Hottest major on campus? Computer science

Six-figure salaries, hipster image drive up applications to the nation's top techie colleges

The nation's best undergraduate computer science programs are bracing for a record number of applications this fall, as more high school seniors are lured by plentiful jobs, six-figure starting salaries and a hipster image fostered by the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

Early admissions are piling up at elite tech schools, including Carnegie Mellon University, Harvey Mudd College and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology - all of whose undergraduate computer science and engineering programs are rated tops by U.S. News & World Report, the de facto college ranking in the United States.

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Indeed, admissions officers and computer science professors are seeing so much interest in their programs that they expect to set a new record for undergraduate applications this year, surpassing the previous watermark established during the dot-com bubble a decade ago.

"It's pretty clear that computer science is on the rise again," says Mark Stehlik, assistant dean for undergraduate education at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science. "Most of the U.S. economy is stagnant, but computer science grads are getting hired and at pretty good salaries. People also see the applications of technology, and they see that it's pretty cool. Computing is much more powerful and much more pervasive than it was 10 years ago."

Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, which is ranked second among doctorate-producing universities by U.S. News & World Report, expects to receive 4,000 applications this year and will accept only 400 of them. Of those 400 accepted students, around 140 will be enrolled next fall. In contrast, Carnegie Mellon received 3,500 applications to this school in 2011 and 3,200 back in 2001.

"One hundred percent of our seniors were placed last year," Stehlik says. "About 15 percent went to graduate school. The rest had jobs. We saw the return of the six-figure offer."

Enrollment in U.S. undergraduate computer science programs has been climbing for the last three years, according to the annual Taulbee Survey conducted by the Computing Research Association.

The number of U.S. undergraduate students enrolled in computer science, computer engineering and information science departments was up 10% in 2010, the most recent school year where data is available. Most of these undergrads are sticking with the major, driving the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in these departments up 9%. Overall, 12,500 bachelor's degrees in computer-related fields were awarded in 2010.

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The nation's best undergraduate computer science programs expect the enrollment trend to continue rising.

At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., the number of applications received last year was up 15%. Harvey Mudd's undergraduate computer science program is ranked third by U.S. News & World Report among colleges that offer bachelor's and master's degrees only. Last year, Harvey Mudd accepted 21% of its 3,144 applicants.

"Everything suggests that our applications will be up again this year," says Thyra Briggs, vice president for admission and financial aid at Harvey Mudd, which graduates 25 computer science majors each year. "Our computer science program has had such an incredible amount of publicity lately... Also, the increased presence of women in that department is affecting our applications. Our current percentage of women is 42%, which is high."

The number of applications received this fall is also up at the Rose-Hulman, a Terre Haute, Ind., college that is rated first in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of undergraduate computer engineering programs at schools that offer bachelor's or master's degrees only. Rose-Hulman offers two degrees related to IT: computer science and software engineering, and electrical and computer engineering.

"We have rolling admissions, and our applications are a little bit ahead of where we were last year," says Lisa Norton, director of admissions at Rose-Hulman, which accepted 2,600 out of 4,300 applications last year. "We've been very busy."

Meanwhile, Stanford University has seen its computer science majors increase by 83% in the last three years. Although undergraduates don't apply directly to Stanford's Computer Science Department, which is ranked third by U.S. News & World Report, the department expects to see its enrollment rise again this year, both for majors and for those pursuing other fields.

"Our enrollment was up 30% this fall over last fall, and we expect to see continued growth on an annual basis," says Professor Mehran Sahami, associate chair for education at Stanford's Computer Science Department. "Our numbers in terms of students majoring in computer science are comparable to the height of the dot-com bubble. But in terms of the number of students taking our courses, we've exceeded that previous record... There is greater interest in computer science, which is reflective of the fact that computers are having an impact on other fields."

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Stanford has 400 undergraduates who have declared computer science as their major. However, 90% of the university's 6,940 undergraduates are now taking at least one computer science course even though it is not required to graduate.

Sahami says interest in computer science courses among undergrads is rising in part because the popular media is showing the power of computing to have an impact on the world.

"The attention surrounding Steve Jobs' passing will motivate some students. The movie 'The Social Network' had some impact. The fact that the high-tech economy is booming again, and that IPOs are happening again, also has an impact," Sahami says. "We see a clear correlation between the health of the computing industrial sector and students' interest in computing."

But the real motivator for many computer science majors is jobs.

"Our students had close to 100% employment last year," Sahami says. "Our students were in high demand. They had multiple offers, stock options and signing bonuses... Computer science undergrads saw salaries ranges where the max of the range got into six figures. The median salary was in the mid-90s."

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