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Earning an online master's in computer science is an excellent investment for tech-literate learners seeking marketable degrees. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates significant growth in many computer science careers over the coming years. BLS projections indicate a 15% employment growth rate for computer and information research scientists, a lucrative master's-level role, from 2019-2029.
For career-minded students, an affordable computer science degree improves long-term returns. Online learning typically costs less than campus-based education, helping computer science graduates qualify for lucrative jobs while keeping their student debts relatively low.
This page contains rankings of the most cost-effective online computer science master's programs. Our guide also details what to expect during the application, enrollment, and degree-completion processes.
What Is Computer Science?
Historians often identify British mathematician Alan Turing's 1936 invention of the "Turing machine" as the birth of modern computer science. The nascent field matured during the 1970s as the first home computers hit the commercial market. Computer science then underwent rapid growth during the 1980s and exploded into the mainstream during the internet revolution of the 1990s.
Today, the field encompasses interrelated aspects of computers and computing, including hardware and software components, system and network design, computational systems, and computer algorithms. It tends to attract analytical, tech-savvy minds with strong problem-solving skills.
As technology becomes more and more integrated into daily life, professionals with the requisite tech skills will continue to find gainful employment.
For many years, employers valued raw skills more than formal credentials, but more businesses continue to seek applicants with degrees. The global digital explosion has drawn many new learners to the field, while the performance demands of modern computing systems keep rising. Job-seekers face increased competition while employers expect more from their skill sets, giving advanced computer science degrees more value than ever.
Computer science also offers long-term job security. As technology becomes more and more integrated into daily life, professionals with the requisite tech skills will continue to find gainful employment.
Why Get an Affordable Computer Science Master's?
An affordable online master's in computer science minimizes cost-related barriers to program entry. Graduates tend to enter the job market with less debt, improving their prospects for lifelong financial health. Computer science careers also generally pay very well. Many carry median salaries starting at $80,000 per year, further improving the value proposition of a low-cost degree.
Unlike introductory computer science and coding bootcamps, which became popular online during the early 2010s, degrees deliver a deep, detailed learning experience. Students pursue online computer science master's programs to develop advanced skills in targeted areas and advance into careers with more responsibility and higher pay.
Other benefits of earning an affordable computer science degree include:
- Excellent Positioning for the Future
- Degree-holders with computer science master's degrees maximize their career options. They can enter (or re-enter) the job market with advanced credentials or enroll in doctoral programs.
- Access to Senior Positions
- Lower-level and junior computer science positions pay fairly well but come with low career ceilings. A master's degree offers a pathway to higher-level jobs with more responsibility and more fulfilling work.
- Specialization Opportunities
- Computer science concentration options peak at the master's level, making these programs ideal for learners with specific career goals that demand highly developed niche skill sets.
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Master's in Computer Science Career and Salary Opportunities
With a master's in computer science, careers provide greater responsibility and higher pay. Computer science professionals typically enjoy above-average salaries even at lower levels, but an advanced degree accelerates career-long earning potential. BLS notes that master's degree-holders benefit from median salaries that reach nearly 18% higher than those with bachelor's degrees.
Though degree-based credentials have grown in prominence in the technology industry, some computer science employers do not require formal qualifications. In some cases, a candidate's skills and abilities carry more weight than their scholastic achievements. The following positions either require a master's degree or are more readily attainable to master's-level applicants:
Computer and Information Research Scientists
Computer and information research scientists specialize in innovation, designing and performing studies and research programs to find new uses for computer technology while improving on existing frameworks.
Information Security Analyst
Also known as IT architects and network architects, security architects design, maintain, and strengthen the security systems used to protect an organization's digital and computing assets.
Computer Hardware Engineer
What To Expect From Master's in Computer Science Programs
Like most other master's programs, an online master's in computer science usually requires about two academic years of full-time study. Actual timelines vary, as many learners study while they maintain day jobs. Part-time students usually earn their degrees in 3-5 years.
Computer science master's programs generally cover 45-66 credits. Some schools offer shorter timelines, but they generally require extensive work experience and/or advanced professional certifications.
Programs can also feature general or specialized/concentrated orientations. Specialized degrees target particular skills, industries, or computer science applications. Examples include fields like cybersecurity, networking, software development, and mobile computing, among many others.
