What Is a Computer Engineering Degree?
Computer science degree programs generally focus on programming, operating systems, software, and troubleshooting, while computer engineering degree programs tend to emphasize problem-solving strategies related to the interactions between a system's hardware and software components.
Schools offer on-campus and online computer engineering degrees at four levels: associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate. Associate degrees typically take two years to complete, exploring the fundamentals of programming and computer hardware. Four-year bachelor's degrees cover and build on these concepts, covering programming, hardware, and system design in greater detail.
Master's degrees in computer engineering usually require about two years of additional study, allowing students to develop specialized proficiencies in advanced concepts. Doctoral degrees represent the field's terminal credential and demand three or more years of focused learning. They primarily appeal to candidates with strong research or academic interests.
Computer engineering graduates qualify for many in-demand, high-paying careers, including roles as network architects, hardware engineers, and software developers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects occupations for computer engineers to grow by 6% from 2018-2028, on pace with the national average growth rate for all occupations. These professionals earn a median annual salary exceeding $117,000.
Why Get a Degree in Computer Engineering?
Opportunities for professionals with advanced computer engineering and programming skills are likely to expand as the world becomes increasingly reliant on digital technologies. Computer engineers can also work in fast-emerging fields including automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence, adding to these degrees' already considerable utility.
The following list outlines five benefits of pursuing a degree in computer engineering:
- Excellent Earning Potential: Computer engineering professionals enjoy high average salaries due to their advanced, in-demand technical skills.
- Strong Job Prospects: Computer engineering degrees rank among the most versatile credentials in computing. Graduates enjoy access to many lucrative and rewarding careers.
- Appealing Levels of Job Security: The demand for computer engineers will continue to grow as technology profilerates in new ways.
- Specialization Opportunities: Computer engineering degrees, particularly at the graduate level, allow learners to specialize in emerging technology fields.
- Creativity and Innovation: Computer engineers function as key drivers of creativity and innovation on technical and organizational levels. They strongly impact their employers' success, adding value to their roles.
When Is a Computer Engineering Focus Better Than a General Computer Science Degree?
Computer science and computer engineering differ in that the former is a more general discipline. Computer engineering programs teach more specialized skills, which can serve technology professionals in multiple ways.
For example, computer engineers tend to understand system and network hardware more completely. Thus, they know how to perform the hands-on work involved with designing, refining, and troubleshooting physical computing components. Computer engineers must also master key proficiencies for the computer science major, meaning they generally build more robust skill sets.
When Might a General Computer Science Degree Be Better Than Computer Engineering?
Computer science programs tend to focus on software and programming, giving students broad knowledge of programming languages. Computer science graduates usually emerge with advanced and specialized troubleshooting abilities on the software side of computer systems.
Thus, computer science might suit those interested in computer applications better than students interested in computer components and hardware. However, the BLS projects a decline in opportunities for computer programmers from 2018-2028. Analysts believe this decline reflects a trend toward outsourcing of programming roles to countries with lower average wages.
What About Other Computer Science Specializations?
Graduates of computer engineering programs qualify to work in a variety of technology fields. Job titles like "computer engineer" and "computer programmer" may rank among the most familiar, but they are just two of many options. An associate degree in computer engineering may suffice for some entry-level roles, but most positions require at least a bachelor's degree.
Use the links below to explore some related career paths:
Types of Computer Engineering Degrees
Traditional classroom-based and online computer engineering degrees come in two basic types: undergraduate and graduate. Undergraduate degrees include associate and bachelor's programs, while graduate degrees cover master's and doctoral programs. Learn more about these designations in the section below.
Associate Degree in Computer Engineering
An associate degree in computer engineering functions as a foundational academic credential. Students at this level engage with core concepts, which provide a sound knowledge base for securing entry-level jobs or continuing on to bachelor's programs.
Associate programs typically take full-time students about two years to complete, requiring approximately 60 credits. Computer engineering job-seekers with associate degrees can find employment in tech support or as information technology specialists, quality assurance specialists, junior programmers, or systems administrators.
Learners usually pursue associate degrees when they want to enter the workforce quickly. Keep in mind that many schools name their associate computer engineering programs in different ways, as indicated in the chart below.
