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Best online master's in software engineering 2021: Top picks – ZDNet

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An online software engineering master’s can unlock in-demand computer science jobs. Read on for the nation’s best programs and our guide to the degree.

Are you a programmer with an undergraduate degree looking to take on a more analytical, responsibility-filled job? Consider pursuing a software engineering degree. 
Software engineers draw upon engineering principles to design and create software products for businesses. A software engineering master’s degree can be your portal to this dynamic career.
In companies that create software products, software engineers are the brains behind the operation, working with the nuts and bolts of software’s structural design. As a result, the role of software engineer usually requires a master’s. A master’s in software engineering could also land you a job as a senior developer, computer/information research scientist, or manager.
Read on for our rankings of the most affordable and respected software engineering master’s programs in the country, as well as our primer on this unique degree.
Before perusing our rankings, take a moment to review ZDnet’s ranking methodology. This page covers our methodology for connecting readers with the most affordable, unique, and academically well-regarded programs across the country.
Unless otherwise indicated, data is drawn from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, College Scorecard, and each program’s website.
About the program: CSUF’s 30-credit online master’s in software engineering is designed for computer science professionals interested in boosting their knowledge and skills. Course topics include modern software management, software measurement, and professional, ethical, and legal issues in software engineering.
Accreditation: California State University, Fullerton is regionally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).
About the program: Auburn offers a 33-credit online master’s in computer science and software engineering. The program allows students to pick a specialization in an area such as machine learning, cybersecurity, or databases and data science.
Accreditation: Auburn University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
About the program: Texas Tech offers a fully-online master’s in software engineering stressing traditional engineering process methods. Elective options include real-time and time-sharing methods, fault-tolerant computer systems, and distributed systems.
Accreditation: Texas Tech University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
About the program: ECU offers a 30-credit online master’s in software engineering. The program core consists of three courses: Software engineering foundations, software project management, and foundations of software testing.
Accreditation: East Carolina University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
About the program: Penn State World Campus offers a 36-credit online master’s in software engineering following a cohort model. The program culminates with a final software project combining the program’s main lessons.
Accreditation: Penn State World Campus is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
About the program: KSU’s 33-credit online master’s in software engineering offers specialty sequences including bioinformatics, security, and distributed systems.
Accreditation: Kansas State University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
About the program: WVU offers a 33-credit online master’s in software engineering in coursework-only, problem report, and thesis formats. Elective courses include developing portable software, enterprise architecture frameworks, and agile software development.
Accreditation: West Virginia University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
About the program: NDSU offers a 30-33 credit online master’s in software engineering as a master’s (coursework only) or master of science (coursework, comprehensive research, and examination) degree. Elective options include software complexity metrics, knowledge-based systems, and developing distributed systems.
Accreditation: North Dakota State University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
About the program: WSU offers a 33-credit online master’s in software engineering. The program expects applicants to have competency in a programming language such as Python, Java, or C++ and experience object-oriented programming, advanced data structure, and algorithm design.
Accreditation: Washington State University is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).
About the program: Baylor offers a 30-credit online master’s in computer science with a concentration in software engineering. The curriculum includes courses on distributed systems, advanced software engineering, and software verification and validation.
Accreditation: Baylor University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
About the program: CMU offers a part-time, online master’s in software engineering tailored to working professionals with at least two years’ experience. Course topics include DevOps, quality assurance, and software management theory.
Accreditation: Carnegie Mellon University is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
About the program: BU’s 32-credit online master’s in software engineering can be completed in 8-16 months. The program caters to beginners by including courses in Python, algorithms, and data structures in its core required curriculum.
Accreditation: Boston University is regionally accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE).
About the program: UM-Dearborn offers a 30-credit online master’s in software engineering that prepares both for work in the software industry and further study and research in the field. The program gives learners a choice between a culminating final project and a thesis.
Accreditation: University of Michigan-Dearborn is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
About the program: Mercer’s 30-credit online master’s in software engineering includes courses in computational intelligence applications, parallel security, and lean and agile software development.
Accreditation: Mercer University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
About the program: Founded in 1870, Stevens is one of the nation’s oldest technological universities. The school’s 30-credit online master’s in software engineering features software testing, quality assurance, maintenance, software architecture, and agile development methods.
Accreditation: Stevens Institute of Technology is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
About the program: ASU offers a 30-credit online master’s in software engineering. The program gives students a choice between a general track and a cybersecurity specialization.
Accreditation: Arizona State University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
About the program: UHCL’s online offerings include a 30-credit online master’s in software engineering with optional specializations in gaming, robotics software, software project management, and data mining. The school also offers scholarships from the Agarwal Student Research Fund for Software Engineering MS Students.
