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From designing and building the first aqueducts in ancient Rome to the creation of the smartphones we can’t live without, engineers are responsible for some of society’s greatest innovations.
At its core, engineering uses a combination of math and science to come up with technical solutions to everyday problems. These solutions can be applied to almost every industry, which is why engineering is one of the most valuable and lucrative career paths out there.
Although employment in the field is projected to grow at the same rate as all other occupations in the U.S. through 2029, engineers still earn about 64% more than the average American worker. The median salary of a bachelor’s degree holder is $85,152, according to PayScale.
The powerful combination of salary potential plus versatility is, perhaps, what has made engineering an increasingly popular major. The American Society for Engineering Education reports that the number of degrees awarded in this discipline has been growing steadily over the last decade at all postsecondary levels.
While you can get a degree in general engineering, which focuses on broad areas like strategy and development, most students choose to specialize in a particular field.
Here are some of the most popular engineering concentrations and what you can do with them:
Getting your bachelor’s degree in engineering online has its advantages. The first and most important one being the flexibility to take the classes and complete the coursework around your schedule. “That’s a big advantage, especially for students who are working, because they can blend their education around their work and family commitments,” says Dana Humprey, dean of the college of engineering at the University of Maine.
Then, there’s the affordability of taking classes online. Although there are some exceptions, most online programs are cheaper than their campus counterparts. For example, if you choose to get your bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University-Tempe, you’ll be paying $15,614 per semester for tuition and fees. If you decide to enroll in the school’s online program, that figure comes down to $7,986. (It can be even cheaper if you’re an in-state student, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Another benefit is that most online programs have pre-recorded classes. This means you can review the lectures — or specific parts of lectures — as many times as you need to make sure you understand the concepts thoroughly.
But getting your degree online can be challenging in many ways, too, especially when studying a discipline like engineering that relies heavily on experiential learning. “The thing about engineering, and what separates it, is that you need to have that hands-on experience for the majority of the degrees,” says Robert Keynton, dean of the William States Lee College of Engineering at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
To overcome this hurdle, some schools, like the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, require students to attend in-person labs over the weekend. Others, like the University of North Dakota, require students to complete on-campus residencies during the summer. This means that if you don’t live in the vicinity, you will have to relocate to satisfy these requirements — even if the majority of the program is online.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any programs that are fully online, but these are often limited to those that are technology-focused, such as electrical engineering, software engineering, computer science, and construction engineering technology. So, if you’re interested in a more technical concentration, such as agricultural engineering, civil engineering, or mechanical engineering, you’ll have a harder time finding a program that’s completely remote.
There’s also a different time commitment for online programs. Keynton says that online students usually have to spend more time studying than the average campus student, particularly if they take asynchronous classes. He attributes this to the fact that it’s harder for students to figure out and solve complex problems on their own than it is for them to solve those problems with a professor or peers. “They don’t always have the same experiences as in-person students from the perspective of having that peer networking and being able to interact with the faculty in the same way that you would in an in-person class,” says Keynton.
Besides that, online undergraduate programs in engineering are still fairly new, so there isn’t a lot of information available about student success or alumni outcomes. Since there isn’t much data available, you’ll have to do a lot of research and just for yourself whether a program can help you accomplish your goals.
Additionally, there aren’t many online programs that are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Accreditation is an important factor because it not only ensures quality education, but you’ll also need to graduate from an ABET-accredited program to be able to become a licensed engineer.
The majority of online engineering programs are offered by brick-and-mortar colleges, so there isn’t much difference between the classes you’ll take as an online student vs an on-campus student. The duration of classes and course structure, however, will vary depending on the institution you attend.
Lindsey Dickerson, a senior specialist of the office of academic and student affairs at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, says that the university’s online classes are fully asynchronous, meaning that they consist of pre-recorded lectures that you can view at your leisure. Online students have to turn in the same assignments and take the same tests as campus students. Classes usually last 15 to 16 weeks, just like the average semester-long, in-person class. Still, online students can also take accelerated courses that last seven-and-a-half weeks, through the school’s ‘A and B’ sessions.
Meanwhile, students at Old Dominion University have access to both synchronous and asynchronous classes. Synchronous classes take place two or three times a week, at the same time as the college’s in-person classes. Although these lectures are recorded and students can access them at their convenience, the school encourages students to attend the live sessions if they can, to promote engagement, and ask questions in real-time. Classes at Old Dominion University are semester-length and, just like those at ASU, online students are required to complete the same assignments and take the same tests as on-campus students.
