As computer systems have grown more complicated, network infrastructure has become more complex. Network engineering used to be a relatively straightforward discipline but has morphed into a branched field with multiple areas of specialization. Delay-tolerant networks, virtual computer networks, wireless networks, smart intent-based networks and software-defined data center networks are just a few of the new types of networks in use today—most of which require specialized knowledge to design, build, configure and maintain.
Network engineers used to launch their careers behind the IT help desk before they started switching and routing. Today, they're more likely to get their start in a university program. The self-taught network engineer is becoming increasingly rare because employers prefer to fill open networking positions with professionals who have certifications and degrees. Many require applicants for those positions to have an undergraduate degree at minimum. As a result, nearly half of all network engineers have bachelor's degrees and almost a quarter have master's degrees.
If your goal is to become a network engineer or you already work in computer networking and want to advance more quickly, you need to be aware that the bachelor's has become the entry-level degree in the field. Earning your master's in network engineering will help you stand out in a crowded marketplace; make it past the resume filter at top-paying firms like Amazon, Google, Cisco and Juniper Networks and earn tens of millions of dollars more over your career. It's not that network engineers with master's degrees are paid more by default, but rather that graduate-level degree programs teach students how to prepare for and adapt to future changes in the field and how to be leaders.
Calculating the total return on investment, or ROI, of a Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) can be tricky, however, because it's not as simple as weighing MSNE tuition against future earning potential. Below, we look at each of the factors used to calculate ROI and why earning an M.S. in Network Engineering online from SMU's Lyle School of Engineering can give you the best return on investment.
Factor 1: How Much Network Engineers Earn
Because most people calculate the ROI of a degree in dollars, it makes sense to look at network engineering salaries—and how they're affected by the highest level of education—first. The fact that the average network engineer in the United States earns about $75,000 tells us very little. Salary averages use self-reported data that includes salaries for entry-level networking roles and the highest wages in the field, so it's useful to break that number down further.
Entry-level titles in network engineering include network implementation technician, network administrator, junior network engineer and IT administrator. These and other entry-level network engineering jobs typically pay between $50,000 and $60,000—or roughly the average salary you'll earn with a networking associate's degree. Network engineers with bachelor's degrees plus some experience or networking certifications earn closer to $75,000 and are more likely to have titles like network engineer, network systems analyst, network analyst, or systems administrator. The average network engineer with an MSNE earns closer to $100,000, which is more than a late-career network engineer earns without a master's (even if they have network design skills).
The Highest-Paying Jobs for Master's in Network Engineering Graduates
The top-paying network engineering jobs tend to be those with 'principal' or 'senior' in the title, though networking professionals with specific skill sets may out-earn senior-level colleagues. Management-level networking engineers command some of the highest salaries. High paying roles in this field include:
- Chief Network Architect ($143,000)
- Network architect ($122,000)
- Network automation engineer ($116,000)
- Network engineering director ($143,000)
- Principal network engineer ($122,000)
- Senior network manager ($122,000)
- Senior principal network architect ($158,000)
Again, these are just averages. Networking engineers at big telecommunications and tech firms like Google and Facebook (both of which hire SMU graduates) routinely earn salaries over $200,000.
Factor 2: The Cost of a Master's in Network Engineering
You can't calculate the ROI of a degree without factoring in the cost of that degree. MSNE program tuition varies considerably from school to school, with per-credit rates that range from $450 to $1,500. SMU's Online Masters in Network Engineering costs $1,350 per credit hour, which adds up to a $40,500 total investment.
It's hard to say with absolute certainty why there's such incongruity when it comes to tuition costs, but there's probably a strong correlation between cost and the resources available to students. Programs like the SMU Lyle Online MSNE have faculty that includes industry experts and innovators who update the curriculum frequently in response to industry trends and demands. Students can access specialized software tools and networking equipment whether they study on campus or online. Additionally, more expensive programs use real-world projects to help MSNE candidates build bigger, broader networks. Student outcomes may also play a role in how colleges and universities price programs. With a Master of Science in Network Engineering, 82% of Lyle students are employed at graduation—often by top tech companies—and recoup their investment relatively quickly.
This all suggests that the best way to maximize the ROI of a master's in network engineering isn't to look for the cheapest degree program but instead to find the program most likely to help you achieve your career goals.
Factor 3: The Benefits of Name Recognition
Reputation matters. The ROI of an MSNE from a well-regarded institution like SMU's Lyle School of Engineering will almost always be higher than that of a degree from a program that industry professionals don't recognize. That's because having a master's from a notable school on your resume is a signal to hiring managers that you are qualified to take on the networking challenges of today and understand the impact emerging technologies will have on the field in the future.
