Which tech degrees pay the most from day one?

Computer Engineering tops the list ... and math skills matter most

By , Network World |  IT Management, computer engineering, computer science

Young technologists have a variety of undergraduate degrees that they can pursue at the collegiate level. But which degree is going to produce the most job offers and the highest starting salaries? Should college students major in computer science, software engineering, IT or some other niche in order to snare the top prize four years from now: a six-figure starting salary, perhaps with stock options?

We talked to colleges and professors across various tech disciplines about industry demand for their graduates. We pored over starting salary data from the PayScale College Salary Report 2012-13. We also looked at unemployment rates by college major compiled by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

One trend is clear: The more challenging the tech-oriented major, the more job opportunities available to newly minted graduates ... as well as higher starting salaries. Students who take more math, science and engineering courses in college, tend to earn higher salaries upon graduation. Of course, whether a senior in college has multiple job offers with signing bonuses and other perks depends on their grades and internships. Also, graduating from a highly selective technical college helps tremendously with on-campus recruitment.

"Our computer science majors last year had upwards of eight to 10 offers, and they could have had more if they would have pursued them," says Kevin Hewerdine, director of career services at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, one of the nation's top-ranked undergraduate engineering schools. In 2012, the average starting salary offered to Rose-Hulman computer science grads was $76,368 and software engineering grads was $71,930.

"This year, 90% of our seniors in those majors have multiple job offers already," Hewerdine says. "They're being hired by Microsoft, Texas Instruments, National Instruments, Amazon, Google and defense contractors. ... There is more demand and salaries are higher for computer science and software engineering than any other major."

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Here is our list of tech degrees by salary potential, from least to greatest:

Information Technology

Avg. Starting Salary: $48,900*

Mid-Career Salary: $81,700*

*Source: PayScale College Salary Report 2012-13

The information technology major is geared toward technology-oriented students who don't have the background, ability or interest in math required to pursue a computer science degree. IT majors develop skills such as systems administration, networking and database development, while computer science students delve into the algorithms and programming behind these systems.

"Our folks figure out how to deploy operating systems, while computer science majors write the operating systems," explains Ray Trygstad, director of the IT degree programs at Illinois Institute of Technology's (IIT) School of Applied Technology. "IT majors are going to be implementers of technology."

The job placement rate for graduates with IIT's Information Technology and Management (ITM) major was 100% last year, the highest at the university. The ITM degree is increasingly popular, with 130 undergraduates enrolled out of a total undergraduate population of 2,800.

"Lots of our students are working in financial services firms," Trygstad says. "A lot of them are going to small software development companies, and some students are starting their own companies."

Nonetheless, IT majors have lower starting salaries than other techie college graduates. That may be because this academic discipline is relatively new. Brigham Young University was first to launch a bachelor's of science in IT in 1989; today, 225 colleges offer accredited programs.

"Any kid that I talk to at age 17, I ask them how much do they love math. If someone really loves math, they belong in computer science or computer engineering because those are mathematically-intensive disciplines. IT is not as mathematically oriented. The math we use is probability and statistics," Trygstad says.

Information Systems

Avg. Starting Salary: $50,900*

Mid-career Salary: $86,700*

*Source: PayScale College Salary Report 2012-13

One tech-oriented major that's less popular these days is Information Systems (IS), which is typically offered in business schools. The degree teaches students how to use technology to gain a competitive advantage in business rather than how to create new technology.

Most IS majors from the University of Indianapolis are finding jobs, particularly within the IT departments or business units of such companies as OneAmerica, Eli Lilly, Anthem and Interactive Intelligence. Average starting salaries last year were between $45,000 and $50,000.

"About 95% of our students graduated with jobs last year," says Professor Jerry Flatto of the Information Systems Department at the University of Indianapolis. "You've always got an odd one or two who are not well suited for corporate environments or who didn't do particularly well in school."

The University of Indianapolis has 45 IS majors enrolled and another 30 students who are earning a minor in IS out of 150 students in its School of Business. These numbers have risen over the last few years but haven't reached the levels of 1999 and 2000 before the dot-com bust.

"We're focusing on how IS impacts business, and that includes non-profits, cities and states," Flatto says. "We're focused on how to use technology to improve your competitive position. It's hard to outsource that capability to India or China.''

Nationwide, IS majors have a harder time finding jobs than others with technical degrees. A Georgetown University study reported unemployment rates of 11.7% for recent college graduates with an IS degree.