Comparing Different Computer Engineering Associate Degrees
|Degree Type||Description||Potential Career Path|
|AS in Computer Engineering||These programs explore the basics of computer programming, algorithms, software applications, and troubleshooting. Programs also explore the physical aspects of computer hardware, examining how a system's hardware and software components interact.||Information Technology Specialist, Quality Assurance Specialist, Tech Support Representative|
|AS in Electronics and Computer Engineering Technology||This study path focuses on computer hardware and the physical components and infrastructure powering computers and computing networks. Degree-seekers concentrate their learning on digital electronics, circuits, microchips and microprocessors, networking, and software.||Network Specialist, Computer Repair Technician, Help Desk Engineer|
|AAS in Computer Science and Engineering||Programs emphasizing computer science typically cover software, operating systems, and other critical computer applications. Learners pursuing associate in computer science and engineering programs often focus on optimizing computer performance and system capabilities based on hardware and other physical system components.||Systems Administrator, Software Engineer, Application Developer (desktop or mobile)|
Generally, associate programs place less emphasis on standardized test scores and academic achievement metrics when considering applicants. However, prospective students considering associate degrees in computer engineering benefit from a background in calculus, algebra, and computer systems.
Bachelor's Degree in Computer Engineering
Computer engineering bachelor's degrees usually comprise about 120 credit hours and take four years of full-time study to complete. Graduates with bachelor's degrees in computer engineering qualify for lucrative positions with advancement potential and graduate-level computer engineering studies. As the table below explains, these degrees feature various names and designations, each indicating different program focuses and objectives.
Comparing Different Computer Engineering Bachelor's Degrees
|Degree Type||Description||Potential Career Path|
|BS in Computer Engineering||Bachelor's programs in computer engineering primarily focus on how hardware and software combine to create functional digital systems. They apply key engineering and computing principles to formulate creative solutions to specific design- and performance-related challenges.||User Support Specialist, Computer Programmer, Systems Analyst|
|BS in Electrical Engineering||Electrical engineering programs take a more general approach, examining the mathematics and physics of electricity to create, refine, and optimize systems using both large- and small-scale electrical components. These study paths apply in computing, but they may not include computer-specific course content.||Electronics Engineer, CAD Technician, Control and Instrumentation Engineer|
|BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering||These degree paths focus on applying the theories and practices of electrical engineering to computer systems and computer-powered devices. Learners study electricity, electromagnetism, and mathematics, and how to use these concepts in the design and optimization of physical computer hardware and software applications.||Automation Engineer, Research and Development Engineer, Systems Design Engineer|
Pairing Internships With Your Bachelor's
Bachelor's degrees in computer engineering often include internship, practicum, and work-study placements. Some programs make these aspects optional, while others require them. In either case, such opportunities play key roles in student learning and professional development.
Internships allow learners to apply classroom learning in real-world settings. They also give students a taste of the field's professional realities, while helping them forge professional connections. In some cases, computer engineering graduates turn internships into full-time opportunities.
To gain admission to bachelor's programs in computer engineering, candidates typically need:
- A high school diploma or equivalent
- An academic background in physics, chemistry, and mathematics
- Recent SAT or ACT scores
Admission requirements vary widely regarding minimum test scores, grades, and other factors. Admissions departments usually consider previous academic achievement in relevant subjects, as well. For example, they may focus on grades in math and science courses, rather than applicants' cumulative GPAs.
Prospective students can use Common App to apply to multiple programs with a single application.
Master's Degree in Computer Engineering
Master's degrees in computer engineering appeal to individuals seeking to enhance their earning power and career potential. Master's programs usually demand 1-3 years of additional full-time study beyond the bachelor's degree.
Computer engineering professionals with master's degrees qualify for leadership roles in the field. The table below explains the various ways schools name and configure master's degrees in computing-related fields.
Comparing Different Computer Engineering Master's Degrees
|Degree Type||Description||Potential Career Path|
|MS in Computer Engineering||Master of science in computer engineering programs explore areas such as computer hardware and architecture, networking and computer-based communications, cybersecurity, and software applications. Many also allow students to declare specializations.||Computer Systems Analyst, Software Development Engineer, Computer Network Architect|
|ME in Computer Engineering||While master of science programs usually focus on applied learning, master of engineering programs tend to emphasize theories and principles. These programs build more versatile skill sets applicable to emerging technologies.||Machine Learning Engineer, Big Data Engineer, Blockchain Developer|
The Master's Practicum and Thesis
Master's degree in computer engineering programs typically feature practicum requirements. Some schools refer to this component as a "work placement." Usually occurring during students' final semesters, practicums place candidates in supervised professional settings, where they apply classroom learning to real-world problems and scenarios. Time investments vary by program, but schools commonly recommend 320 hours, or the equivalent of eight weeks of full-time work.
Alternately, or in addition to the practicum, programs may include thesis requirements. A master's thesis functions as a specialized course, sometimes accounting for double the credit value of a usual course. Thesis projects consist of intensive, project-based learning experiences, in which learners synthesize and apply the knowledge they acquired from their degrees.