Institutions set admission standards internally, so these standards differ among programs. That said, applicants typically must possess a bachelor's degree in computer science. Schools rarely consider candidates from non-computing academic backgrounds unless they have compelling achievements to their credit, such as professional computing certifications from universally respected organizations.
Admissions departments usually prefer applicants with undergraduate GPAs of at least 3.0. Candidates must submit academic transcripts as part of the application process.
Most schools also require applicants to submit GRE scores. In many cases, the quantitative sections of the GRE carry more importance than the verbal and analytical writing sections.
In some situations, applicants must also demonstrate proficiency in a specialized area of computer science. For example, programming-oriented master's degrees may demand familiarity with a relatively long list of programming languages, while a cybersecurity-oriented program may require undergraduate coursework in ethical hacking or other relevant areas.
Degree and Concentration Options
Master's degrees in computer science almost always lead to master of science (MS) designations. Rarely, they may carry a specialized title, such as master of computer and information technology. However, these designations are more common outside the United States.
While some bachelor's programs support concentrated specializations, students more commonly encounter them at the graduate level. Schools offer a broad lineup of specializations, which continue to grow and change as computer technologies mature and enter new evolutionary generations. Current examples of popular concentrations include game design, information security, data science, network engineering, and software development.
Emerging concentrations focus on machine learning, automation, and human-computer interaction. Specializations in artificial intelligence and robotics commonly appear among these concentrated programs.
Popular Computer Science Courses
Many factors influence computer science curricula, especially at the master's level. Most programs feature three main types of courses: core classes, electives, and culminating experiences. Candidates must complete all core courses to qualify for graduation but remain free to choose their electives.
Culminating experiences, such as capstone projects or thesis dissertations, operate differently but always fall during the final year or semester of the program.
The following sample curriculum provides a snapshot of classes typically offered as part of a general online master's in computer science:
Concepts in Cloud Computing
With cloud computing quickly emerging as a default standard in contemporary enterprise systems, this core course provides students with a strong grasp of essential concepts. Coursework covers common cloud applications, when and how to leverage their advantages, their technical requirements, and related security issues. Students emerge with a sound understanding of cloud computing's enterprise applications, benefits, and limitations.
Mobile Systems and Applications
This core course applies computer science principles to the world of mobile computing. Learners examine the theoretical principles that guide mobile system development, along with mobile infrastructure design, hardware and software, and security concerns.
Principles of Software Engineering
Offered as an elective in general programs and as a core course in specialized software development programs, this course provides students with a deep understanding of the foundational pillars of software modeling and testing. Key topics include object-oriented analysis, user interfacing, APIs and frameworks, and the software development process.
Enrollees consider major applications for retrieving, organizing, and analyzing data on micro and macro scales. Concepts include array lists, skip lists, binary trees, and algorithmic sorting, among others.
Capstone in Computer Science
This culminating experience guides students to apply their newly gained knowledge to solve a substantial and specific computing problem of their choosing. Learners may work on their own or in small groups to define a problem or shortcoming of computer science, create a strategy for solving the problem, then execute that strategy.
How Much Will a Master's in Computer Science Cost?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), one year of tuition in a graduate or first-professional program at a U.S. postsecondary institution cost an average of $19,314 for the 2018-19 academic year. The NCES also noted that public institutions charged an average of $12,171 per year, while nonprofit private institutions typically cost $25,929 per year.
In general, computer science programs line up with these trends. However, many factors influence the costs and fees of particular programs. Larger, more prestigious schools tend to cost more, while students at public institutions pay less if they qualify for in-state tuition rates.
Plenty of schools offer affordable computer science degrees that cost significantly less than average graduate school rates. Many schools attach lower tuition rates to their online programs and courses, while learners avoid the need to commute, relocate, or pay for room and board.
Still, even the most affordable computer science degrees carry price tags some learners struggle to afford. Key sources of financial aid include scholarships, grants, bursaries, fellowships, government loans, and private loans. The link below explains these options in further detail:
Making Cheap Computer Science Degrees Even Cheaper
Learners seeking to cut their costs can do more than just seek out programs with affordable tuition rates. Many other strategies can significantly reduce education expenses, potentially generating thousands of dollars in further savings.
