What to expect in an online engineering degree program

Check out what an online engineering degree has to offer. Learn about the discipline, the training, and how online learning impacts the experience.
Written by Doug Wintemute, Contributor

Engineering is one of the most popular college degrees, per the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects nearly 150,000 new engineering positions between 2020 and 2030. 

An online engineering degree equips graduates to claim one of those positions.

Make the best decision for your future by exploring what to expect in an online engineering degree, what it offers, and how it might differ from in-person training. 

What is an online engineering degree?

An online engineering degree teaches students to approach and solve problems using a systematic, ordered process. 

They also learn to design, experiment, and adhere to professional and ethical standards and responsibilities. 

Online engineering degrees are available at all degree levels, from associate to doctorate. Graduates can work in engineering services, manufacturing, and research and development. 

The engineering discipline includes many branches and subdisciplines, such as:

How does an online engineering degree differ from an in-person engineering degree?

An online engineering degree's content does not differ much from an in-person program. 

Online programs provide the same training and skills. They even include practical training via virtual lab work and at-home lab kits. 

An online engineering degree may feature more independent work and rigorous readings. As a result, these programs may require more self-motivation than in-person programs, particularly for asynchronous classes. 

Online classes often require more self-teaching. 

Ready to explore online engineering degrees?

What to expect from online engineering courses

The courses in an online engineering degree depend on the program type and level. 

Associate programs run for two years, and bachelor's degrees last for four. They provide foundational, comprehensive training. 

Master's programs take two years, and doctoral programs take three to five. These graduate degrees cover more advanced and specialized training. 

You will take core classes plus engineering electives that you are interested in.

Undergraduate engineering students usually begin their training with the principles and fundamentals of engineering. Core courses might include circuits, mechanics, dynamics, and programming.

Students also take general education classes. As they progress throughout their program, learners can add electives and specializations. 

You might find the following courses on offer, depending on your discipline and program.

  • Structural and transportation engineering courses within civil engineering
  • Water resources and sustainability engineering courses within environmental engineering
  • Artificial intelligence and cyber-physical systems courses within computer engineering. 

Expect to take math and physics courses.

Most online engineering degrees feature multiple math and physics courses. 

Aspiring engineers may take calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations courses.

In physics, the training varies by program. Many disciplines feature courses in mechanics and thermodynamics, along with electrodynamics and fluid dynamics. 

Expect to spend time on projects involving problem-solving.

Engineering students have to tackle projects throughout their studies, often culminating in a final capstone project. These assignments may be independent or group projects, and they usually include research and problem-solving. 

Learners may need to showcase their findings in written format and recorded or live oral presentations. Online degree-seekers should expect to spend a significant time on projects. You can include completed projects in your portfolio. 

Internships will allow you to practice what you have learned and gain hands-on experience.

Engineering programs typically include practical components like lab work and internships. Learners often complete one or more internships in the latter half of their program. Internships build hands-on experience before graduates enter the job search.

Internships also enable you to find fields and positions of interest. You might even get to test out different employers. Possible employers include government agencies, IT organizations, large manufacturers, and professional service providers.  

How hard is an online engineering degree?

Online engineering degrees can be challenging for students, particularly those with math and science difficulties. These programs include extensive projects, rigorous study requirements, and demanding math courses.

The greatest challenges usually come in the early years of the program. Once students build foundational knowledge and learn the principles of the field, however, the lessons become much easier. 

Even inexperienced students can thrive in these programs with hard work and determination. 

Learners can lean on their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. They also need to stay motivated and dedicate themselves to their studies to overcome their weaknesses. 

How much will I be spending as an online engineering student?

The price of an online engineering degree depends on the type of institution, the location, and the school. According to the NCES, average public college tuition and fees were $9,400 per year in 2019-20. Private college tuition and fees were $36,700.

In addition to tuition, you may need to pay for technology, class materials, and lab kits. Online schools that provide computers to students can reduce overall costs.

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