Savvy university students are taking an increasing interest in technical degree programs, particularly programs that allow for remote learning via online classrooms. Getting an online computer science degree in computer science has never been easier, even for students with relatively limited hands-on experience in software development.
This is largely due to the ever-increasing demand for computer science professionals, combined with a huge variety of academic and professional resources for the aspiring computer scientist.
The trouble is sorting and sifting through these resources in order to identify the best pathway for each individual student, which will largely depend on their existing competencies and future career objectives. To start, we should ask ourselves what exactly is meant by the term ‘computer science’.
Back when computers were the hip new thing, computer scientists spent a good deal of time linking simple hardware designs to newly written and experimental software architecture. The past 50 years have seen a massive evolution of this field, opening a huge array of functional experts and career paths for aspiring technologists.
Understanding this huge variety of prospective jobs is step one in the pursuit of an online computer science degree, as students would be best advised to customize the curriculum towards their professional goals. Would you prefer to be a solitary software developer, building and maintaining the databases? Or are you more of a people person, who would enjoy designing the user experience of websites?
Maybe you’re a gamer, and have an interest in developing AAA titles as a video game developer? A computer science program is a great starting point for all of these, and more.
Successfully gaining employment in one of these fields requires hands-on demonstrable skills, exactly the kind of skills you can pick up in a high-quality online computer science degree program. Let’s take some time to outline how to gain admittance into one of these programs, including the application process and the ideal student profile who is typically accepted.
Online Computer Science Degree Admissions
Technical programs tend to be a bit choosier than most other academic programs, largely due to the rigorous curriculum and computer science’s reliance on mathematics and programming know-how. From the university’s perspective, accepting new students is a big responsibility.
Accepting students who cannot handle the workload reduces their graduation rates, while wasting a student’s precious time and resources in the process. Therefore, new applicants should carefully consider what these programs look for, and how to build an appealing personal profile.
To get into the nitty-gritty details, a prospective student will likely need to:
- Demonstrate a minimum high school GPA
- Provide an SAT or ACT score
- Write a personal statement, which is a short essay describing why you intend to do what you do
- Procure letters of recommendation (typically from high school teachers or employers)
- Prove English language mastery (if the student is international)
- Complete any required prerequisite coursework
- Check if any existing credits will transfer (if previously a university student elsewhere)
While application requirements do deviate from institution to institution, it’s fairly common to require the above list. For remote computer science students specifically, you also need proof that you have adequate internet connectivity and computing resources to engage with the virtual classroom and complete assignments. Some institutions may provide computer equipment, but not the internet connection you’ll need to access the courses! This is a unique additional requirement compared to traditional onsite programs.
Acceptance rates, just like admission requirements, do tend to vary incredibly widely by institution. Institutions like MIT, for example, could have an acceptance rate as low as 4.1 percent . However, most entirely-online BS programs in computer science are much more lenient than that.
This could be due to a variety of factors, but the most likely one is that online learning has lower switching costs for both students and the institutions. This means less risk involved in admittance decisions, allowing for slightly higher acceptance rates.
As always, the very best advice is to prepare your applications carefully and distribute them to a variety of university programs. Select a few safe choices and a few ambitious choices, that way you’ll keep your options open. So long as the curriculum meets your needs, spending extra on well-known programs isn’t always necessary to achieve your professional goals. This brings us to the typical computer science curriculum, and how to determine if an institution meets your professional goals. Let’s take a look.
The Computer Science Curriculum
An online BS in Computer Science curriculum will include general education courses, core degree courses, degree specialization courses, and (optionally) electives. General education courses, like writing, critical thinking, and basic mathematics, are important for any undergraduate degree program regardless of the major being studied.
The more interesting component combines the core degree program requirements, with electives and specialization coursework which can help differentiate and distinguish students in a particular field of work. In this case, it’s much easier to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ what a online program in computer science might look like, alongside some recommended institutions to get you started on researching the best fit for you:
- Colorado State University (CSU) Global: CSU provides an excellent overview of expected core coursework on their program page, including courses like Computer Science Fundamentals (CSC200), Information Systems Analysis and Design (MIS350), and Database Management (ITS410).
- University of Florida (UF) Online: UF Online has a particularly good overview of the types of career objectives their courses prepare students for, including business intelligence, computer systems analytics, network systems administrators, and web developers.
- Oregon State University (OSU) Online: OSU is a great choice considering the low per-credit-price of $403, and provides a helpful list of sample coursework including programming fundamentals, mobile and web development, theory of computation, and network security.
