What's the ROI of an Online Master's in Computer Science?

Computer Science

Calculating the ROI of a master's in computer science seems relatively straightforward when you look at how this degree will impact your financial situation. There's no question that earning a Master of Science in Computer Science, or MSCS, can help you transition into the kinds of senior-level and technical roles that pay over $100,000. Most of the higher-paying niche fields in this broad discipline (and the highest-paying positions in those fields) are only open to master's degree holders, which may be why Forbes found that a computer science master's offered the second-biggest salary boost in its rankings of graduate degrees by salary increase. You could potentially earn tens of millions of dollars more throughout your career with an MSCS.

What makes this degree pathway so valuable isn't just the wage premium but also that the best MSCS programs focus on the most in-demand knowledge and skills. Top master's programs in computer science typically don't devote a lot of class time to foundational topics like computer programming, software development or database systems. Instead, they're concentration-based so students can focus on the subdisciplines of computer science they're most passionate about learning. For example, at SMU's Lyle School of Engineering, the Online M.S. in Computer Science program is built around Artificial Intelligence engineering and Machine Learning.

More expensive programs are more likely to offer high-value specializations, like artificial intelligence.

That means calculating the ROI of master's degree programs in computer science is more complicated than you might expect. Below, we look at how much computer scientists earn, and how specialty areas influence salaries, the impact of tuition on ROI, opportunity costs associated with pursuing an MSCS and how earning this degree online changes the equation.

How Much Do Computer Scientists Earn?

Answering this question is tricky. According to salary data aggregators like PayScale, the average computer scientist earns just over $80,000, but be aware that industry-wide averages alone aren't particularly illuminating. Breaking salary averages down by experience level and degree can start to give you a rough sense of the ROI of various computer science degrees.

True entry-level computer science jobs don't exist, so it doesn't make sense to include early-career salaries in your MSCS ROI calculations. There are junior and associate information technology and computer systems analysis roles you can get with an associate's degree in computer science. They pay relatively well, but knowing your way around information systems and a few programming languages will only net you around $65,000 per year.

The minimum level of education required to become a computer scientist is generally a bachelor's degree, and Bachelor of Science in Computer Science graduates tend to have higher starting salaries than bachelor's holders in other fields. The median salary associated with a computer science bachelor's degree is about $85,000, and you can work your way up into positions that pay more, but you may hit an advancement ceiling.

After graduating from a master's program in computer science, chances are you'll earn over $100,000—and if your MSCS helps you move into a competitive niche field or transition into management, you might make a lot more.

What are the Highest-Paying Jobs with a Master's in Computer Science?

Executives earn some of the highest salaries in computer science. The average Chief Technology Officer earns $161,000, and an experienced VP of Engineering can earn $15,000 more than that. There are plenty of high-paying tech positions you can step into with an MSCS, however, so don't assume that a graduate degree inevitably leads to management. Principal software engineers earn close to $140,000 and senior solutions architects earn almost as much. Often, top tech firms that require their developers, engineers, analysts and computer scientists to have master's degrees pay experienced employees a lot more than that.

Skills sometimes have a more significant impact on salary than titles, and computer science and engineering specialties with the highest wage premiums include:

  • Algorithm development
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cyber security
  • Data science / data analytics / Big Data
  • Image processing
  • Machine learning

How Much Does a Master's in Computer Science Cost?

You can't calculate the ROI of a computer science MS degree without factoring in tuition. The cost of a master's in computer science varies from school to school, so you have to look at return on investment on a program-by-program basis. Master's programs in computer science typically cost between $500 and $2,000 per credit—whether delivered on campus or online—though a few colleges charge less and others charge more. SMU's Online MSCS-AI program costs $1,350 per credit hour, which means students invest $40,500 to earn this degree.

The variability in cost can make comparing the ROI of different MSCS programs a time-consuming process. It can also streamline your search for the right computer science master's. That's because program price often, though not always, correlates with program quality. More expensive programs are more likely to offer high-value specializations and more opportunities to customize the computer science curriculum. Online MSCS-AI students at SMU, for example, build their course loads based on their passions and professional goals.

Student outcomes also tend to be better in higher-priced degree programs—82% of Lyle students are employed at graduation—because coursework is project-based, interactive and collaborative. Students are also more likely to receive career mentoring, individual faculty attention and networking assistance. While cheaper programs may give students the same technical skills, they can't replicate the depth of the curriculum, the faculty expertise or the breadth of student support found in more expensive programs.

The simplest way to look at the ROI of an MSCS when it comes to tuition is by comparing tuition costs to future earnings. You might spend over $40,000 on a computer science master's degree, but you'll earn a lot more than that relatively soon after graduation. If you have to finance your degree, chances are you'll be able to pay off the balance quickly.

The Benefits of Name Recognition

You'll get more than a salary boost with an MSCS on your resume—provided you attend a well-known, well-respected program like SMU's. When hiring managers and recruiters recognize your alma mater and appreciate how it approaches computer science core courses and electives, you benefit.

The Lyle School of Engineering, for instance, is widely recognized as a leader in engineering education. Employers know that graduates of the Online Masters in Computer Science with Artificial Intelligence Specialization program have cutting-edge knowledge and skills and the broad perspective necessary to make an immediate impact using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. They also recognize that SMU graduates are aware of AI's ethical ramifications and ready to implement technology solutions that won't have a negative impact on the world. That's why an MSCS from a school like SMU Lyle Online can rocket your resume to the top of the interview pile and make you more attractive to recruiters.

How Can an Online Master's of Computer Science Benefit Your Earning Potential?