Consider these examples:
- Study Online
- Some schools extend reduced tuition rates to degree-seekers enrolled in online courses or programs. Even in the absence of such a policy, online learning still tends to cost less as students do not need to commute or relocate.
- Load Up Your Schedule
- This tip applies if the school uses a flat, per-semester tuition rate instead of charging on a per-credit basis. Loading up your schedule with an extra course or two could shave a semester off your completion timeline or qualify you for a part-time semester in your final year, allowing you to pocket the savings.
- Rent Your Books
- Even in dynamic, fast-changing fields like computer science, courses often require expensive textbooks. Students can save by renting their books instead of buying them. Computer science textbooks tend to become dated relatively quickly, giving them relatively little long-term ownership value. Alternately, you could seek digital copies or share a physical copy with peers.
- Attend an In-State School
- Public taxpayer-funded colleges almost always offer lower tuition rates to in-state students and individuals who qualify for reductions under reciprocity agreements. Degree-seekers pay thousands of dollars more to attend public out-of-state colleges, making in-state learning more desirable for cost-conscious participants.
- Study Part-Time
- Part-time learning extends the program completion timeline but offers powerful money-saving benefits. Degree-seekers can keep full-time jobs while they study, reducing their reliance on loans. Costs are also distributed over longer periods, making them more manageable.
In minimizing program costs and other expenses, you may affect your overall educational experience. Consider which tradeoffs you are and are not willing to make.
Choosing the Right Affordable Computer Science Degree
Ranked lists offer a strong foundation for starting your program research, but they may only prioritize a limited number of factors, which may not align with your objectives or educational needs. Each prospective student should make sure to perform their own research, as well.
In researching programs, students can consider:
- Program length and scheduling flexibility
- The specific skills and proficiencies targeted and developed by course content
- Accessible admission standards, especially for otherwise qualified applicants who do not hold undergraduate degrees in computer science
- Whether the program builds industry-standard professional certifications into its curriculum
Regardless of your individual priorities, ensure that each school holds valid regional accreditation. Particularly reputable programs may also hold endorsements from specialized agencies like ABET.
Why You Should Get Your Degree Online
Prospective master's in computer science students are likely already comfortable with technology, making online learning an especially appealing proposition.
Many online learners cite scheduling flexibility as the virtual classroom's single most powerful advantage. Asynchronous classes empower students to engage with lectures and coursework at their convenience, which fosters a stronger school-life balance and allows them to maintain employment while pursuing their degrees.
Digital lectures also make it easier for participants to revisit particularly challenging content. With live lectures, learners usually rely on handwritten notes, which may lead to them missing specific moments.
However, even with all these advantages, online learning does not suit everyone. Some students thrive in the structured environments of traditional campus-based programs, while others prefer live peer and faculty interactions. These online computer science course tips can help you understand the strengths and drawbacks of various learning formats with greater depth and assist you in identifying your ideal format.
Most Affordable Computer Science Master's Programs Online
A master of computer science (MCS) degree can lead to lucrative positions in the fast-growing technology sector. Our ranked list features the five most affordable online master's programs in computer science. Each featured school holds regional accreditation.
Federally recognized independent organizations accredit institutions that meet or surpass educational quality standards. Individual programs can also hold subject-specific accreditation.
Visit the page below to learn more about how we rank these programs.
Frequently Asked Questions About Master's in Computer Science
How much does a master's in computer science cost?
NCES data from 2019 indicated that the typical U.S. graduate or professional program cost about $19,300 per year in tuition fees. Public schools averaged about $12,200 per year, while private schools cost around $26,000 per year. Computer science degrees align with these averages, though online programs often cost less.
Is an online master's in computer science worth it?
Yes. An online master's in computer science combines advanced, specialized learning opportunities with highly marketable credentials. Job-seekers with graduate degrees enjoy significant competitive advantages and often land jobs with higher pay and more responsibility.
What can you do with a master's in computer science?
Master's degrees lead to more rewarding computer science careers with greater advancement potential and more lucrative salaries. Candidates with diplomas, associate degrees, or bachelor's degrees limit their opportunities to entry-level roles and positions with relatively low advancement ceilings.
Do you need a master's for computer science jobs?
Usually. Not all computer science employers require master's degrees, but the job market continues to evolve in a direction that gives preferential advantages to candidates with graduate degrees.
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