Software engineers design, develop, and maintain the digital functions and computer programs that modern organizations need to succeed in an interconnected business environment. From its humble beginnings of simple codes and algorithms, software engineering is now exponentially more complex, encompassing global networks and pushing the limits of what current hardware can process and store. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, conferred master's degrees in computer sciences and engineering increased from 62,695 in 2010 to 97,813 in 2016.
As a prospective student, you may be a recent undergraduate looking to break into the field, or a seasoned professional pursuing career advancement. Regardless of your goals or interests, however, there is an online software engineering master's program to fit your needs. This guide provides several important program details, including degree options, course offerings, and financial aid, along with insight into career paths and professional development opportunities.
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What Are the Best Online Master's Programs in Software Engineering?
- Accredited at the institutional level
- Private nonprofit or public school
- Minimum of 1 online master's degree in subject area
- Cost & Financial Aid
- Number and variety of online program offerings
- Student-teacher ratios
- Graduation rates
- Placement and support services offered
- Academic/Career counseling services
- Employment services
- Loan default rates
The following list features the best accredited online master's degree in software engineering programs. These rankings consider practical matters, such as tuition cost and financial support for distance learners. Student resources are also a factor, including internship placement, career guidance, research/conference opportunities, and online tutoring services. Furthermore, the colleges and universities on this list must demonstrate adequate student enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. To compile this ranking, we draw statistics and qualitative information from the institutions' own published reports, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Established in 1992, IPEDS is a collection of interrelated surveys colleges and universities must submit three times per year.
What to Know About Online Master's in Software Engineering Coursework
Online master's in software engineering degrees typically span two years, requiring 30-36 credits. In addition to core coursework on programming and software architecture, students take classes in project management, ethical decision-making, and communication. Moreover, professional development represents a cornerstone for every master's program. Software engineering students often complete internships and sponsored projects with institutional partners, which allows them to develop technical skills and cultivate invaluable professional relationships. Degree candidates round out their training with a capstone project and comprehensive exam.
Adult learners usually prefer software engineering online master's programs for their scheduling flexibility. By taking classes part-time or enrolling in a degree completion track, working professionals can juggle school, career, and family obligations. Colleges and universities may let distance learners apply job experience toward transfer credits, while others allow students to fulfill practicum requirements with their current employer. However, distance education does come with drawbacks, most noticeably a decisively linear degree plan. Because of the restrictions embedded in learning management platforms like Blackboard and Moodle, online curricula tend to offer fewer course options than those on-campus.
What Common Courses are Offered in a Master's in Software Engineering Program?
Master's in software engineering online students take core classes such as system models, advanced algorithms, information systems analysis, and functional testing. Depending on their undergraduate training, degree candidates may also need to complete prerequisite coursework. Advanced classes in each program differ based on the program's goals and a student's choice of specialization and electives. This section details five popular courses for graduate programs in this field.
Software Systems Models
The use of models to characterize and reason about systems properties stands at the center of software engineering. In this class, students explore the standard models for creating concurrent and sequential systems, including traces, algebras, and state machines. Students also learn how they can apply different logics to affect software systems properties like internal consistency and deadlock freedom.
Managing Software Development
This course trains students to control the development process through proper management of computational and human resources. They examine the relationship between software engineering and overall product development with regards to time and cost. Additional topics include requirements elicitation, life cycle models, configuration control, and quality assurance.
Information Systems Structures and Design
This class focuses on the development of object-oriented information systems using Python for organizational data-processing needs. Students examine core programming concepts, including control structure methods, data types, polymorphism, and user interface. They also design and implement Python applications in relationship to big data and analytics.
Software Quality and Security Testing
Students test each step of software development for quality assurance and security — including coverage criteria and case design techniques — and develop the tools for static and dynamic analysis. The course also covers the differences between validation and verification. Additional topics include test-driven development, plan quality, and QA for legacy and maintenance applications.
Mobile Application Development
Using Android as the development platform, students examine the project lifecycle of mobile creation. The course provides an in-depth discovery of application components, inter-component communication, data storage, 2D graphics, and UI design. Students also delve into mobile security, and create their own applications in Android Studio.
What Specializations are Available in a Master's in Software Engineering Program?
Colleges and universities often deliver software engineering as a specialization in broader graduate computer science degrees. However, distinct online software engineering master's programs are available with their own specializations. Students can pursue coursework in a software type, like network-centric systems, digital and embedded systems, or gaming systems. They may also pick a general topic, including accounting, applied statistics, and mechanical engineering.
