Choosing an Online Computer Science Master’s Program
To computer scientists, software engineers and others in the computer industry, that online master’s can look pretty enticing. It’s more flexible. It makes it easier to mix academics, family responsibilities, and long hours spent on the job. And, of course, software engineers and computer scientists are computer-savvy and at home in a tech world. There’s not much to scare them off… except a question: Is the degree from the online school the same as the one from the traditional university?
The line between online schools and ‘real’ schools is blurring. Traditional institutions now offer online classes – even whole programs. You can find public universities advertising across state lines. If the school offers the program on-site as well as online, there may be no difference in the transcript you receive. It’s not so much whether the classes are online as whether the institution is associated with high-caliber, rigorous education – and whether the program is considered one of the leading ones in the field. If you have an employer who’s ready to promote you once you have the extra credential, it may not matter at all. But if you’re looking to make a switch, the prestigious school may add to your resume. If you want to compete for doctoral level fellowships, then educational accolades like the prestige of the school can take on even more importance.
The line between online schools and ‘real’ schools is blurring.
You may be able to do your MS in Computer Science online without sacrificing anything. This is not to say that online education is for everyone. The Association for Computing Machinery notes in a white paper on online learning that because this mode requires more self-direction, it can be difficult for some students, particularly below the bachelor’s level.
If you’ve made it past the baccalaureate level, you’re less likely to run into problems. Still, there are those who feel that working live with colleagues on projects makes the experience more rewarding… and who are more likely to slack on deadlines when there’s no one’s eyes to meet.
Avoiding Diploma Mills: Accreditation
If you do opt for online education, what is it you need to know? At the least, you will need to make sure that the institution you are considering is appropriately accredited. This is important no matter what your end goal is; it’s your assurance you aren’t dealing with a diploma mill, and your master’s is something more than a slip of paper.
Regional accreditation is more prestigious than national accreditation; it doesn’t matter which of the regional accrediting agencies. National accreditation is generally awarded to career schools; thus, it can be seen as a step down. (Some institutions, for example, New Jersey Institute of Technology may sound like vocational schools based on the name, but they do have regional accreditation.)
Some programs in computer science have additional programmatic accreditation through ABET. This can also demonstrate rigor and command respect; however, the importance depends on your job role. If you are interested in being a lead engineer in high stakes embedded software projects, look for an accredited engineering program. If you are on the computer science side of the line, it’s not always important (though in some locales, ABET schools may be looked on more favorably).
You can look at the computer science program rankings on US News & World Reports and then check to see which schools offer the degree in an online format. You’ll find big names like Stanford and Purdue. If you go with one of these, you’ll know you have the strength of an excellent CS department, and you can expect the university name to look very good to potential employers. However, these rankings don’t necessarily tell you how the structure feels to an online student, or which specialties are strongest.
Then there’s the issue of cost. What’s most affordable? At Columbus State University, graduate students in applied computer science pay $285 a credit – one of the cheapest tuition rates out there. CSU was placed/ranked second by GetEducated.com a couple years back: the only school in the top three that offered its deals to out-of-state students. Slightly further down on the list, you find Jackson State University’s MS in Computer Systems and Software Design and Western Governors University’s MS in Information Security & Assurance: both offered at a good deal across state borders.
Thankfully, online students, too, are eligible for scholarships and financial aid. Some schools, Drexel, for example, charge less to individuals who work at one of their partner institutions.