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Online software engineering degrees

If an award was being given to honor the Breakout Career of the Century so far, chances are that software engineering would be the odds-on favorite. Software engineers have given us Google, Facebook, Amazon, Skype, Netflix and dozens of other products and services that have become so tightly woven into our daily lives that it's sometimes hard to imagine life before they existed.

Naturally, with so much hype around becoming a software engineer, school and experience are going to play a big part in employers' hiring decisions. Earning at least a bachelor's degree is common practice in the industry, and candidates for positions at the most desirable companies often go even further than that.

Here's a quick list of the number of campus-based and online software engineering schools in each region of the country, according to data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics:

Region No. of colleges with software engineering schools No. of colleges with online software engineering schools
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 21 3
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 4 0
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 13 4
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 12 6
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 18 8
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 21 2
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 20 7
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 8 1
Total (all 50 states) 117 31

Entry-level software engineering degrees

A solid grasp of the fundamentals of computer science and software design is the foundation on which all towering achievements of software engineering are built. Take a look at these brief descriptions of the type of material you're likely to study in undergraduate programs at traditional and online software engineering schools:

  • Associate degrees - Online software engineering technology degrees can be found at even the associate level, where students can learn the most elemental aspects of the discipline at their own pace and prepare for upper-division work in a bachelor's program. Two-year programs at software engineering schools typically cover subjects such as Java/C#/C++ programming, relational database design, software process management, digital logic, technical report writing and essential math courses such as analytic geometry and discrete mathematics.
  • Bachelor's degrees - Software engineering bachelor's degrees have quite a bit in common with associate-level programs during their first two years, but their scope grows with each semester to include some fairly advanced study by the program's end. Additional coursework for bachelor's students may cover a wide range of material, including but not limited to enterprise data systems, Linux/UNIX programming, data structures, operating systems architecture, advanced Java/C#/C++ programming, information systems analysis, information security and cloud computing.
  • Non-degree study - Full undergraduate certificates in software engineering are uncommon, although a few such programs can be found and aim to provide students with a brief but comprehensive introductory look at the basics of the discipline. Certain software engineer schools may also offer one-off computer science or engineering courses for interested students who aren't yet ready to commit to a multi-year degree plan.

Online degrees in tech disciplines are fairly popular, especially among students who are looking for more flexible and less expensive routes to earning their bachelor's degree. Online software engineering schools in particular can be an exciting learning experience, in part because the Web apps and other learning software can serve as real-time studies in the capabilities and limitations of the discipline.

Advanced-degree software engineering programs

Top engineers typically don't stop at the bachelor's degree — in fact, many committed computer science professionals continue all the way to their terminal degree before ever striking out into the full-time workforce. Here's some detail about the methods and material commonly encountered in graduate and post-graduate degrees at software engineer schools:

  • Master's degree programs - Two main types of software engineering degrees exist at the master's level: those designed to build on an existing computer science education and those that aim to give students of other engineering disciplines a thorough education in the ways their skills can be applied to the software field. Degrees of the latter variety tend to have much of their coursework in common with upper-division bachelor's degree work in software engineering, while those designed to continue a software education include advanced concepts such as pattern oriented design, applied human-computer interaction, lifecycle project management, data security, data privacy, distributed software systems and more.
  • Doctorate programs - Students hoping to contribute to the field of software engineering by conducting original research and formal analysis can prepare themselves for the rigors of a career in professional scholarship with a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in software engineering at any one of several schools around the country. Students in software engineering Ph.D. programs can expect to take some highly advanced lecture-style and seminar courses in the discipline while also undertaking in-depth study of research methods and other cornerstones of scholastic practice.
  • Graduate certificates - Non-degree work in software engineering is much more common at the graduate level than it is for undergraduates, thanks in part to the larger percentage of graduate certificate seekers who have enough prerequisites in their background to keep pace in class without requiring much catching up. Some certificates aim to help software engineers take on project management roles, while others may work to help general computer scientists or electrical engineers pivot their skills into the realm of software development. Program lengths are commonly around 12-15 hours and contain no general education courses.

