Online Information Technology Degree Programs
Most people know that we're in the midst of a tech revolution, but it may not be obvious to everyone just how much change it's caused in the job market. The ever-growing list of tech and IT careers now contains important positions in nearly every industry — from retail and manufacturing to law enforcement and urban planning — right alongside the game designer careers, computer security specialist jobs and Web developer careers that traditionally come to mind when one mentions positions in IT.
Not only are IT degrees common at campuses all across the country, they're also among the study plans that have proven most adaptable to the digital distance learning environment. Check out this table of schools in various regions around the country that offer IT degrees on campus and online, according to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES):
|Region||No. of schools offering communications and information technology degrees||No. of schools offering communications and information technology degrees online|
|Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI)||413||63|
|Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO)||135||35|
|Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK)||337||68|
|Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD)||345||90|
|Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV)||829||214|
|Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI)||483||97|
|Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.)||500||93|
|New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME)||181||34|
|Total (all 50 states)||3223||694|
Entry-level information technology degrees
Employers in most tech careers prefer candidates with at least a bachelor's degree, although entry level positions in certain occupations, such as Web design and computer programming, may only require an associate degree or a solid portfolio of prior work. Here's some vital information about two- and four-year degrees in the various IT disciplines:
- Associate degrees - Degrees in IT at the associate level are designed to familiarize students with a broad selection of the concepts available to study in various higher-level information technology degrees. Depending on the program, you might study computer networking concepts, database fundamentals, Web design, desktop administration or entry-level C++, C#, Java and other popular programming languages. Most study plans also include general education courses such as algebra and English composition.
- Bachelor's degrees - Bachelor's degrees in information technology go into greater depth on the central concepts of computer systems and information technology, such as networking and telecommunications, information systems design, data security, software development, relational database management, Web development, systems analysis and IT project management. Many online technology schools will also give you the option to focus your program on certain career-focused fields, such as IT for health care, engineering, business or robotics.
- Non-degree study - Students hoping to add some tech expertise to their existing degree plan or skills portfolio can earn specific certificates from campus-based and online IT schools. Popular credentials include networking certifications from Cisco, namely the network associate (CCNA) and network professional (CCNP) credentials, the solutions expert (MCSE) certification from Microsoft, CompTIA's A+ and Network+ and the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential offered by the Project Management Institute.
Online undergraduate degrees in information technology and its related disciplines are available far and wide in the U.S., thanks to the lecture-oriented nature of much of the coursework and the ability of students to perform most practical training sections using their own computer as a code lab. Students who want some of the flexibility of online degrees without moving away from the traditional classroom entirely can find hybrid or blended programs that split time between the two environments.
Advanced-degree information technology programs
It's not uncommon in today's competitive IT career market to see students go straight into a master's program after graduating with their bachelor's, bypassing entry to the workforce in favor of hitting the ground running with an advanced degree. Here's a quick rundown of what you might study on the way to graduate and post-graduate IT degrees:
- Master's degree programs - Taking your IT education to the master's level allows you to increase your marketable skills and dive deeper into an aspect of the field you're passionate about. Some graduate degrees in IT focus on growing your technical expertise, while others are designed to add valuable skills in IT management, business intelligence and other administrative approaches to tech. In fact, some master's degrees in IT are offered through Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs as a subject concentration in information technology management.
- Doctorate programs - Students who hope to contribute to the field of information technology through research initiatives and problem-solving at the highest level are likely to need a Ph.D. or other terminal degree to succeed in their job search. Ph.D. programs typically focus on the research methods and quantitative modeling techniques necessary to conduct the end-of-program dissertation project, although some may include courses in public policy or international IT contexts for advanced students hoping to go the professional route. Some doctoral programs may be available directly after you graduate with a bachelor's, while admission to others requires a master's degree.
- Graduate certificates and professional certifications - The top professional certifications in IT typically require extensive knowledge and experience in security, networking, database administration or another branch of the field. Manufacturers like Cisco and Oracle offer an array of advanced certifications for experienced professionals, and various information security associations offer an "alphabet soup" of prestigious credentials such as CISSP, CASP, CPTE, CEH and ECSA.
Degrees at the master's and doctoral level in IT are just as common in the virtual classroom as their undergraduate predecessors. If you're already knee-deep in an IT career and want to push it to the next level, the online learning environment can allow you to fit your continued education around your existing professional schedule.
