Making Sense of Computer Degrees

By Andrea Yust
Copyright 2011 Homeschool Programming, Inc.

From Homeschool Programming, Inc.'s March, 2011 Newsletter

Understanding your Undergraduate Options

There are a daunting array of similarly-named college degrees awaiting your budding computer programmer! This article will shed some light on the differences between the most common computer-related degrees:
  • Computer Science
  • Computer Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Software Engineering
  • Information Technology
  • Other specialty degrees
It's important to realize that every college or university will put their own special twist on each degree. In addition, students are usually allowed to select areas of interest within the degree, so each experience is very personal!

Computer Science

The classic Computer Science (CS) degree is what most people think of when talking about computer programmers. Computer Science courses will include all major areas of programming, from theory to applications. Students may learn about low-level assembly, higher level lenguages, databases, network programming, object-oriented programming, operating systems... the topics are quite varied!

Within a university, some CS degrees are run through a College of Engineering, while others have a dedicated College of Computer Science, or perhaps even support a CS degree through a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences! As you might imagine, the College that sponsors the degree will influence the nature of the courses. So a CS degree from the College of Engineering may include more low-level technical and hardware-related courses, while a CS degree from a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences may focus a bit more on topics such as management and ethics.

Here are some example Computer Science degree descriptions:
Cal Poly   Georgia Tech   University of Florida   Southern Polytechnic

Computer Engineering

Computer Engineering (CE) degrees include a mixture of hardware and software courses. Not only will students learn many major programming topics, but they will also be exposed to the digital wizardry that makes computers work "under the hood". Topics may include low-level circuit design, processor architecture, digital logic arrays, computer architecture, robotics, and general electrical concepts.

Check out these example Computer Engineering degree descriptions:
Cal Poly   Georgia Tech   University of Florida

Electrical Engineering

What's Electrical Engineering (EE) doing on this list? Doesn't that have more to do with analog circuits, power lines and radio signals? In some cases yes! But students can usually opt to focus electives on the same computer-related topics that a Computer Engineer might cover. Electrical Engineering may also cover semiconductors, transistors, and the building blocks of processor and circuit board design. Some students select the EE degree in order to be formally taught the "harder" electrical subjects and are comfortable picking up programming concepts on their own!

Every major engineering school offers an Electrical Engineering degree:
Cal Poly   Georgia Tech   University of Florida

Software Engineering,
Information Technology,
Computer Engineering Technology

The terms Software Engineering, Information Technology, and Computer Engineering Technology mean different things to different people, so it's important to carefully read the details of a particular program. However, generally speaking, Software Engineering involves some computer programming but focuses more on the programming process, including management, organization, and software lifecycles. Information Technology may deal more with how computer systems and networks interconnect and function together. Computer Engineering Technology degrees likely include core Computer Engineering topics with more emphasis on making things work in real scenarios instead of settling for theory alone.

You can review these three degrees as defined by Southern Polytechnic:
Software Engineering   Information Technology   Computer Engineering Technology

Specialty Degrees

There are a number of new, emerging degree types that focus on the recent explosion of digital entertainment. These degrees may incorporate more artistic talents to make computer drawings, model 3D worlds, and yes, create games! Writing a high-end computer game involves a whole team of digial artists, modelers, level designers, digital musicians, and of course the pure programmers. These specialty degrees go by different names depending on the university!

Specialty degrees are offered by a variety of institutions:
Computational Media   Digital Arts and Sciences
Computer Game Design and Development

The Common Denominator

What do all of these computer-related degrees have in common? At some level, students must understand fundamental computer programming! Even students pursuing other seemingly unrelated degrees such as mechanical engineering, physics, chemistry, or other arts and sciences can all use a quick computer program to perform some task. Though computers may not be the focus of these other degrees, application of computer programming technology can usually improve any technical effort.

You don't need to wait until your first semester in college to start building your computer programming skills! Homeschool Programming, Inc. offers KidCoder and TeenCoder curriculum for middle and high school students. We teach industry-standard Visual Basic and C# programming languages in a fun, hands-on, self-study format. Students can create their own Windows and Games while learning from software engineers with a combined 17+ years of professional programming experience. Skills developed in these courses will form a lasting building block for your student's technical pursuits!

Find out more about computer programming for kids and teens at!