Computer Science vs Computer Engineering: What's the Difference?

By Brian O'Connell · September 18, 2023 · 6 minute read

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Computer Science vs Computer Engineering: What's the Difference?

While the terms “computer science” and “computer engineering” are often used interchangeably, they are actually separate fields that focus on different aspects of computer technology. Simply put, computer science is the study of all aspects of computers with an emphasis on software systems, while computer engineering focuses more on designing and building hardware systems.

Whether you choose to major in computer science or computer engineering, some — but not all — of the coursework will be the same. However, the types of jobs you will be best-suited for will differ. Which path is best for you will depend on your skill set and career interests. Here’s what you need to know about computer science vs. computer engineering.

What Is Computer Science?

Those working in computer science focus mainly on computing theory, programming algorithms and models to develop software or computer systems that people utilize around the globe. A computer science program will typically cover topics like design and analysis of algorithms, data analysis, an introduction to operating systems, and different programming languages. Computer scientists generally focus on software and are typically the ones to create algorithms that make programs like artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, and even video games work.

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What Is Computer Engineering?

Computer engineers generally focus on creating, testing, and evaluating the technology for hardware and software interfaces. If you choose computer engineering as your major, the program will likely cover topics like computer architecture, computer networks, and physics. It is a computer engineer’s job to develop new processors, microchips, and other components that physically go into computers and smartphones to make them work each and every time someone clicks the “on” button. This field may often require a combination of electrical engineering skills and computer science knowledge.

Similarities and Differences Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering

While computer science and computer engineering are two distinct areas of study, there are similarities between the two. Both professions, for example, involve working with computers. Both also involve data and math and work to advance the field of computing. Because of these similarities, both areas of study could share prerequisites and coursework at your chosen college or university.

Computer Science vs Computer Engineering Job Outlook

Individuals with a computer science or computer engineering degree may be qualified for a variety of different types of tech positions in a wide range of industries. Here’s a closer look.

Computer Science Job Outlook

There’s some good news for those looking at becoming computer scientists in the near future. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) , the employment of computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 21% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

What’s more, computer and information research scientists earned a median of $131,490 per year in 2021.

The types of jobs you may be able to get with a computer science degree include: software developer, database administrator, web developer, project manager, full-stack developer, engineering manager, user interface designer, information security analyst, information technology specialist, mobile application designer or developer, and more.

Computer Engineering Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the employment rate for computer hardware engineers is projected to grow much more slowly over the same timeframe. From 2021 to 2031, the job market for computer hardware engineers is expected to grow 5%, which is as fast as average as the average occupation.

The positive? The average salary for computer hardware engineers is still comparatively high, sitting at a comfortable $128,170 per year in 2021. And while many entry level jobs in computer science require a master’s degree, entry-level computer engineering positions generally only require a bachelor’s degree, which can save both time and money.

As computer scientists, those with a computer engineering degree could qualify for roles under a variety of job titles. These include: telecommunications engineer, computer architect, communication engineer, network systems engineer, systems architect, and simply, computer engineer.

Recommended: Return on Education for Bachelor’s Degrees

Computer Science vs Computer Engineering — Which One Is Better?

The question of “which is better, computer science or computer engineering?” really comes down to personal choice. To make this decision for yourself, it may be a good idea to consider what your dream computing job looks like.

Computer scientists can typically specialize in the following areas:

•   Artificial Intelligence

•   Human-Computer Interaction

•   Software Engineering

•   Mobile and Web Computing

•   Game Design

•   Computer Graphics

•   Data Science

•   Programming languages

Computer engineers can typically specialize in the following areas:

•   Hardware systems

•   Robotics and Cybernetics

•   Computer and Network Security

•   Distributed Computing

•   Embedded Systems

As you can see, both computer science and computer engineering are related. However, each comes with unique and exciting specialty areas. Which one is better will depend on your skills, interests, and goals.

The First Step to Becoming A Computer Scientist or Computer Engineer

While computer science is expected to experience more growth in the coming years than computer engineering, both fields can lead to a varied, lengthy, and well-paid career. Both also generally require at least a four-year college degree, which can be a significant financial investment. Once you pinpoint some schools and programs that interest you, you’ll likely need to figure out how you’ll manage the financial side of getting a computer science or computer engineering degree.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to cover your college costs. A great place to start is by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form puts you in the running for grants, scholarships, work-study positions, and federal student loans.

If financial aid and savings aren’t enough to cover the full cost of attendance (COA) for college, you might next look into getting a private student loan. Unlike federal student loans, which are provided by the government, private student loans are available through banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Rates tend to be higher than federal student loans, but borrowing limits are typically higher. These loans are not need-based and generally require a credit check. Borrowers (or cosigners) with excellent credit tend to qualify for the lowest rates.

Keep in mind that private student loans may not offer the same borrower protections that federal student loans offer, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness or income-driven repayment plans.

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The Takeaway

While there is some overlap between computer science and computer engineering, the terms refer to two different majors and tech specialties that lead to different types of jobs after you graduate. Computer science tends to focus on computer theory and software, whereas computer engineering is more focused on computer design and hardware.

A career in either field can be rewarding, both financially and intellectually, though job growth is expected to be higher in computer science than computer engineering over the next eight years.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

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Photo credit: iStock/SeventyFour

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