Advanced degrees in software engineering are also common online, often because bachelor's degree graduates who moved into the workforce after graduation can appreciate the ability to schedule their continued education around their existing responsibilities at work and at home. PhD programs in computer science or information systems may be harder to find online than those at the master's level, but programs are certainly out there for you if you need them.

Q&A with experts

Steven Ostrowski, director of corporate communications for tech training firm CompTIA

Steven Ostrowski, director of corporate communications for tech training firm CompTIAWhy would you encourage someone to consider a software engineering degree?

Software developers are among the most in-demand job categories in the tech industry, and among the best paying, too.

What level of education is typically necessary to begin a software engineering career?

Most organizations will require at least a bachelor's degree in software, computer engineering, math, science or a related discipline, as well as broad experience with computers systems and applications. Some employers may hire someone with significant programming knowledge and an associate degree in computer studies.

What's some advice you might have for a student who's just started thinking about getting into the software engineering field?

Strong analytical skills and the ability to pay careful attention to detail are keys to success in software engineering. Also useful is the capacity to work well in groups and a willingness to understand the various roles played by fellow team members.

Karim Jamal, software engineer and co-founder of education startup overEducate

Karim Jamal, software engineer and co-founder of education startup overEducateWhat are the most common educational paths for students hoping to make a living in software engineering?

The most common education path is still traditional four-year colleges. A bachelor's degree has become the minimum requirement, and having a master's degree gives you an edge in the marketplace.

Can students get started with a bachelor's degree or less, or do many jobs require advanced study?

Most software engineering jobs will list a bachelor's degree or equivalent years of experience in the industry as minimum criteria. Only in specialized cases or more senior positions will more advanced degrees be required.

What are some drawbacks or advantages to earning a software engineering degree online?

I don't see many drawbacks with earning a software engineering degree online. Of course, if you don't enjoy the field or don't have a technical mind, then it might feel like torture forcefully trying to go through with it. Only pursue it if it interests you.

What are some differences between degrees in software engineering and computer science?

Computer science deals more with research and the whats and hows of solving problems using algorithms and computations. Software engineering deals with the end-to-end software lifecycle, from requirements gathering to design to development to quality assurance to deployment.

Types of software engineering careers

While not all tech disciplines are interchangeable, once you're sufficiently knowledgeable in one area you may have options to make lateral moves within an organization's IT structure. Here's a table of salary and employment information for some top careers for graduates of software engineer schools, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2015)
Projected job growth
(2014-2024)
Total U.S. employment
(2014)
Entry-level education
Software developer, applications $102,160 19 percent 853,700 Bachelor's degree
Software developer, systems software $108,760 13 percent 447,000 Bachelor's degree
Computer programmer $84,360 -8 percent 328,600 Bachelor's degree
Web developer $70,660 27 percent 148,500 Associate's degree
Network or computer systems administrator $82,200 8 percent 382,600 Bachelor's degree
Computer or information systems manager $141,000 15 percent 348,500 Bachelor's degree

Common misconceptions about software engineering degrees and careers

It comes with the territory of being one of the hottest careers on the job market that software engineering is also one of the most mythologized. Here are a few course corrections for anyone who has bought into these popular misconceptions about degrees and careers for software engineers:

Misconception: A software engineering degree is essentially an employment guarantee.

  • Fact: Jobs for software engineers are booming, but the honest truth is that there's no degree in the world that can guarantee you'll find a job after graduation. Working with career services advisors, joining student-professional organizations and making sure you grow your professional network while in school can all increase your chances of landing the job you want, however, and visiting tech industry job fairs or staying up on the social media feeds of prominent industry figures can keep you informed about market conditions and skill trends.