With the emergence of virtual reality and artificial intelligence technologies, the video game industry continues to expand, providing lucrative and exciting career opportunities. Through this specialization, students develop key skills in infrastructure, immersion, narrative storytelling, and gaming and cognition. Coursework includes game engine development and machine learning, along with augmented, virtual, and mixed reality.
Applied Business Statistics
Big data drives organizational decision-making. This specialization trains students to develop, create, manage, and analyze data acquisition systems, with an emphasis on business analytics. In addition to advanced statistical training, learners develop skills in operations research and information systems management. Classes consist of business forecasting, statistical quality control, and survey sampling.
Information Systems Security
This specialization trains students to design and implement security protocols with a singular software system across multiple networks. Learners also develop an understanding of information standards and laws to ensure their organization's operational security meets government regulations. Additional topics include fault-tolerant computing, software safety, privacy and anonymity, and cryptographic methods.
What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?
Master's in software engineering online programs emphasize advanced skill development through problem-solving. As a result, students analyze case studies and apply theories and methods in technology labs. They also pursue self-motivated research through independent study courses and fellowships. For students with no relevant work experience, internships and other practicum offer hands-on training necessary to prepare for career entry.
These small-scale assignments build the scaffolding for capstone experiences. Working individually or in teams, students tackle pertinent challenges in the software engineering field, including software customization/reusability and balancing the needs of practitioners and stakeholders. Or they may work through a full cycle: from requirements gathering and project planning, to implementation, analysis, and product release. Master's degree candidates can also expect a comprehensive examination as part of the culminating requirements.
How Can I Choose a Quality Online Master's in Software Engineering Program?
To ensure they earn a quality degree, students need to enroll in a college or university that holds accreditation at the national or regional level. Accredited schools maintain academic and professional standards set by government agencies and professional organizations. Schools gain national accreditation through the ED and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and they apply for regional accreditation through one of six organizations, depending on location.
On top of national/regional accreditation, master's in software engineering online programs may hold specialized accreditation from the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Earning an ABET-accredited degree is a common requirement for professional certification/licensure. Software engineers who work as consultants — or for firms that provide services to the general public — must obtain a license. For other professionals, optional certification paves the way to leadership roles and higher salaries.
In addition to ensuring a school's accreditation, students should conduct thorough research on their prospective programs. This can include course options, specialization choices, and overall faculty expertise. Learners should also factor in graduation rate, which offers a strong indication of academic quality and administrative support.
Career Opportunities With a Master's in Software Engineering Degree
While an undergraduate degree is sufficient for entry-level positions in this field, an online software engineering master's degree provides the specialized skill set and leadership training to pursue high-ranking careers. Graduates may work as software developers, project managers, or computer network architects. With the right specialization software engineers may occupy roles as video game developers, user interface designer, information security specialists, and financial analysts. Within these careers, professionals can even focus on a particular industry, like medical equipment, naval engineering, or aerospace technologies. However, a graduate degree does not guarantee career entry or advancement. Among a competitive applicant pool, candidates with work experience, relevant accomplishments, and professional licensure/certification stand out.
These professionals design, build, and maintain data communication networks. They work on local area networks or intranets, and facilitate small connections within a building or between an organization's offices. They can also develop wide area networks and cloud infrastructures that serve multiple clients worldwide. Computer network architects collaborate with managers and other engineers to ensure the programs match the company's interests and goals. To access this career, students need a master's degree — with emphasis on business planning and analytics — and at least five years of information technology (IT) experience.
Median Salary: $104,650 per year
Currently Employed: 162,700
Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +6%
Also known as IT managers, these leaders oversee every aspect of an organization's computer-related activities, including the installation and maintenance of software and hardware. They analyze short-term personnel needs and long-term organizational goals. Computer systems managers then work with software developers, information security analysts, and vendors to implement effective programs and networks. They also manage general administrative functions, including budgeting, employee training, and coordination. By garnering work experience and professional certification, computer systems managers can pursue executive-level positions, such as chief technology officer.
Median Salary: $139,220 per year
Currently Employed: 367,600
Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +12%
Working in fields like business, medicine, and science, information research scientists design and create new computing technologies and find innovative ways to apply existing ones. These professionals use theories and models to tackle computing challenges. They also develop, test, and update software to meet the needs of modern computing. As expected of their position, information research scientists publish their findings in academic journals and present at conferences. To pursue this career, students need specialized industry training in addition to their master's degree.