People in the industry are familiar with the SMU Lyle Online Masters in Network Engineering program and know that:
- Virtualization is a major focus of the curriculum, and core courses are updated regularly as technology and standards change
- SMU Lyle MSNE students enhance their educational experience with independent coursework, specialty-focused electives and industry projects with leading companies like CITI and Verizon
- Special topic projects, intensive lab work with real communication systems and experiential learning are a part of the core MSNE experience
- Graduates have information technology and programming skills that let them see how networking fits into the larger information systems landscape
The Lyle School of Engineering MSNE program also has partnerships with organizations like Juniper Networks and Amazon Web Services, and our partner organizations help SMU students pursue networking opportunities and certifications.
Factor 4: Opportunity Costs
Maybe you're asking yourself, 'How can an online master's of network engineering benefit my earning potential?' That's a smart question, but it’s one many people don't ask because the difference in cost between on-campus and online programs is typically negligible. Opportunity costs, i.e., what you forfeit when you choose one alternative over another, are a part of the degree ROI calculation.
For example, an online MSNE program may cost as much as an on-campus MSNE program, but one of the main benefits of pursuing a master's in network engineering online is that you can complete your degree while working full time. Enrolling in an on-campus program may mean taking time off work, so the opportunity cost is one to two years of lost income. If you're a networking engineer earning $75,000, your $40,000 degree becomes a $115,000 degree when choosing the on-campus program over the more flexible online program.
The opportunity costs associated with choosing a full-time on-campus program may be even higher if you have to relocate. Moving across the country can take months to coordinate and cost thousands of dollars, and if you're relocating to a more expensive city, your expenses will go up for as long as you're studying. Traveling home to see friends and family can be costly. Add in the cost of moving to the West Coast or Northeast, where networking jobs are concentrated, and the total cost to earn your degree can go from $115,000 to $200,000 or more.
What's the ROI of an Online Master's in Network Engineering?
There's no way to calculate the precise ROI of an online master's in network engineering because the value of your degree depends on both how you use it and how others view it. What you can do is look at the real and quantifiable impact that staying in the workforce and studying when and where it's convenient will have on your life.
The following questions can help you determine the ROI of a flexible online MSNE program:
- How much income will you earn in the time it takes you to get your degree?
- What can you accomplish in the time you won't spend commuting to an on-campus program?
- What can you do with the money you save on transportation costs by attending an online MSNE program?
- Do you suspect your current employer will promote you or pay you more once you have a master's?
- Has your employer offered to fund part or all of your degree?
Consider, too, that the benefits of pursuing a network engineering master's online aren't just monetary. If you continue working while studying, you can leverage what you'll learn in an online MSNE program right away. That alone is huge, considering how quickly this industry is changing. You can also tap into the network you build while in an online master's program more quickly because you're still part of the industry. More importantly, you won't have to spend time apart from relatives and friends or devote what could have been personal time to commuting.
Remember, your time has value. You might not pay less tuition in an online Masters in Network Engineering program, but you won't have to sacrifice income or pay for gas, meals on campus, parking passes, or relocation costs on top of tuition.
Can You Afford Not to Get an Online MSNE?
There's a clear wage premium associated with the master's in network engineering, though the correlation between the highest level of education and lifetime earning potential isn't as simple as 'more degrees equal more money.' The overall value of an MSNE transcends salary.
An online master's in network engineering will give you:
- Skills - M.S. in Network Engineering graduates learn new skills and are given the tools they'll need to specialize in higher-paying and emerging areas of networking.
- Connections - The best online MSNE programs build real-world learning experiences into the networking curriculum. At SMU, students tackle real-world projects with companies like CITI, AT&T and Verizon, gaining experience and building their professional networks in the process.
- Opportunities - Having a graduate-level networking degree on your resume will certainly help you land more interviews. Some large companies won't consider you for senior-level positions unless you have a master's degree—even when they're promoting from within.
- Flexibility - With a master's in network engineering, you can stay in technical roles or transition into leadership positions. You also have the option of pivoting into related fields like IT management or network and information security.
The bottom line is that master's holders already have a distinct edge over other network engineers. As computer networking evolves and network engineering roles become more specialized, the ROI of this degree will get even better, making an online M.S. in Network Engineering from SMU a smart investment in your future. With no GRE required for admission and flexible application deadlines, our MSNE is a straightforward way to take your career to a more lucrative level.