Misconception: Employers won't respect your degree if it's from an online software engineer school.

  • Fact: Good students can get the same value out of online degrees that they can out of ones that take place on a brick-and-mortar campus, and the hiring process at companies that require software engineering or computer science degrees tends to leave plenty of room for online graduates. Most employers of software engineers care primarily about your skills and how you use them then that you learned them in a specific environment. If you went to a reputable online IT school and have a solid portfolio, you shouldn't worry about whether your degree was earned online or in person.

Misconception: An online software engineering degree is a shortcut to a hot career.

  • Fact: Studying software engineering can prepare you for a solid career, true, but earning a degree online is almost certainly not as easy as the uninitiated might imagine it to be. It can be difficult to stay disciplined and motivated when you're the only one holding you accountable for whether or not you attend lectures or complete coursework, and not everyone is naturally cut out for the extra measure of self-supervision it typically takes. Online software engineering schools can absolutely be a good option for the right student, it's just important to bear in mind that they're no easier than those offered on campus.

How can I enroll in an online software engineering degree program?

Feel like you're ready to sink your teeth into a challenging, rewarding and intellectually stimulating career path? Take a spin through our listings below, find a few schools that seem like they might be up your alley and get in touch with each one individually to find out what it takes to qualify for admission.

Sources:

  1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed April 12, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
  2. "Same as it ever was: Top 10 most popular college majors," Carly Stockwell, USA Today, October 26, 2014, accessed April 12, 2015, http://college.usatoday.com/2014/10/26/same-as-it-ever-was-top-10-most-popular-college-majors/
  3. School pages, accessed April 27, 2016: Course Planner, Software Engineering Technology, Oregon Institute of Technology Wilsonville, http://www.oit.edu/wilsonville/academics/degrees/software-engineering-technology/course-planner#; Software Engineering Technology Associate Degree, New England Institute of Technology, http://www.neit.edu/Programs/Associate-Degree-Programs/Information-Technology/Software-Engineering-Technology; Online Software Development Degree, Champlain College, http://www.champlain.edu/computer-sciences/online-software-development-degrees; Software Engineering Degree, Keiser University, http://www.keiseruniversity.edu/software-engineering-bs/; Bachelor of Science in Information Technology - Software Systems Engineering, Colorado Technical University, http://www.coloradotech.edu/degrees/bachelors/it/software-systems-engineering; Undergraduate Certificate Software Engineering, Framingham State University, https://www.framingham.edu/academics/continuing-education/undergraduate-certificates/undergraduate-certificate-software-engineering; Master of Software Engineering, Penn State World Campus, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/software-engineering-masters/courses; Master of Science in Computer Science - Software Engineering Concentration, Colorado Technical University, http://coloradotech.smartcatalogiq.com/en/2016/Catalog/Degree-Programs/Masters/Master-of-Science-in-Computer-Science-Software-Engineering-Concentration; PhD IT Concentration in Software Engineering, George Mason University, http://cs.gmu.edu/programs/phd/it/swe/; PhD Program in Software Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, http://www.isri.cmu.edu/education/se-phd/index.html; Software Engineering Graduate Certificate, Regis University, http://www.regis.edu/CCIS/Academics/Degrees-Programs/Certificates/GC-in-Software-Engineering.aspx; Computer & Software Engineering Certificate, Harvard Extension School, http://www.extension.harvard.edu/academics/professional-graduate-certificates/software-engineering-certificate; Software Engineering Graduate Certificate, Boston University, http://www.bu.edu/met/programs/graduate/software-engineering-certificate/
  4. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed April 18, 2016: Software Developers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Computer-and-Information-Technology/Software-developers.htm; Computer Programmers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-programmers.htm; Web Developers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/web-developers.htm; Network and Computer Systems Administrators, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/network-and-computer-systems-administrators.htm; Computer and Information Systems Managers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/computer-and-information-systems-managers.htm;
  5. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
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