This is where opportunity costs (i.e., what you forfeit when you choose one alternative over another) come into play. Technically, the salary-boosting impact of a master's program in computer science is the same whether you study on campus or online, but realistically, choosing a flexible online program over a traditional on-campus program can change the ROI of a degree. Students in online computer science master's programs are often able to continue working full-time while in graduate school, and that means they keep earning income for as long as it takes to earn an MSCS. Students in full-time, on-campus graduate programs, on the other hand, forfeit one to two years of earnings.

Full-time vs. Part-time Opportunity Cost

Imagine two MSCS students, both of whom are already software engineers earning about $85,000. The first takes a two-year leave of absence to pursue a graduate-level degree that costs roughly $50,000. However, that degree's real cost is $220,000 because you have to take lost wages into account. That number gets even higher when you factor in lost retirement contributions and the cost of health insurance that's not employer-sponsored. Meanwhile, the second student pays the same out-of-pocket tuition but has earned $170,000 in the same time frame, making the immediate ROI of the online master of computer science higher. The first student may also earn less than the second student upon graduation and for years after because they've spent two years out of the workforce, which means the online master of computer science's long-term ROI is potentially higher.

The Value of Flexibility

Time is another opportunity cost related to degree format. Students in online MSCS programs do just as much as students in traditional graduate programs but often have more flexibility when it comes to when they complete coursework, and they don't have to commute to and from campus (which can take hours each week). Choosing an MSCS program that's delivered online also means students don't have to spend months planning and preparing for a cross-country move to attend a top-quality program. They can use the time they save by studying online instead of commuting or moving to take on more responsibility at work, potentially shifting the balance of the quantifiable ROI of a computer science master's. They can also focus on family or personal pursuits during that saved time, shifting the balance differently.

The Hidden Expenses of On-Campus Learning

Graduate students in traditional degree programs also need to factor plenty of additional expenses into ROI calculations. For example, commuter students at many local schools pay hundreds of dollars per year just to park, and that's on top of hundreds spent on gas. Relocating to attend a more prestigious master's program in computer science can cost thousands of dollars. If a school is in an area with a higher cost of living, a full-time student's day-to-day expenses—and debt—can go up considerably. Moving back home or to coastal cities with hot job markets can add to a student's debt load, further changing the calculation.

So, while your earning potential will be the same whether you enroll in a full-time or part-time on-campus program or one for distance learners, choosing an online MSCS program can mean graduating with more savings, less or even no debt and a higher-post graduation salary—all of which can have a positive net effect on your earning potential for a lifetime.

What's the ROI of an Online Master's in Computer Science?

Determining an online computer science master's ROI is relatively simple because you won't include commuting costs, parking costs, meals on campus or relocation into your calculations. All you need to do is weigh the future value of this degree against the price of attaining it.

First, Let's Look at Value

First, let's look at value. We've shown that having an MSCS can boost your annual salary and substantially increase your lifetime earning potential by opening up more avenues of opportunity and helping you build a robust professional network. And you'll almost certainly need a graduate degree to land one of the highest-paying positions in computer science, work in the highest-paying specialties and work for the companies that pay computer scientists the most. Having a master's degree will also help you avoid frustrating mid-career plateaus by exposing you to the latest technology and giving you the knowledge you'll need to become an expert in your subdiscipline.

Now, Let's Consider Price

Now, let's consider price. SMU's Online MSCS-AI costs $40,500, which is only slightly more than the average cost of a computer science master's. Distance learners still have to pay for books, materials and fees, though students in online programs sometimes spend less on these than students in on-campus programs. Your opportunity costs won't include lost wages, but you do have to consider the value of your time. Online master's programs in computer science are every bit as rigorous as traditional programs, and students spend hours in class and doing homework each week. Make sure you're comfortable trading time now for faster advancement and more money later.

Can You Afford Not to Get an Online MSCS?

There are computer science jobs for bachelor's degree holders, but breaking into and advancing in specialty areas of computer science that attract an abundance of smart, qualified professionals is tough without at least a graduate degree. AI is one of those specialty areas. You'll be competing for jobs in AI and other niche fields against distinguished researchers and experienced engineers—many of whom have completed master's programs in computer science or earned PhDs. Not completing a master's program in computer science can seriously hamstring your career and, as a consequence, reduce your lifetime earning potential.

Keep that in mind if the cost of a computer science master's program feels overwhelming. Spending or financing $40,500 in tuition will feel less daunting when viewed through the lens of the additional millions you'll earn throughout your career with an MSCS. Can you earn a comfortable living with a computer science bachelor's? Yes, but chances are you'll end up in roles related to front-end, back-end or mobile development or, in the best case, software engineering positions that support the work computer science specialists are doing. Unless you want to become a programmer, earning an advanced degree is a smart move.

The Long-Term ROI

However, the most compelling reasons to earn an online MSCS may have nothing to do with saving money or salary increases. The long-term ROI of a Masters in Computer Science—particularly of a niche-focused program like the SMU Lyle School of Engineering’s Online M.S. in Computer Science—is rooted in opportunity. A computer science master's degree will get you past the HR filter at big companies, which is essential because advanced degree holders saturate most computer science fields. Specializing in a discipline like AI demonstrates not just that you're able to do the work, but that you can tackle challenging computational problems like a research scientist. And the professional connections you make in graduate school will serve you well for the entirety of your career.

The bottom line is that top-tier, specialty-focused master's programs in computer science open doors, regardless of format. Applying to and enrolling in SMU Lyle Online's MSCS with AI Specialization (with or without the GRE) while still earning income and racking up professional experience is the icing on the cake.