As far as the experiential learning component goes, both universities offer virtual simulation labs. In the case of Old Dominion University, electrical engineering students have to demonstrate they can put together an analog or speed circuit using a kit provided by the school. “We came up with a high-quality device that we either sell to the students or we rent,” says Oscar Gonzalez, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at Old Dominion University, says. “The students will have a device at home. They can still work in teams, but separate, at a distance,” he says.
Although you can complete your bachelor’s in engineering in four years, most online students still take an average of five to six years to complete their degree. This is mainly due to the fact that most online students are also employed, so it is easier for them to take two classes at a time, instead of the four or five that the average campus student takes per semester.
“Twelve to 15 hours of credits, that should be interpreted by the student to be a full-time job,” says Ben Stuart, dean of the Batten College of Engineering and Technology at ODU. “That will be a 40-hour workweek in terms of attending class,” he adds.
Engineering programs usually require an average of 128 credit hours, but there are some, like those at Arizona State University, that only require 120 credit hours for completion.
The cost per credit hour ranges between $288 and $688. This means you can expect to pay anywhere from about $34,520 to $88,060, depending on the length of your program. You also have to factor in other expenses, such as course materials, technology fees, registration fees, and application fees, in addition to the cost of SAT or ACT, if your school requires you to submit standardized test scores.
The good news is that if you attend a school in your state of residency, you’ll end up paying much less than that. For example, out-of-state students pay $288 per credit hour at UNC Charlotte, while North Carolina residents pay $159 per credit hour. Some schools also offer discounted tuition rates for veterans and members of the military.
If you live with your parents, a family member, or someone else that can cover the cost of rent and other living expenses while you study, you could save an additional $11,620 to $13,120, which is the average cost of room and board fees, according to the College Board.
The admission requirements for online engineering students are very similar — if not the same — as those for on-campus students. These vary depending on the school you apply to, but here are some of the most common things you’ll have to provide:
If you’re fresh out of high school, some programs will also consider your GPA and your math and science grades for admission as a way to weed out students who don’t have the necessary skills to succeed in engineering courses. Others, like the Oregon Institute of Technology, require students to complete several classes on campus before transitioning into their online engineering program.
There’s a lot you can do with a bachelor’s in engineering, especially if you get your professional engineering license after completing your degree. So, why pay additional money to get a master’s then?
Well, for one, it can help you advance your career. “Engineering is so competitive,” says Rita Burrell, executive director of engineering professional education at Purdue. “So, earning that master’s degree is a mechanism for practicing engineers to actually move ahead in the workplace,” she says.
The average salary of a bachelor’s degree holder is $85,152, according to PayScale, vs $91,720 for a master’s degree holder. Although this isn’t a huge difference, Burrell says that in some fields, like civil engineering, where only 25% of engineers hold a graduate degree, having a master’s can immediately place you at a higher level than the rest.
Angie Keller, executive vice president at Randstad Engineering, a staffing and recruitment company, says that having a master’s degree can also help you stand out when applying to a leadership position.
Unlike bachelor’s degrees that require students to gain some sort of hands-on learning experience, graduate degrees involve a more theoretical approach. This is why there are many more online programs at the master’s level than at the undergraduate level.
One of the main benefits of getting your master’s online is that you have the flexibility to continue working while you earn your degree, plus you can start incorporating the things you learn into your practice. You can also finish faster. Online master’s programs, like those at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arkansas State University, can be completed in as little as 12 months if you can commit to them full-time.
Besides that, taking classes online will better prepare you to collaborate with others remotely, something that’s increasingly common right now.
Still, it can be hard to succeed while keeping up with a full-time job. Burrell says it’s not uncommon for engineers to work 50 to 55 hours a week, so you’ll have to be more intentional about finding enough time to complete your assignments to succeed.
The average master’s in engineering program has 30 credit hours. Classes can be semesterly or quarterly, depending on the institution you attend.
If you enroll in a quarterly program, like the one at Arkansas State University, classes will last about 7 weeks, and you’ll take an average of two classes per quarter. Whereas, if you choose to attend an institution like Old Dominion University that divides its academic year into semesters, classes will last around 15 weeks and you could take up to three courses per semester.
Gonzalez, from ODU, says that the average campus student graduates in 18 months, while online students can take three to four years to complete their degree. “A typical full-time load will be three courses per semester,” says Gonzalez. “However, again, because of our student population, several of them are working part-time or full-time. So, some of them only take one or two classes per semester,” he adds.
Cost varies per institution, but you can expect to pay anywhere from $317 per credit hour to upwards of $1,600. If the average master’s engineering degree requires a minimum of 30 credits to graduate, this means that you’ll end up paying around $9,510 to over $48,000 in tuition and fees alone.