Median Salary: $114,250 per year
Currently Employed: 27,900
Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +19%
As the creative force behind computing, software developers invent applications for specific tasks as well as underlying systems that sustain networks and run devices. Most professionals in this field work for a company, analyzing their employer's organizational needs and developing software to satisfy them. Others assisting individual clients as a consultant. While software engineer and developer are often used interchangeably, distinctions do exist. Unlike developers, engineers do not engage in every step of the project cycle. They specifically oversee the technical aspects, applying engineering principles toward software creation.
Median Salary: $103,560 per year
Currently Employed: 1,256,200
Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +24%
As the fastest-growing profession in the IT field, security analysts develop and implement software and measures to protect an organization's information and computer networks. Working with managers and other IT professionals, they create best practices, maintain security standards, and train staff in proper application. Information security analysts also monitor their company's networks for attacks and misuse, investigating breaches as necessary. On top of a master's degree, these professionals usually obtain professional certification. The International Information System Security Certification Consortium offers the popular Certified Information Systems Security Professional credential.
Median Salary: $95,510 per year
Currently Employed: 100,000
Expected Job Growth in Next 10 years: +28%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
What's the Expected Job Growth for Software Engineering Careers?
The BLS projects computer and information technology positions to grow 13% through 2026, faster than the average of other occupations. This percentage translates into 557,100 new jobs. Among careers in this field, software developers and information security analysts benefit from the highest increases, at 24% and 28%, respectively. Other sources display similar growth. According to Data USA, a user-generated information aggregate, applications and systems software development occupations stand to expand 18%. The highest concentration of job opportunities lay in California and Washington State.
Professional Organizations for Careers in Software Engineering
Students can bolster the training they receive in online master's degree in software engineering programs by joining a professional organization. Membership often requires an annual fee, but benefits include research guidance and funding, job listings, fellowships, and academic scholarships. Members also enjoy professional development opportunities, like the certification programs from the IEEE Computer Society.
- Association of Computing Machinery ACM advances computing as a science and a profession through public policy initiatives, curricula recommendations, and research-based publications. Members connect through national conferences and more than 37 special interest groups. The association also operates a comprehensive career center.
- Association of Software Professionals One of the oldest organizations for software engineers, ASP delivers interactive discussion groups where members can ask questions and learn from colleagues and industry experts. The association provides training in areas like marketing and sales techniques. Members also benefit from discounts on developers' tools and mISV-related services.
- Computing Research Association Founded in 1972, CRA works with government agencies, businesses, and practitioners to strengthen computing research and education. In addition to a job database, members enjoy career mentoring workshops and networking summits centered on technological innovation. The association offers resources especially for graduate students, including awards and research opportunities.
- IEEE Computer Society IEEE Computer Society empowers technology and engineering leaders through individual courses and integrative certification programs. The society publishes research on the latest innovations and best practices in the field, which members access in the CS Digital Library. Members collaborative through technical committees and special interest groups, including those for graduate students and female professionals.
- Institution of Engineering and Technology Boasting over 168,000 members in 150 countries, the IET is one of the largest engineering professional organizations. Membership perks include practical workshops, e-seminars, and career development. IET connects members through worldwide events, volunteer initiatives, and online collaboration platforms.
How to Pay for a Master's in Software Engineering Degree
Earning an online software engineering master's degree requires substantial investments of time and money. Fortunately, colleges and universities attract distance learners with awards based on merit and need. Students may also tap into federal and state aid. Additionally, students can take advantage of scholarships and grants from local business and professional organizations.
Federal Financial Aid
A great source of undergraduate funding, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid also provides graduate students access to financial support. Awards consist of federal loans, including the Direct Unsubsidized and PLUS Loans. Graduate candidates can also apply for work-study opportunities and grants. The latter are only open to professionals with interest in teaching.
On top of affordable tuition prices, master's in software engineering online programs provide scholarships and grants. These opportunities can come in the form of general awards based on academic performance, like the President's or Dean's Scholarship. Schools also offer financial aid specifically for distance learners, such as the International Student Grant from Colorado Technical University.
Fellowships and Assistantships
Like scholarships and grants, fellowships/assistantships provide funding students do not need to pay back. Unlike scholarships and grants, these awards often come with teaching, research, and training positions. For example, students in the Azavea Open Source Fellowship Program use summer positions leveraging geospatial technology to advance civil, environmental, and social research. Fellows receive a generous monthly stipend.
Private Scholarships and Grants
Online students should conduct thorough research on available scholarships and grants from local business, community organizations, and professional associations. Candidates usually need to demonstrate academic achievement and professional experience, though certain awards support underserved groups in the software engineering field. For example, the Women Who Code Bootcamp Scholarship and the Palantir Scholarships are open to female professionals only.