Admission standards for master's degrees in computer engineering vary considerably between schools. However, most include some or all of the following:
- Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, or other directly related fields
- GRE scores function as common requirements
- Schools may request supporting documentation, such as resumes, statements of purpose, and/or letters of recommendation
Some programs prefer candidates with relevant professional experience.
Ph.D. in Computer Engineering
Doctoral degrees in computer engineering represent the field's terminal level of study. These degrees typically appeal to aspiring researchers and professors, along with career-minded professionals who want to differentiate themselves to employers.
Most doctoral computer engineering programs take at least three years to complete, with admission requirements including master's degrees in computer engineering or adjacent fields. Learners who want to study particular aspects of computer engineering in the greatest possible detail make the best matches for these demanding, intensive programs.
Popular Computer Engineering Classes
Courses vary by program and degree level, but the following list covers several courses that students commonly encounter in computer engineering programs.
Fundamentals of Programming
Introduction to Algorithms
Students normally take this course during the later semesters of an associate degree program or in the first two years of their bachelor's. The course teaches learners how to apply mathematical modeling to computer functions, including an exploration of common algorithms and basic algorithmic structures.
Normally taken at the bachelor's level, this course builds on foundational programming proficiencies, teaching students to apply programming skills in complex ways. Learners also engage with an enriched set of programming languages.
Found at both the bachelor's and master's levels, this class introduces students to the physical structure and timing components of common microprocessor technologies. It also examines a select set of microprocessor families and teaches students to evaluate the pros and cons of various options in designing computers and systems.
Circuits play a fundamental role in computing systems, and this course drives student understanding of how modern computers and IT systems apply circuit theory to achieve specific functionality outcomes. Learners also discover methods for evaluating the performance potential of various circuit designs and interactions.
Usually featured in specialized bachelor's programs or in core curricula of master's programs, system architecture classes focus on the design, evaluation, and refinement of high-performance computer systems. Course content frequently covers microprocessors, chip-based multiprocessors, and concepts related to memory hierarchy.
Hardware: Systems Design and Modeling
Usually featured in master's-level computer engineering programs, this advanced class explores systems design and modeling from a hardware perspective. Students explore topics including synchronous design, system and subsystem modeling, and schematics.
Advanced Reading and Research
Ph.D. candidates typically begin their studies with courses covering advanced reading and the most recent research trends specific to their intended areas of specialization. Course content varies, with faculty input guiding self-directed reading and research choices.
Career and Salary Outlook for Computer Engineering Graduates
Computer engineering graduates qualify for career paths in fields related to technology and computing. Potential job titles include computer hardware engineer and software development engineer. Other common positions include computer network architect, computer systems analyst, and computer programmer.
Many computer engineering graduates transition into professional roles, which offer appealing pay rates, even at the entry level. For instance, software development engineers earn average salaries exceeding $100,000 per year, even with little previous experience, according to PayScale. Computer network architects make an average of more than $88,000 per year as entry-level employees, while hardware engineer salaries typically start north of $70,000.
Higher levels of education typically qualify candidates for higher salaries. Software development engineers can earn jobs with bachelor's degrees and programming experience, but master's degrees in computer engineering (or related fields) tend to open more doors. Professional certifications in specific areas, such as database management, software development, and networking, can also boost earning power and advancement potential.
Common computer engineering career paths include:
- Computer Hardware Engineer
Hardware engineers usually work in laboratory settings, where they design, build, test, and refine various computer systems. These machines frequently go on to become mass-produced computers for consumer or enterprise-oriented markets.
Annual Average Salary: $82,750
- Software Development Engineer
Software developers conceive, write, test, and optimize applications for mobile and desktop computer systems. They also create programs for other types of electronic devices. Software development professionals working in engineering capacities typically play leading roles on professional teams.
Annual Average Salary: $108,780
- Computer Network Architect
These professionals create, build, update, and service computer and data communication networks, including intranets, local area networks, and wide area networks. They work both for regular, full-time employers and in freelance capacities.
Annual Average Salary: $120,860
- Computer Systems Analyst
Systems analysts specialize in evaluating existing computing equipment, systems, and networks. They identify areas where performance or efficiency could improve, and they recommend hardware and software technologies to make those improvements.
Annual Average Salary: $69,170
- Computer Programmer
Programmers write code, which allows programs and computer applications to perform as designed. They also troubleshoot and correct problems arising from coded instructions and software malfunctions.
