'Chic Geek': Computer Science Major Rebounds

New national data show that what has been a traumatic decade for computer science departments is finally starting to turn around. For the first time since 2000, the number of newly declared undergraduate majors at doctoral-granting computer science departments is up.

March 5, 2008

New national data show that what has been a traumatic decade for computer science departments is finally starting to turn around. For the first time since 2000, the number of newly declared undergraduate majors at doctoral-granting computer science departments is up.

The increase is a small one, and the numbers are still at roughly half of their 2000 levels. But for computer scientists who have been debating when the turnaround would start, the answer appears to be that it has. And anecdotal evidence from non-doctoral departments outside of the new survey suggests that they are seeing similar rebounds. Experts cite a variety of factors: a much improved job market for graduates, shifts in the curriculum that take it far beyond programming, and improved marketing to both prospective students and their parents.

"We've finally bottomed out," said Stuart Zweben, associate dean for academic affairs at the Ohio State University College of Engineering and head of the Surveys Committee of the Computing Research Association, which conducted the study. Zweben said that a key problem for computer science is a delayed student response -- many flocked to the field at precisely the wrong time in 2000 but have been slow to return, even as employers have been offering high salaries to graduates.

Zweben said that the period around 2000 created a "crazy panic," as failing dot-coms eliminated jobs, flooding the market with experienced employees at the same time colleges were producing record numbers of graduates. "The market couldn't take that hit at once, and people were floundering, and word got out that computer science was a tough place to get a job," Zweben said. It's now been several years since "the market adapted" and not only has it been absorbing new graduates, but employers have been complaining that universities aren't turning out enough, Zweben said.

Now, a few years later than would be ideal, students are starting to respond. "It's the way the system works," Zweben said.

Both the rise and fall of enrollments have been dramatic over the last 10 years, and educators hope that the new data on declared majors will soon be reflected in degrees awarded. Zweben also predicted that the rebound would start to be reflected in the faculty job market.

New Computer Science Majors in Doctoral Granting Departments in U.S.
Survey of Computing Research Association

Fall 1998 13,900
Fall 1999 13,798
Fall 2000 15,958
Fall 2001 14,559
Fall 2002 13,809
Fall 2003 11,475
Fall 2004 9,749
Fall 2005 7,952
Fall 2006 7,840
Fall 2007 7,915

While the data above reflect new undergraduate majors in doctoral-granting computer science departments, the growth in majors appears to be extending well beyond that part of higher education.

At the seven universities in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, the number of computer science majors over all has increased to 2,105 from 1,425 over the last two years. And majors in programming -- which would include the universities and 25 community colleges -- are up to 1,561 from 815 two years ago.

Bruce Lindberg, executive director of the system's Center for Strategic Information Technology and Security, said that he sees an expansion of the computer science field -- for instance, growth in computer forensics -- attracting new students. Many of the computer science and related majors, Lindberg said, are part-time students. Some are trying to prepare for new jobs, but many "are working to keep their jobs" by staying current in the field.

At Bryn Mawr College, the computer science major is only three years old (although students could pursue a major themselves previously), so that institution didn't experience the declines of the first part of the decade. Deepak Kumar, a professor of computer science, said that the college has typically had between one and five majors a year, and that he expects that the numbers will be up by a few students every year at this point. Bryn Mawr is a participant in a Microsoft program in which the development of "personal robots" is being used to make introductory computer science courses more interesting and relevant to students. Kumar said that the program appears to be having a positive impact, and a new computer science minor is also attracting interest.

Dick Pratt, dean of arts and sciences at Clarkson University, said that applications in computer science are up 25 percent in the last three years, while related majors in software engineering and computer engineering are seeing similar growth. He attributed some of the changes to the improved job market. "The great myth of off-shoring -- people are starting to realize that it's not true. People are getting good jobs." Further, he said that Clarkson had started a series of summer programs for high school students. "A lot of programs are doing a lot more with outreach," he said.

The Georgia Institute of Technology has revised its computer science curriculum to move away from a traditional hardware-software approach to much more emphasis on the creative process and the roles computer science majors go on to assume in their careers.

Giselle Martin, who directs student recruitment for the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, said that undergraduate applications are up 15 percent this year -- in part due to new approaches to explaining the field. One key audience is parents, Martin said. Many remember the horror stories of the job market a few years back and Georgia Tech believes that it can break through that out-of-date mindset most directly with actual employers. So in April, when the college holds a series of events for accepted applicants, there is a panel for parents featuring employers who recruit at Georgia Tech talking about the jobs available and how much demand there is for new graduates.

"With parents, there is still this myth that these technical jobs have been completely off-shored and that the technology market is sinking," she said.

With prospective students, Martin said, the message is about the breadth of computer science jobs and the revised curriculum. "We're placing students in Silicon Valley and all over the United States of course, but also in health care firms in Chile and embassies in Japan," Martin said. To the extent people worry about how they fit into the global economy, she said that computer science degrees are a great way to position oneself. "This is about critical thinking ability -- the ability to look at any project across the board. We want students who are deep thinkers."

Asked if this message is trying to counter a more limited geek image, Martin said, quoting some of her student recruiting ambassadors: "This is geek chic. Our students are getting sexy jobs. Computer science is the new sexy."

Cal Ribbens, associate department head in computer science at Virginia Tech, said his university hasn't yet seen increases, but that the decline has stopped. Five or six years ago, Virginia Tech was seeing 500 freshmen wanting to major, and that's dropped to 100, but has been stable now for more than a year. Those who major in the field are getting "great job offers" and word is starting to spread.

But Ribbens said that several changes were in the works for the curriculum. A new course focuses on problem solving, and several courses are being shifted to focus more on "how to think like a computer scientist," he said. "We are thinking about how we portray ourselves and what we do," Ribbens said. "We do not want to be seen as just offering a bunch of programming classes."


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