Guide to an Associate Degree in Software Engineering in 2020

Written by ComputerScience.org Staff Writers


What Is an Associate Degree in Software Engineering?

Aspiring technology professionals should consider pursuing associate degrees in software engineering, which introduces students to foundational information technology (IT) areas such as operating systems, programming, networking, and web design. Software engineering associate degree programs encourage creative engineering solutions and cultivate fundamental skills essential to many computer science (CS) and IT fields.

Students at technical colleges often use associate degrees to meet educational requirements for entry-level CS or IT jobs. Associate degree graduates seeking immediate employment often start as electronics technicians, network support specialists, or data entry clerks -- careers that pay average annual salaries of $30,000-$50,000, according to PayScale.

Earning the pre-engineering version of this degree at a four-year university prepares students for bachelor's degrees in related fields. Associate degree programs often include the general education courses required for four-year degrees. Bachelor's degree graduates typically qualify for higher-paying careers related to software development and engineering.

Should I Get an Associate Degree in Software Engineering?

Associate degrees in software engineering offer graduates many personal and professional benefits. Graduates typically use this degree to qualify for entry-level technology jobs or bachelor's degree programs, which can lead to lucrative software development and engineering careers. The many benefits of this degree path include:

  • Promising Job Outlook: Tech jobs continue to expand as industries, employers, and consumers increasingly conduct daily activities online. Consequently, tech degree graduates can anticipate positive job prospects.
  • Exciting Field: Consistent technology upgrades require new software, meaning software engineers work in an exciting, cutting-edge field that involves constant learning.
  • Diverse Career Options: Many software engineers work in computer system design and related services. Other top industries for software engineers include company and enterprise management, manufacturing, finance, and insurance.
  • Lucrative Field: Software development and engineering careers often pay quite well. For example, software developers make a median annual salary of $105,590, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
  • Increased Job Opportunity: Earning an associate degree prepares graduates for many entry-level roles as well as further study, which leads to increased career opportunities.

Admission Requirements for an Associate Degree in Software Engineering

Applicants to software engineering associate programs typically must hold a high school diploma or equivalent and submit official transcripts. Competitive associate degree programs may prefer applicants with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Additional admission requirements may include standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and/or admissions interviews.

The application process usually begins by taking standardized tests before admission deadlines. Test-takers may request that SAT/ACT testing companies send their scores to a list of prospective schools.

Next, students fill out online applications, typically paying a $30-$60 application fee. Students may need to complete transcript request forms to obtain prior transcripts. Applicants should request any required recommendation letters well in advance of admission deadlines.

What Can I Do With an Associate Degree in Software Engineering?

Graduates of software engineering associate degree programs can pursue entry-level IT/CS jobs or pursue continuing education. Potential entry-level roles for graduates include health information technician, computer or network support technician, and data entry clerk. Graduates interested in higher-paying positions often go on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in related fields.

Career and Salary Outlook for Software Engineering Graduates

Software engineering graduates can explore many potential IT and CS career paths in fields like database administration, system engineering, and web development. Associate degrees often prepare students for entry-level technical jobs related to software design, testing, installation, and maintenance. Graduates also qualify for entry-level work as computer or network support specialists and data entry clerks.

Annual salaries for these positions fall in the $30,000-$50,000 range, according to PayScale, but professionals can further improve their careers and salaries by earning professional certifications and/or advanced degrees. Positions such as software developer and software engineer, which boast respective annual median salaries of $71,218 and $85,189, typically require at least a bachelor's degree.

Web Developer
Web developers use computer programming skills to build website structures. They often work collaboratively with clients and design teams. Many web developers hold computer-related bachelor's degrees, but some employers consider candidates with related associate degrees and relevant work experience.
Entry-level Software Developer
Software developers use programming languages to design computer programs. They work in many industries and may develop software independently at smaller companies or on teams at larger companies. These professionals typically need a bachelor's degree, which students can prepare for with an associate degree.
Software Tester
These IT professionals ensure product quality by testing software programs, identifying bugs, and communicating test results to software engineers. Software tester positions often require associate degrees or certificates in computer programming.
Computer/Network Support Specialist
These professionals provide technical support for various computer and network operations issues. Often working directly with clients to resolve problems, support specialists benefit from strong skills in problem-solving, customer service, and organization. These specialists need at least a certificate or associate degree in an IT field.
Data Entry Clerk
Data entry clerks work in many industries, using computer software to enter data from sources such as documents and phone calls. Other duties may include updating data rosters and performing clerical office duties.

Associate Degree in Software Engineering Careers: Median Salaries by Experience
Job Title Entry Level (0-12 Months) Early Career (1-4 Years) Mid-career (5-9 Years) Experienced (10-19 Years)
Web Developer $50,000/year $57,000/year $66,000/year $71,000/year
Software Developer $62,000/year $68,000/year $81,000/year $91,000/year
Software Tester $47,000/year $51,000/year $69,000/year $74,000/year
Computer Support Specialist $15/hour $17/hour $20/hour $22/hour
Data Entry Clerk $12/hour $13/hour $14/hour $14.50/hour
Source: PayScale

Continuing Education in Software Engineering

Many graduates with a software engineering associate degree go on to earn related degrees and certifications to increase their skills and competitiveness in the job market.