- Old Dominion University (ODU) Global: Last but not least, ODU outlines a sample curriculum for the entire program. Courses include Prob Solving and Programming I (CS 150), Object-Oriented Programming and Design (CS 330), Professional Workforce Development I (CS 410), and Computational Methods & Software (CS 417).
This provides a decent outline of the typical coursework, with one critical exception: projects and internships. Technical work like computer science is best demonstrated to prospective employers through hands-on projects. Involving students in these projects usually has some number of credits attached, while allowing students to develop software independently or alongside an organization/company.
A well-explained example of this is included in the Oregon State University Online computer science materials, which is a 9-credit project culminating in a functioning prototype. Some institutions may opt for internship-based capstone experiences, but the objective is the same. This is to say the goal is to move students from classroom to employment, simple as. In some situations, though not all, this may include some onsite work with a small team or organization. It’s a good idea to check that an online program is entirely online, or ensure that you’ll be able to complete on-site program requirements if necessary.
Now that we know the broader environment, admissions process, and general curriculum of an online computer science undergraduate degree, the last thing to consider is the cost/benefit analysis. What are the upsides and downsides to an online computer science degree?
Costs and Benefits of an Online Computer Science Degree
Online learning programs are highly flexible, allowing students to go at their own pace as they earn their degree. Some students will finish programs more quickly than a traditional onsite arrangement, while others will spread it out and take their time. Students save time by not needing to commute, and save money by avoiding any room and board costs. Most importantly of all, online students can go to a far wider range of universities and therefore have more options to choose from.
Online education does have a few downsides as well, even before we discuss the price of tuition. Online students do need to be very self-motivated, willing to invest the time and effort required without the extrinsic motivation of being a part of an in-person class. Digital communication is fairly mature, but doesn’t quite provide the same networking advantages as meeting someone face-to-face and collaborating in the real-world. These are important considerations to take into account before electing to go for an online education route.
Of course, university programs are also rarely free! Luckily, many entirely online programs are quite a bit cheaper compared to on-site programs. Let’s use the universities listed in the previous section as a starting point and do some quick math to quantify the cost of the typical online BS in computer science:
- CSU Global: 120 credits required at $350 per credit comes to a total cost of $42,000 over four years. This is a great price point, as some universities might cost that much per year!
- UF Online: For local Floridians, this is a no-brainer at $130 per credit hour over 120 credits. A total four year degree for in-state residents is an amazingly low $15,600. Out-of-state residents will pay about $550 per credit hour, or around $66,000 total.
- OSU Online: This is going to require 180 credits, each one with a cost of $403. This leads to a total degree investment of $48,360.
- ODU Global: Located in Virginia, this is another state university with different prices for in-state ($374 per credit) or out-of-state students ($407 per credit). With a requirement of 120 credits, this means locals pay a total of $44,880 and out-of-state students pay $48,840 for all four years.
Of course, anything worthwhile tends to come at some cost or another. The question is one of return on investment. Let’s take a look at what graduates can expect in regards to both employment and annual salary. From there, prospective students can compare what they are presently earning without a degree to what they could potentially earn with a degree. This should help determine if the time and capital investment will pay off.
Computer science jobs are many and varied, most of which include a salary above the national average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a growth rate in jobs of 15 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is a very high rate of growth. This field is one of the safest bets in respect to both job security and compensation. The tricky part is determining which career path to pursue, and acquiring the necessary skills to do so. Let’s take a look at a few common options:
- Data Architect: Storing information is more important than ever, as the huge streams of data that businesses rely on continue to grow in volume and strategic importance. A data architect specializes in building the databases and repositories of this information, and has an average salary of $87,907.
- Software Engineer: Software engineers operate in the middle stack of a traditional architecture, which is to say they build the programs which store data in the back-end and push user experiences to the front-end. Salary averages out at $119,630.
- Full Stack Developer: Combine the back-end data management with the software applications and front-end user experience, and you have a Full Stack Developer. These are highly versatile computer scientists, with a knack solving problems and writing code anywhere within a project. Salary comes in quite high, with an average of $103,559.
This list goes on quite a while further, as computer science is a reasonably good starting point for game developers, web designers, digital artists, project managers, and technicians as well. Charting a path from admission, through curriculum, and finally to a career objective will help contribute to the decision of whether or not a full online bachelor degree program will be worth the commitment in time and money.
Perhaps more than anything else, the job security of being highly adept in computer programming is well-worth a serious look for any new professionals unsure of where to steer their career. After all, most careers will benefit from a tech-savvy thinker capable of navigating an increasingly digital world.