Options: Grants, Fellowships and Work-Study

Students who are not taking on loans or applying for scholarships should still file the FAFSA® because they may be eligible for federal grants or work-study. Meanwhile, students working on advanced criminal justice degrees can fund their research through fellowships, many of which can be found through the Office of Justice Programs.

Grants FAQ

Q. What are grants?

Grants are free money—often awarded on the basis of financial need—earmarked for college tuition and/or related expenses.

Q. What is the federal Pell Grant?

Pell Grants are awarded to undergraduates. The amount given to students is based on their financial situation, registration status and tuition costs. The maximum amount for 2016-17 is $5,815, and the money can be sent directly to the school or to the students themselves.

Q. How do I find grants for my criminal justice degree?

Federal grants are easy to find because students automatically receive them if they are found to be eligible after filing the FAFSA®.

Q. Where can I look for more information?

The Federal Student Aid office can answer all questions about applying for federal grants.

Fellowships FAQ

Q. What are fellowships?

Fellowships are grants that are usually for graduate students as they teach or conduct research.

Q. How do I find fellowships for my criminal justice degree?

Many fellowships are specific to the particular institution, so criminal justice students should first talk with the financial aid offices and criminal justice departments of the schools they are interested in applying to.

Q. Where can I look for more information?

The Office of Justice Programs keeps a comprehensive list of fellowships offered by government offices involved in criminal justice.

Work-Study FAQ

Q. What is the federal work-study program?

Work-study jobs are given to students who qualify via FAFSA®. Funds are set aside based on the date students apply, applicants' financial need and the amount of money the school has available.

Q. What types of jobs can I work through the program? Can they be related to criminal justice?

Jobs can be either on- or off-campus, and the number of hours are limited by the financial package the student receives. The program seeks to place work-study recipients in jobs related to their academic program. Criminal justice students, therefore, may find jobs in their school's campus safety office or off-campus with a public service agency, for example.

Q. How will I get paid?

Students are paid at least monthly by the school by check, direct deposit or tuition credit, depending on their preference.

Q. Where can I look for more information?

The office of Federal Student Aid, which oversees the FAFSA® process, is the best starting point.

Expert Interview with James Goodnow

James Goodnow

James Goodnow is a graduate of Harvard Law School and practices injury law. His law firm, Lamber Goodnow , awards an annual scholarship to students looking to go to law school.

Q. There are all types of academic scholarships out there. But which ones should criminal justice students look for in particular?

What's true for public speakers and performers is true for individuals seeking academic scholarships: Play to your audience. If you really want to change the world through a career in criminal justice or the law, seek out the type of scholarships that are rewarding people who want to make this their life's work. There is a vast amount of resources online, so it takes a concerted effort and a fair amount of research, but dialing in to the programs that are actually designed to help people with the kind of desires and passions you have for your intended work are far better than just sending out applications “shotgun” style to a variety of disparate entities.

Q. How should potential students approach the scholarship application process?

You really want to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Remember, most essays are evaluated by a human being, not a machine, so you really need to make an emotional connection in the form of a story. Show how an event in your life – or an activity that you're currently involved in – led you to believe that a career in the law or criminal justice will tap into all of your talent and potential – and in turn make it possible for you to transform the world and other peoples' lives through your gifts and enthusiasm.

Additional Resources for Criminal Justice Students

ACJS hands out annual awards recognizing such achievements as best student paper and best new scholar. Memberships are available for students, and AAFS reaches out to them through its Young Forensic Scientists Forum. ACA supports criminal justice students interested in the networking opportunities the organization offers; associate memberships for students are $25 annually. ASC has a long tradition of awarding scholarships and sponsoring fellowships for criminal justice students. NIJ runs multiple fellowship programs, each one targeting scholars doing work in specific areas of criminal justice. The U.S. Department of Education's page on federal student aid is the go-to place for filing the FAFSA®, and learning about loans, grants, work-study and fellowships. Federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Bureau of Justice Statistics, advertise fellowship and grant money through OJP.

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