"The IS program has sort of fallen off the map," says Professor Shawn Bohner, director of graduate and undergraduate programs in software engineering at Rose-Hulman. "The perception is that it's more business-oriented, and that students don't have the math skills needed to do the heavy lifting. Lots of systems today are very complex. It used to be that you could be a programmer and not need to deal with the scale of these systems. But today things are moving toward the fundamental math and algorithms."

Even Flatto admits that his students aren't as math oriented as computer science majors. "Computer science requires a lot more math and physics and calculus. A lot of people can't get through it anymore," Flatto says, adding "there's some technical snobbery" aimed at IS students.

Computer Science

Avg. Starting Salary: $58,400*

Mid-career Salary: $100,000*

*Source: PayScale College Salary Report 2012-13

What differentiates computer science from IT or Management Information Systems is that it's an engineering degree, with harder math and science requirements and fewer business-oriented classes.

"Computer science is hot again, not just for geeky students but also for really talented math, engineering and science students," says Matthew Bauer, director of the undergraduate computer science program at IIT. He added that IIT's undergraduate computer science program has doubled from 30 to 60 majors in the last four years.

[COMBINING MAJORS: Hybrid technology degrees emerging]

Bauer says recent computer science graduates who are commanding $70,000-plus starting salaries have held multiple internships and a summer job in the IT industry.

"We urge students to get internships. It's not just your degree that's important. It's also about summer jobs," Bauer says. "In computer science, a degree is not enough. You've got to show you have talent. You can't go home and be a lifeguard at the pool every summer if you want a job at graduation."

IIT's computer science grads are being hired by Google, Microsoft and Motorola as well as financial services firms such as Goldman Sachs.

"The computer science degree shows an accomplishment in technology and engineering and math, and having that background is more valuable to start than having a business background like an MIS degree," Bauer says. "We're building the communications and leadership skills in our computer science majors so they can become the managers of [MIS majors].''

Software Engineering

Avg. Starting Salary: $59,100*

Mid-career Salary: $90,700*

*Source: PayScale College Salary Report 2012-13

Like computer science, software engineering is a more mathematically oriented degree than alternatives offered in business schools such as IT, IS or MIS degrees. But it's slightly less popular than computer science. For example, Rose-Hulman is graduating 60 computer science majors each year compared to 45 or 50 software engineers.

"In computer science, I am writing languages for computers and lots of algorithms, such as Google's search algorithms. In software engineering, I'm building a system that's larger than I am in computer science. It's like building a skyscraper vs. a house," Bohner explains.

While Google is recruiting Rose-Hulman's computer science grads, Microsoft favors its software engineering majors. Other companies hiring recently minted software engineers include aerospace firms and car manufacturers.

"With a software engineering degree, I can not only write software, I can build systems," Bohner says.

Bohner says he'd recommend either a software engineering degree or a computer science degree to any 17-year-old who likes math and technology.

"With these two degrees, the broadness of the jobs you can work on would be greater than studying Information Systems," he says. "With your undergraduate degree, you should always start broad and then specialize in your master's degree."

Computer Engineering

Avg. Starting Salary: $62,700*

Mid-career Salary: $105,000*

*Source: PayScale College Salary Report 2012-13

Computer engineering majors take the hardest math and science classes - including multiple courses in physics and calculus -- because their specialty is hardware, rather than software. Because the degree is so rigorous, demand for recent graduates is high and so are starting salaries.

"The very best job offers are going to the computer engineers," says Professor Charlie Boncelet, associate chairman of the Computer Engineering and Electrical Engineering departments at the University of Delaware. "They have the ability to do both circuit design and programming, which makes them more desirable. That combination is a useful set of skills."

Last year, 50 students graduated from the University of Delaware with Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering or double majors. The best starting salaries were around $100,000, with the average at $60,000.

"Our best students are getting very good offers," Boncelet says. "Apple has started recruiting our students because they have better-than-average circuit design skills. ...They're also being hired by small firms. There is no single industry that hires all of our graduates."

Boncelet says the outlook for computer engineering students is solid given the wide range of systems that have microprocessors in them.

"Most of the computer science majors are going into Internet programming, Web applications, social networks and big data, whereas the computer engineers can work on any system with microcontrollers, device drivers, sensors or actuators," Boncelet says. "Almost anything that has a battery or plug has a microprocessor, and it's the computer engineers that program those microprocessors. So they can be employed in a wide range of industries."

Teens who have strong math and science skills and can't decide between computer science and computer engineering should start with computer engineering, Boncelet advises. "It's generally easier to transfer from computer engineering to computer science because generally speaking computer engineering requires more math and science," Boncelet says. "The biggest indicator is how well they can handle calculus."

Read more about infrastructure management in Network World's Infrastructure Management section.

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Originally published on Network World |  Click here to read the original story.
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