  • Bachelor's Degree: Master's programs and software engineering positions usually require bachelor's degrees, which typically takes four years of full-time study to complete. However, graduates with an associate degree can often earn a bachelor's degree in just two additional years of study. Education costs vary widely, but many bachelor's degrees cost about $35,000. Bachelor's degree students can often specialize in areas like database management, web development, or software engineering.
  • Master's Degree: Master's degrees in software engineering require approximately two years of full-time study to complete, though accelerated options exist. Master's students gain knowledge and skills in management and leadership to prepare for high-level CS and IT positions.
  • Certifications: Associate degree students and graduates can demonstrate their expertise through certifications from industry vendors, such as Microsoft, or professional organizations, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Many programs take less than a year to complete and cost less than a degree. However, more advanced professional certifications may require candidates to hold a bachelor's degree.

Earning Your Associate Degree in Software Engineering

Most software engineering associate degree programs take about two years of full-time attendance to complete. These programs often include about 30 general education credits and 30-42 credits of professional courses related to software engineering.

Some programs feature career-focused electronics and computer technology curricula, while others serve aspiring software engineers who plan to earn related bachelor's degrees. Both types familiarize students with computer programming, networking, electronic systems, and computer software. Coursework may cover topics like circuit theory, digital electronics, and computer architecture.

Software engineering students typically specialize in either software applications or software/systems development. These subjects feature many subfield concentration options, including web development, mobile development, and development and operations.

Working professionals often choose to pursue their degrees online during after-work hours. Distance learners may enjoy more program choices, applying to schools all over the country. However, local schools can benefit both online and on-campus students seeking networking and employment opportunities in their geographical area.

Comparing Associate Degree Options

Software engineering associate degree programs differ by program type and curricular focus, though most programs include core IT courses in networking, web design, and computer programming. Associate of science degrees focus on IT technical skills, while applied business programs prioritize IT and business skills and knowledge.

Some programs emphasize software development over computer hardware engineering, while others focus on information systems management. We cover several types of software engineering associate degrees below.

Associate of Applied Science in Information Technology - Software Developer
This degree type prepares students for entry-level web and software development careers. Students cultivate general IT skills in web design, networking, and security, plus advanced skills in the modern programming languages used in software development. Learners also study network installation, troubleshooting, and database management.
Associate of Science in Information Technology - Computer Engineering
This degree's computer engineering concentration focuses on programming, operating systems, microprocessors, and hardware. Graduates often work as computer user support specialists.
Associate of Applied Business in Computer Information Systems
This program focuses on software development using the object-oriented and procedural languages of business. Students learn how computer software affects business operations and information systems management. Graduates may work as IT technicians, helpdesk specialists, network administrators, or medical coders.

Popular Associate Degree in Software Engineering Courses

Software engineering associate degree curricula vary by school, degree and program type, and concentration. Most programs feature courses on networking, computer programming, database management, and web design. Other common courses include operating systems, advanced mathematics, C++ programming, and object-oriented programming.

Associate in software engineering programs typically comprise at least 27 credits of general education courses, which build core skills and knowledge in areas like English, math, science, and social science. Many programs also include capstone projects and/or externships, which allow for the hands-on application of students' learning. We cover several common courses found in software engineering associate programs below.

  • Operating Systems

    This course surveys the principles and concepts of operating system design and functioning. Enrollees also examine relevant programming languages, computer architecture designs, and information management techniques.

  • Web Development

    Web development classes cover web application architecture, programming languages, interface principles, and client and server solutions. Learners may design their own web applications.

  • Advanced Math

    Advanced math courses introduce software engineering students to relevant math concepts, including polynomials, complex numbers, antiderivatives, and vectors.

  • Networking

    Networking courses familiarize students with network principles and explore the relationship between software and networks. Students learn about network types, designs, and security protocols.

  • Data Structures

    This course covers simple data structures, such as lists, queues, stacks, and arrays, plus advanced data structures like graphs and trees. Students also learn algorithms for modifying these data structures for purposes such as engineering problem-solving.

Selecting Your Associate Degree in Software Engineering Program

When researching prospective associate degree in software engineering programs, students should consider the following factors.

School Size

Larger schools may boast greater name recognition across the country and offer more academic and career resources, while smaller schools may offer more personalized attention from faculty.

Student-to-Teacher Ratio

Smaller student-to-teacher ratios typically translate into more individualized attention and mentorship from faculty.

Staff Credentials/Diversity

Programs featuring accomplished faculty provide high-quality educational experiences. Schools with diverse faculty often provide richer perspectives, as well.

Cost/Financial Aid

Some schools demonstrate greater return-on-investment than others. Applicants should consider tuition prices in relation to student outcome data, institutional performance measures, and school prestige.