Annual Average Salary: $63,350
|Entry Level (0-12 Months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Computer Hardware Engineer||$71,790||$78,440||$91,940||$114,130|
|Software Development Engineer||$100,320||$106,110||$122,660||$137,390|
|Computer Network Architect||$88,440||$88,540||$107,080||$122,220|
|Computer Systems Analyst||$56,120||$60,420||$71,240||$79,490|
Selecting Your Computer Engineering Program
Several quantitative and qualitative factors can help prospective learners find the right computer engineering program for their needs. Students should first verify that their schools of interest hold valid, recognized accreditation. Most experts consider regional accreditation more desirable and prestigious than national accreditation.
Next, students should consider program-specific learning outcome metrics, such as:
- Student retention rates
- Graduation/program completion rates
- Post-graduation placement rates (in jobs or higher-level degree paths)
One increasingly important consideration relates to learning formats. Schools offering computer engineering classes online deliver superior flexibility, which enable professionals to continue working while earning their degree.
Prospective students should also consider:
- The competitiveness of the admission process
- Available school resources, such as career services and alumni networks
- The school's reputation and prestige
- Instructor/faculty credentials and achievements
Finally, students should weigh in factors like class size, student-to-teacher ratios, and financial aid opportunities.
Should You Get Your Computer Engineering Degree Online?
Online computer engineering classes offer convenient options for pursuing new careers or boosting earning power. Topics like computer engineering translate particularly well to the virtual classroom, given their focus on technology.
However, online learning does not necessarily suit every student. Some learners struggle to stay motivated and on top of their lectures, readings, and assignments without firm structures or schedules.
On the plus side, online learning usually offers significant cost savings. It liberates students from the need to relocate and makes it easier to balance personal and professional obligations with school. These factors ease the financial burden of college, potentially improving the return on educational investment.
Students determining their preferred study formats should carefully consider their learning styles, lifestyles, and financial needs.
Accreditation for Computer Engineering Schools and Programs
Students should seek computer engineering schools with national or regional accreditation. National accreditation typically applies to vocational and technical schools, while regional accreditation applies to nonprofit, degree-granting institutions.
Of the two, regional accreditation usually holds more value. Academic credits earned at regionally accredited institutions typically transfer more easily than those from nationally accredited schools. Seven regional accreditors operate in the United States, with each carrying equal value.
Prospective students can verify a school's accreditation status through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Programs within a school may also hold accreditation. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits science, computing, engineering, and technology programs. ABET-endorsed computer engineering programs offer particularly high prestige and academic value.
Ranking Computer Engineering Programs
Online rankings offer a great launching point for research, but prospective students should always take them with a grain of salt. Many factors contribute to how professional evaluators assess and rank schools, and different students have different needs and preferences.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How long will it take to complete a computer engineering degree?
- With full-time enrollment, students can usually complete associate degrees in about two years and bachelor's degrees in computer engineering in four years. Master's degrees can take 1-3 years to complete, while doctorates usually require at least 3-5 years of study.
- How much will I make with a degree in computer engineering?
- Common computer engineering careers usually pay $50,000-$100,000 per year to start, even with little to no previous professional experience. However, actual salaries vary according to many factors, including the candidate's location, education level, experience, and skill set.
- What kind of jobs can you get with a computer engineering degree?
- Computer engineering graduates qualify for generalist roles, such as computer programmer, web developer, and technical support specialist. They also qualify for specialized positions in software development, hardware engineering, network architecture, and related areas.
- Which degree is best for computer engineering?
- Associate degrees can help graduates secure entry-level employment in several fields. However, students seeking leadership roles benefit from master's degrees, or bachelor's degrees backed by significant experience and/or professional certifications.
Professional Organizations for Computer Engineering
Professional organizations offer an excellent forum for computer engineering students and graduates to network and explore career-building opportunities. They typically host virtual and in-person events and conferences, and many also offer exclusive job boards and ongoing professional development resources.
These four organizations represent a few of many such options:
- The Associations This organization merges the Association of Computer Engineers and the Association of Computer Engineers and Technicians. It offers professional growth and credentialing opportunities, and its membership packages include professional liability insurance of $2 million or more.
- Association for Computing Machinery Focused on professional diversity, the Association for Computing Machinery features a unique, volunteer-led structure. The organization serves members' educational, career-building, and professional development needs through education programs, publications, events, conferences, and annual awards.
- Computing Research Association This organization provides a shared meeting place for academic researchers, governments and policymakers, and private industry to meet and advance toward collective goals. It offers an extensive library of digital resources and many virtual and live events.
- IEEE Computer Society This computing-oriented branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers hosts conferences and features specialized, course-based learning and professional development programs.
Paying for Your Computer Engineering Degree
Computer engineering degrees pay dividends across professionals' working lifetimes, but they also demand sizable, upfront financial investments. However, students can take advantage of financial aid opportunities to help offset the cost of their education, such as loans, grants, and scholarships. You can learn more about financing opportunities through the following link.