07/04/2013 02:39 pm ET Updated Sep 03, 2013

Criminal Justice and Community Colleges

The field of criminal justice is expanding rapidly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says it will increase by 10 percent through 2018.

Television shows such as CSI, Law & Order and NCIS have introduced millions to the world of crime fighting. This new interest, combined with a growing prison population and increased dependence on law enforcement stemming from terrorist threats, means many criminal justice jobs now require more than a high school diploma.

Community colleges are on the front lines educating future police officers, firefighters, private investigators, forensic science technicians, crime scene investigators and correction officers. While some of these jobs may only require a high school diploma or GED, employers now give preference to applicants with military experience or an associate's degree in criminal justice. There is also an increased demand for paralegals. Medium starting salaries for these occupations are between $40,000 and $50,000 per year according to the Department of Labor.

In addition, individuals who want to pursue a career with the FBI, Homeland Security, and Department of Justice or as criminologists, probation officer or INS agent, for example, will need to get a BS degree.Many of these students start their education at a community college because it is less expensive than initially enrolling in a four-year institution as a freshman.

At Ivy Tech in Indiana, we are fortunate to have Dr. Richard Weinblatt, a former police chief and expert in the field of criminal justice, as our Dean of the School of Pubic and Social Services and the School of Education. Dr. Weinblatt believes that higher education is essential in the field of criminal justice. "In the classroom, students study with others from various backgrounds such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. This experience enables them to be more open minded and helps with their communication skills, which is vital to a successful career in criminal justice," Dr. Weinblatt notes.

Other community colleges around the country now have exemplary programs to train first responders. Oakland Community College in Michigan created The Combined Regional Emergency Services Training Center in cooperation with local police, fire and EMS agencies. This training "city" provides realistic settings for real-life problems faced by emergency responders.

Elsewhere, Waubonsee Community College in Illinois provides students with their own CSI laboratory. Portland Community College in Oregon has a continuing education and training program for criminal justice professionals already working in the field.

Criminal justice is a fascinating field, one that offers many opportunities for advancement through both state and federal exams. Many states recognize the critical role that community colleges currently play in educating those committed public servants, who protect our local communities, by providing increased financial support. A degree in criminal justice from a community college trains individuals who can both help those in trouble with the law as well as protect our communities.