Program Culture/Composition

Cohort-based programs may foster more collaborative atmospheres and enable more networking opportunities than more individualized programs.

Competitiveness/Difficulty/Cost of Admission

Competitive programs typically offer more prestige, but they may require higher application and tuition fees.

Required Admission Material/Test Scores

Top programs may require more admission materials and higher admission standards, seeking students with high test scores and GPAs.

Online vs. In-Person

Online programs give students the flexibility to balance their studies with personal and professional obligations, though in-person programs may offer more structure and networking opportunities.

Accreditation

Accreditation indicates that a school meets high standards with respect to factors like faculty qualifications, academic rigor, and student learning outcomes. Accreditation also expands employment, financial aid, and education opportunities.

Should You Get Your Associate Degree in Software Engineering Online?

National Center for Educational Statistics enrollment data indicates an increase in distance education in recent years. Research suggests that the quality of online learning is on par with on-campus education, leading many schools and employers to treat online degrees as equal to on-campus degrees.

Many students choose online learning because of its affordability, flexible scheduling, and convenience. However, online learners must possess sufficient self-discipline and motivation to complete their work without the engagement and accountability of in-person learning.

Accreditation for Software Engineering Schools and Programs

Institutional accreditation status matters considerably when it comes to federal financial aid access, degree and credit transferability, and job prospects, so prospective students should ensure their potential schools boast accreditation from agencies approved by the Council of Higher Education Accreditation.

Regional accreditors impose more rigorous academic standards than national accreditors, so schools holding regional accreditation typically offer higher-quality education. For this reason, regionally accredited schools typically only accept transfer degrees and credits from other regionally accredited institutions.

High-quality software engineering programs also may hold programmatic accreditation from the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and/or ABET's Computing Accreditation Commission.

Resources

Professional Organizations for Software Engineering

Professional organizations are excellent resources for software engineering students and professionals. These organizations help members stay current by providing relevant news, industry trends, current research, and continuing education opportunities. Members may also enjoy access to mentoring and networking opportunities such as conferences, discussion boards, and local chapter events.

  • Association of Software Professionals Established in 1987, this trade association advocates for software developers and marketers. Members gain access to private discussion boards, networking opportunities, and a newsletter with relevant advice and trends.
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers The largest professional organization devoted to technological advancement, IEEE fosters community and supports innovation through conferences, research, and various online resources.
  • Association for Women in Computing Founded in 1978, AWC promotes women's success in computing fields through mentorship, networking, and continuing education opportunities.

Scholarships for Associate Degree Programs in Software Engineering

Eligible students can apply for a variety of scholarships. Scholarships do not require repayment and can therefore substantially reduce educational costs. Aiming to increase diversity, several of the below scholarships support students from underrepresented demographics in technology fields.

Banatao Family Filipino American Education Fund Scholarships

Who Can Apply: Filipino incoming full-time college freshmen planning to major in science-related fields at accredited four-year schools can apply for this opportunity. Applicants must demonstrate a minimum 3.0 GPA, financial need, residency in specified California counties, and at least 50% ethnic Filipino heritage.

Amount: $5,000 per year, renewable

Apply for Scholarship

Google Lime Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Students with visible or invisible disabilities pursuing degrees in computer engineering, computer science, or closely related fields qualify for this opportunity. Applicants must demonstrate full-time enrollment, strong academic performance, leadership potential, and passion for the field.

Amount: $10,000 USD for U.S.-based study; $5,000 CAN for Canadian-based study

Apply for Scholarship

Palantir Women in Technology Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Active, full-time undergraduates planning to major in STEM fields at accredited North American schools qualify for this opportunity.

Amount: $7,000 and a paid trip to Palo Alto for a Palantir developmental workshop

Apply for Scholarship

ESA Foundation Scholarships

Who Can Apply: Full-time women-identified or minority undergraduates pursuing degrees in computer and video game arts at accredited U.S. schools qualify. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and maintain a minimum 2.75 GPA.

Amount $3,000

Apply for Scholarship

Generation Google Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Students enrolled in undergraduate degree programs at accredited schools in the U.S. or Canada, along with high school seniors and college students planning to earn bachelor's degrees in computer-science-related fields qualify. Candidates need demonstrated leadership experience, a strong academic record, and an interest in supporting underrepresented groups in technology fields.

Amount: $10,000 in U.S., $5,000 in Canada

Apply for Scholarship

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I do with an associate degree in software engineering?
Graduates typically use this degree to qualify for bachelor's programs; certificate programs; and entry-level jobs as software testers, computer support specialists, or data entry clerks.
What is the difference between software engineer and associate software engineer?
Associate software engineers occupy a lower rank and receive training from software engineers.
How difficult is software engineering?
The difficulty of software engineering depends largely on position and employer; however, students with quantitative aptitude tend not to find it excessively difficult.
Does a software engineer write code?
Most software engineers do not regularly write code, but they need programming proficiency to communicate effectively with programmers.

Additional Reading