How to get your computer science degree online

A BSCS might be good or even necessary for your career, and you could do it completely online. Look before you leap.

How to get your computer science degree online
Joshua Earle (CC0)

In hard times many people seek training or accreditation. The idea is that what they may lack in experience, they will make up for with the right set of credentials or certifications.

Definitely do not quit your job for this. Experience nearly always trumps credentials. However, if you are considering a career change to tech and you lack experience or you were laid off early in your career, you may be tempted to put a BSCS after your name. And in fact you can do a bachelor’s in computer science online.

Here are some options you might consider, and some pros and cons to be aware of.

Do you really need a degree?

Are you sure? When I started my career as a software developer in the 1990s, I was the only self-taught programmer I had met. However, these days they are more common. While a degree can help, consider whether you can wait two or five years, spend $20k to $40k (in the US) plus living expenses, or pursue the degree while holding another job. There are other paths, such as studying what you need and racking up some volunteer experience.

A degree is not primarily about learning the trade. (Again, you can do that for free these days.) A degree is about paying your entry into the middle class. This will sound cynical, but I speak from experience, having done something similar recently. Most of the courses you will take will be of little use in your career, and many will be learning-free and of absolutely no value to you at all.

For example, the state of Georgia made me study the Georgia state constitution, take a course on Microsoft Excel, and take several courses that involved memorizing something on McGraw Hill’s website and regurgitating it on the test. I got all A’s, except for a science course I powered through almost entirely in one afternoon during my final term, and I hardly remember a thing from any of them.

I also loathed those courses. They were boring, and the professors, if you interacted with them at all, were nothing more than hall monitors. Don’t get me wrong, there were many good courses and many good professors. But none of the courses I was forced to take to “fulfill requirements” were worth my time. So before you go the degree route, at least in the US, remember it is not solely about teaching you the trade but also about milking you for cash.

Some BSCS options and costs

In the US, there are a lot of “for-profit” universities like the University of Phoenix. Avoid them. They will be very profitable (or maybe not). You will pay for that profit.

Most of your local universities will be the cheapest option, but they may not have a BSCS online. Ironically, my local uni, Georgia Southern, offers many degrees online, but the BSCS is in-person only. If you are over 30, the idea of sitting in a room full of 19-year-olds is... unappealing.

Many MOOCs such as Coursera now offer completely online degrees ranging from BSCS degrees (from the University of London Goldsmiths and BITS Pilani) to master’s and other postgraduate degrees. For returning students (though not a BSCS) there are even transfer programs, though the transfer program from the University of North Texas is a poor value at $330 per credit hour—and requires you to learn about the Texas state government.

Coursera is not the only game in town. EdX also offers BSCS and data science degrees from the University of London Goldsmiths as well as Simmons. Returning students can even transfer up to 96 credits to Simmons. However, Simmons is “competitively priced at $500 per credit hour,” so you may have to skimp on your yacht money. Besides, Harvard has a liberal arts degree at $495 a credit hour so maybe focus on Goldsmiths.

In addition to degrees, EdX also offers bootcamps as an alternative, but they are $10k. Given that you’re learning online and the certification will not be recognized as a degree, you may be better off learning on your own as there are, again, many free or inexpensive courses and online resources.

Another option is Saylor Academy, which allows you to take courses tuition-free. You cannot get a BSCS from Saylor but you can transfer credits to a partner college. Assuming you can cobble together the maximum 90 credit transfer for a 120 credit degree, you may be able to graduate for under $10k. However, you must read the transfer rules and limits very carefully. Some partner colleges accept every credit up to a limit and others only transfer courses from an approved list. Still, if you are kicking the tires on the idea of a BSCS this may be a great way to do it.

Price, quality, and experience

I pursued a degree instead of getting a pandemic puppy. I had to retake for credit many courses that I had already taken on Coursera for fun (Coursera is a hell of a party school). In general, the courses on Coursera were of equal or higher quality, and Coursera’s online software platform is superior to that of my local university. By contrast, the evaluations on Coursera are of dubious quality (peer reviews and usually can’t-fail tests).

There were exceptions, of course, I had an economics professor at Georgia Southern that was a wealth of information, and I learned more than I ever would have from the usual videos, readings, and tests. Some courses on Coursera have decent evaluations, including a truly fascinating history course.

The final verdict is that undergraduate degrees are probably not the best or most economical way to learn something. The price is for something other than the education. However, they may be required for various positions that you aspire to. An actual education is available to the motivated for free, but the credentials cost a pretty penny and a lot of time.

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