You also have to take into account application fees, registration fees, technology fees, and lab fees (where applicable), in addition to the cost of the GRE ($205) if your school requires you to submit standardized test scores.
Admissions requirements vary per institution, but here are some of the most common things you’ll need to apply:
Getting a college degree, whether at the bachelor’s or master’s level, is a significant investment. This is why it’s important to choose a program that can help you accomplish what it promises to do, to ensure you don’t waste your money or your time. So, how exactly can you do that?
If you’re a prospective undergraduate student, Robin Hammond, director of career services at ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering, recommends taking a free or low-cost MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) to determine whether engineering is the right fit for you.
“Not everyone has the discipline and the grit, or the ability, to be able to go through a full engineering program,” says Hammond. This is when taking an open course could be useful. “You could do that online and get exposure to the content and material and say, ‘Hey, this is really interesting and I like it,’ or be like, ‘No, I’m not interested,’” she adds.
You can also check out resources, like the Career Cornerstone Center, to find information about the different engineering concentrations, as well as details within each career path, to determine whether a particular field is right for you.
When it comes to the programs themselves, Hammond says you should start by checking out those from schools that have been around for a long time, since there will be more information available on student outcomes.
Keller, from Randstad Engineering, says that it’s key to have a degree from a program that’s ABET-accredited. She says that most recruiters don’t ask whether you took the program online or in-person, but rather if it’s accredited or not. It’s important to highlight that ABET accreditation applies mostly at the undergraduate level since most master’s programs are either regionally or nationally accredited.
Having ABET accreditation means that what you’re learning is up to par with the professional standards of the industry. Additionally, you’ll need to graduate from an ABET-accredited program to become a professional licensed engineer. Another benefit is that the organization is recognized internationally, opening the doors for you to work in many countries.
It’s also helpful to look for programs with faculty members who specialize in an area you’re interested in, says Gonzalez, from ODU. This could be an asset to your education and could help you establish professional connections in your field of interest. He also recommends going to a school that offers online students access to resources that attempt to mimic an on-campus experience, like virtual office hours with professors, tutoring sessions, virtual job fairs, and support from a career services department.
Humphrey, from the University of Maine, stresses the importance of experiential learning, and says students should look for schools that offer it, whether that’s through labs, capstone projects, or internship opportunities. “A critical part of being an engineer is that experience of taking something and putting it together,” says Humprey. “That doesn’t come from watching somebody on a video, that comes from actually having something directly in front of you,” he adds.
For example, the University of Maine’s online program requires students to find a local company that can supervise their lab projects and mentor them. Then, the company will send feedback to the school on how well the student performed. Humphrey says that this not only allows the student to get the hands-on experience they need without having to relocate, but it can also turn into a future employment opportunity.
Finally, figure out where recent grads from the programs you’re considering are working. Hammond advises students to reach out to career services departments at the colleges and ask them which companies actively recruit on campus. You can also contact alumni organizations to find out how students do after graduating.
Whether you’re an undergraduate or graduate student, there are several ways you can pay for your degree.
First, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), to see if you’re eligible for federal student aid. If you’re an undergraduate student, this may be in the form of grants, work-study earnings, and loans. Graduate students are only eligible to receive federal aid through work-study programs and student loans.
Then, the next step is to look for scholarships. You can do this by contacting your school’s financial aid office to see which scholarships you may qualify for. You can also join an association, like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which offers fellowships to graduate students and scholarships for undergraduate students. You don’t have to pay anything to become a member, just be enrolled in an engineering program at an accredited institution either full-time or part-time.
The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) also offers fellowships, and other paid research opportunities. However, joining the society requires a small fee. Online students pay an annual membership fee of just $10.
Joining one of these associations can not only help you pay for your degree but also connect you to a network of professionals and potential employers to help you further your career.
If after grants, scholarships, fellowships, and other forms of aid, you still need some help paying for your degree, then federal student loans should be your first choice. Federal student loans have fixed interest rates, which are usually lower than private student loans, plus they offer flexible repayment options.
Undergraduate students can take out Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized federal loans. These have annual borrowing limits between $5,500 and $12,500, depending on your school year and dependency status, and they currently have a fixed interest rate of 2.75%.
Graduate students can apply for Direct Unsubsidized and Direct Graduate PLUS loans. Direct Subsidized loans have an annual limit of $20,500 for graduate students, and currently have a fixed interest rate of 4.3%. Direct Graduate PLUS loans can be taken out for the full cost of attendance and right now have an interest rate of 5.3%.
If you’re employed, you could also reach out to your human resources department to see if your company offers some sort of tuition assistance.
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