Accreditation: University of Houston-Clear Lake is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
About the program: Drexel’s 45-credit online master’s in software engineering allows students to earn their degree alongside an optional certificate in computer science. The curriculum includes engineering and management, software design, and agile software development.
Accreditation: Drexel University is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
About the program: Regis’ 36-credit online master’s in software engineering can be completed alongside optional certifications in Full Stack+, mobile software development, and Enterprise Java. The program culminates in the student’s choice of a practicum, capstone, or thesis.
Accreditation: Regis University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
About the program: KSU’s 30-credit online master’s in software engineering gives learners a choice between a capstone and thesis option. The program’s diverse elective choices include cloud computing, user interaction engineering, and software engineering ethics and legal issues.
Accreditation: Kennesaw State University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
An online master’s in software engineering is an intensive graduate degree focused on software construction, architecture, and design. The degree concentrates on theory but also provides learners the opportunity to put their ideas into practice. It generally culminates with a practicum or capstone.
Though many may see computer science as a solitary field, software engineering online programs encourage students to collaborate through group projects or online discussions. Collaboration allows learners to share tips for writing better code.
To succeed in this degree, you need problem-solving and analytical skills. Successful software engineers need the ability to troubleshoot issues and apply theory creatively. 
Software engineering master’s programs differ in terms of focus or elective options. However, all programs cover the fundamental principles and practices for creating software products — including software architecture, design, construction, and maintenance.
The following four courses represent offerings you can expect at any accredited program.
Software construction
This course provides an overview of practices and techniques for creating distributed software systems and the different phases of software development. Topics include coding standards, software tools and requirements, and software construction automation.
Software architecture and design
This course explores the software’s fundamental structures and how they relate to software architectural principles and patterns. Students also investigate software design frameworks for creating functional software products.
Software testing
This course covers the various frameworks for testing software throughout its lifetime. Learners explore testing types, methods, approaches, and levels.
Software project management
Students investigate project management fundamentals and how they apply to the software product development industry. Topics may include project budget development, intellectual property and software products, and continuous quality improvement.
Different software engineering levels cater to different types of learners and career plans. For instance, a bachelor’s in software engineering prepares beginners for entry-level work, while a master’s in software engineering targets CS professionals looking to boost their credentials.
For more information on software engineer education, follow our link on how to become a software engineer.
Length: Two to three years
Cost: $2,000-$10,000
Post-grad careers: Network support specialist, data entry clerk, mobile developer
A two-year associate in software engineering generally prepares you for entry-level careers in IT and CS. Those with preexisting experience might get more of a boost.
For example, while a student with little programming experience might transition from this degree to working as a network support specialist, a student with programming experience and a portfolio might obtain work as a mobile or web developer.
Courses for this degree give an overview of operating systems, data structures, and network principles.
Length: Four years
Cost: $40,000-$200,000
Post-grad careers: Software engineer, mobile developer, web developer
This four-year software engineering degree is a prerequisite for most software engineering jobs and can boost your chances of obtaining other programming-related positions. As such, the curriculum delves deep into computer science theory, advanced mathematics, and programming languages such as C++, Java, and Python.
This degree sometimes concludes with a portfolio presentation or capstone. It may incorporate a computer science or programming-related internship.
Length: Two to three years
Cost: $40,000-$100,000
Post-grad careers: Software engineer, computer and information research scientist, senior software developer
Pursuing a master’s in software engineering allows you to advance your technology career and deepen your knowledge of computer science theory. This intensive graduate degree boosts your chances of working as a software engineer and qualifies you for work as a computer and information research scientist.
A software engineering master’s curriculum usually offers machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity electives. This program usually culminates with a practicum or portfolio presentation and may offer an internship option.
Length: Three to five years
Cost: $50,000-$150,000
Post-grad careers: University professor, computer and information research scientist, senior software engineer
A doctorate in software engineering generally appeals to learners interested in working in higher education or pure research. However, some Ph.D.s may be found in software and web development companies’ upper management.
Generally, students in software engineering doctoral programs focus on a specific area of interest, such as artificial intelligence, data science, or machine learning. Your software engineering Ph.D. will tackle contemporary issues in computer science theory. It will also include a research element preparing you for your thesis.
If you’re looking to become a software engineer or transition from a low- to middle-level coding job to a more lucrative role, a software engineering master’s might fit your plans. This intensive graduate degree can impress many future employers and open options in programming and CS.
Talk to the computer science department at your local college for more information. Plus, check out our online guides on computer science careers and the soft skills you’ll need to excel in them.
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