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

By Brian O'Connell · September 22, 2021 · 6 minute read

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

Many colleges and universities use the terms “computer science” and “computer engineering” to describe computing programs interchangeably. But, there are several differences that make these two fields unique.

Here’s what future students need to know about each of these popular college majors, and what may make one more desirable over the other for their future goals.

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 degree can 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.

Recommended: Is a Computer Science (CS) Degree Worth It?

What Is Computer Engineering?

Computer engineers generally focus on creating, testing, and evaluating the technology for hardware and software interfaces. A computer engineering degree can 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

Again, computer science and computer engineering are two distinct areas of study and work, however, there are similarities between the two. The obvious ones first: Both professions use and work with computers, both work with data and math, and both 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 (link prerequisite math and research classes).

Both degrees are also to thank for your ability to read this very story on your laptop, tablet, or phone, so if you’re the type of person who wants to further improve the internet and computer experience, either field could be a good option for you.

Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering Job Outlook

Individuals with a computer science or computer engineering degree may be qualified for a variety of job specialties. Here’s some information on common jobs that these areas of study may prepare you for.

Computer Science Job Outlook

There’s some good news for those looking at becoming computer scientists in the near future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 15% from 2019 to 2029. The bureau added, that rate is “much faster” than the average rate for all occupations. Perhaps most encouraging of all, the bureau noted, for this field “job prospects are expected to be excellent.”

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics further explained, in May 2020 the median annual wage for computer and information research scientists was $126,830. However, the typical entry-level education is a master’s degree, according to the government agency, meaning you may need to consider going for a few more years of education than you have originally anticipated.

The demand for software developers is expected to grow by 22% from 2019 -2029, with a median salary of $110,140.

It’s also important to note that those working in computer science may see different job titles pop up on their job search. These titles can include (but are not limited to), software developer, database administrator, web developer, or project manager. It can even include job titles like 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

On the flip side, the Bureau of Labor Statistics explained that computer hardware engineers’ employment rate is projected to grow much more slowly over the same timeframe. It is estimated from 2019-2029 the job market for computer hardware engineers would grow just 2%, marking a slower growth rate than the average occupation.

The positive? The average salary for computer hardware engineers is still comparatively high, sitting at a comfortable $119,560 in May 2020. And, its typical entry-level education is a bachelor’s degree, meaning students could forgo the extra education, save on college tuition, and enter the job market even sooner than their computer science counterparts.

As computer scientists, those with a computer engineering degree could qualify for roles under a variety of job titles. Those titles include (but again are not limited to) 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, while the specialties can be considered related under the computing field, both computer science and computer engineering come with unique and exciting specialty areas. All that matters is you pick the one that is the most interesting to you, and that’s how you can answer the age-old (or at least since the dawn of the computer age) question, “Which one is better?”

The First Step to Becoming A Computer Scientist or Computer Engineer

While one career path does have a slight advantage due to a better job growth outlook, both come with strong possibilities for a varied, lengthy, and well-paid career. Both also come with the prerequisite of college, or potentially even a Master’s program. After choosing a school and a program that’s right for you, it’s time to get your financial ducks in a row to pay for the education that could lead to your dream job.

On your journey of college financial planning, would-be students can and should look into all their options including scholarships, financial aid, and private student loans. If the last one sounds like a good option for you, consider adding SoFi’s private student loans to your consideration list.

In the interest of full transparency, private student loans should be looked at as an option only after applying for federal student aid. Federal student loans, grants, scholarships, or work-study should be pursued first. That’s because private student loans may lack the borrower benefits and protections available to federal students, such as deferment or forbearance during periods of financial difficulty.

Students, and potentially a cosigner, are able to apply for a private student loan with SoFi in just minutes. Options include loans for both undergraduate and graduate school.

The Takeaway

Many colleges use the terms “computer science” and “computer engineering” to describe computing programs interchangeably. While there is some overlap, these are two distinct fields of study with their own specialties and their own merits. Both computer science and computer engineering have high median salaries, topping six figures each. However, the job outlook for those with computer science degrees is a bit better, with a projected 15% growth between 2019 to 2029. To find out which path is right for you, see the specialties under each field of study and figure out what peaks your interest most.

Looking for options to pay for your studies? Review options available with a SoFi private student loan.

Photo credit: iStock/SeventyFour

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