Q&A with an expert
As a client partner at IT staffing firm PROTECH, Elizabeth Becker knows all about the value of an IT degree in today's workforce. Here's what she had to say about the job prospects of IT graduates at different academic levels:
Why would you encourage someone to consider a degree in IT?
Although becoming successful in IT is not reliant on having a degree, many employers still require a degree, making it difficult to get hired without one. Many candidates may say they have the skills, but without a degree or certifications to back up their claim, it's hard for a hiring manager to know if the skill is there or not. This is even more challenging when you have non-technical hiring managers making decisions. Since they aren't tech-savvy, they have to rely on a candidates experience and education to make a hiring decision.
What are the most common educational paths for those interested in IT careers?
For technical support or help desk positions, many candidates only need specific certifications like A+. For higher level positions such as software engineers, a higher degree is almost always a requirement. The most common degrees we see are A.S./B.S./M.S. since IT is a branch of science. However, we also see a lot of the creative IT positions (such as UI/UX roles) holding A.A./B.A./M.A. degrees and those in more IT management or leadership with an MBA.
Is a bachelor's degree typically sufficient to start a career in the IT field? What reasons might there be for a student to continue their education to the master's level before digging in to the job market?
In my experience, a candidate with a bachelor's degree and 2 years of working experience will have more options than a candidate with only a master's degree. I have many conversations with master's-level candidates that can't find a job because they don't have any working experience in their industry. In IT, experience and education work hand-in-hand and having a great education without working experience could prove to be a hindrance.
Types of information technology careers
Information technology degrees are among one of the more versatile academic credentials on the job market. With the right combination of electives, you could parlay your IT degree into a Web developer career, a game designer career or a spot on the front lines of cyber-criminal justice as a computer security specialist. Here's a table of a few of the IT careers with strong reported salaries or job growth projections, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
|Occupation title||National mean annual salary
|Projected job growth
|Total U.S. employment
|Web developer||$68,670||20 percent||141,400||Associate degree|
|Computer support specialist||$54,960||17 percent||722,400||
|Database administrator||$82,280||15 percent||118,700||Bachelor's degree|
|Information security analyst||$91,600||37 percent||75,100||Bachelor's degree|
|Systems software developer||$106,050||20 percent||405,000||Bachelor's degree|
|Computer systems analyst||$87,320||25 percent||520,600||Bachelor's degree|
|Computer network architect||$100,710||15 percent||143,400||
|Information systems manager||$136,280||15 percent||332,700||Bachelor's degree|
Common misconceptions about information technology degrees
Careers in tech are in high demand and the market for them is an exciting one, so it's no wonder that a few misconceptions about IT degrees have made it into the public discussion. Here are a few mistaken ideas that can cause nasty surprises when reality strikes — make sure you don't enroll in a traditional or online technology school with these thoughts in mind:
Misconception: Earning a degree in IT can guarantee you a cushy job after graduation.
- Fact: The job market in tech may be hot, but there has never been and likely will never be a college degree program that can guarantee students a job when they graduate. That said, most colleges and universities have a wealth of resources on campus to help you position yourself well for the job search once your degree is complete. Make sure to visit career services and talk to your department advisor about student organizations and other extracurriculars that can boost your chances of finding the job you want.
Misconception: Self-taught techies can't gain anything from IT degree programs.
- Fact: It may be possible to learn plenty of valuable, career-relevant information taught in traditional and online IT schools without hitting the books in a formal setting, but chances are that even if you've loved computers for years you've missed a few key elements that employers look for. A heavy hobbyist focus can be enough to do a lot of fun things with technology, but only the tiniest percentage of whiz kids will be able to get a job in the industry without an accredited college degree.
Misconception: Online IT schools will award you a degree for doing almost no work at all.
- Fact: Attending school online may sound like a cake walk, but not everyone is cut out for the digital learning environment. The software and course delivery methodologies tend to be fairly intuitive, but summoning the motivation to consume all the course content and do all the assignments required of you can be more difficult than you expect. Online technology schools can be great if you're ready to hold yourself accountable, but their coursework is no easier than that of degree plans in a traditional classroom.
How can I enroll in an online information technology degree program?
If a degree in IT sounds like the right thing for your career, check out our school listings below and select a few colleges and universities that appeal to you. Reach out to them, talk to a registrar or admissions representative and find out what it takes to apply and get started on your way to a great career in tech.
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