Want a job? Get a computer science degree

Recession drives more undergrads to pursue computer-related degrees, courses

Here's a tip for incoming and current college students: If you want to have a high-paying job on graduation day, study computer science.

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That's the advice coming out of the top U.S. computer science programs, which are seeing rising enrollment and applications as more college students discover that their job prospects are better — and their starting salaries higher — if they have a computer-related degree.

Leading universities report that enrollment in computer science and engineering courses is up significantly this year among students pursuing computer science majors as well as those studying other subjects, particularly science or business.

"I think the job market is what's driving the growth," says Professor Bruce Porter, Chair of the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, which has seen its enrollment increase more than 5% this year. "The government has made it clear that computer science is a growth field, and I think that message is getting back to students and their parents."

Corporate recruitment of top computer science grads has remained steady throughout the economic downturn. Last spring, at the height of the recession, Georgia Tech's College of Computing had the highest job placement rate of any major on campus and the highest starting salary.

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"We had placed 87% of our undergraduates in jobs as of last spring," says Cedric Stallworth, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Enrollment at Georgia Tech's College of Computing. "The financial sector — credit card companies, insurance companies — are very much interested in computer science students, as are defense companies and software development and networking companies."

Computer science grads from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are being recruited by software, healthcare, trading and agricultural companies. Last year's grads received an average of 2.3 job offers and had an average starting salary of more than $72,000 – the highest of any starting salary in the university's College of Engineering.

"We really didn't see a drop in recruiting efforts," says Cynthia Coleman, associate director of external relations for the University of Illinois' Department of Computer Science. "We have seen a significant increase in companies in other industries that typically haven't recruited in computer science interested in our students. What a lot of our students are going to realize is that every industry has computer science needs."

Solid job prospects

The message about solid job prospects and starting salaries as high as $105,000 for computer science majors is resonating with college students and their parents.

At Stanford University, the number of students declaring themselves as computer science majors is up 40% from last year. The university attributes this dramatic rise partly to the fact that its required computer science courses were streamlined and more areas of concentration added. But the rest of the increase is attributed to the recession.

"We surveyed our students to see why they declared computer science as their major," says Professor Mehran Sahami, associate chair for education in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University. "What we found is that half of the increase was from the change in our curriculum and the other half was from macro-economic conditions. Especially in these challenging economic times, students consider computer science a safer choice."

More than half of Stanford's undergraduate students are taking the department's introductory computer science class this year. This represents an increase of 20% over last year.

"We will probably have 800 students take it this year," Sahami says. "Our students do believe that having some computing skills will be useful in other fields, whether in a scientific field where they see the immediate applicability in simulations or longer-term, where they think it's a good skill to have."

Computer science is not only a more popular major, it's also a more popular field of study for students majoring in something else. At the University of Illinois, for example, informatics is now the most popular minor on campus.

"Everybody is realizing that IT is going to be important in the marketplace, and they are looking to beef up their resumes with some kind of certificate or qualification that would give them an edge," says Professor Lenny Pitt, Director of Undergraduate Programs for the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois.

Computer Science Major is Cool Again

The interest in computer science courses is especially strong among students pursuing science-related majors.

"Computational biology, computational medicine – computation is just invading so many other disciplines," Porter says. "What we're seeing is that a number of students have a fundamental interest in astronomy or biology or chemistry, and they see computer science as playing a key role in that field."

Computer science also is a back-up for business students who once may have pursued lucrative jobs in investment banking.

"Last year, a bunch of students saw that maybe not all the interesting jobs in the world are in the financial industry," says Professor Andrew Appel, Chair of the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. "It used to be that a good portion of our computer science majors went to Wall Street. Last year, fewer went to Wall Street…Maybe there was a little scrambling, but we didn't have a problem with unemployed graduates last year."

Applications rise

The trend will continue next year, as applications to top computer science programs pour in.

The University of Illinois says the number of applicants to its Department of Computer Science is up 26% from last year to 860.

"The projections that have come out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics have indicated a relative cornucopia of jobs in the near term for computer science majors," Pitt says. "Parents may well be aware of the job opportunities in the IT industry, which is suffering the least despite the downturn."

At Carnegie Mellon University, the number of applicants to the School of Computer Science's Computer Science Department reached 3,000 this year, up 14% from last year and up 76% from 2005. The department caps enrollment at 130 students per year for a total enrollment of fewer than 550 students.

"We're getting very close to the peak, which was 3,237 applications in 2001," says Catherine Fichtner, program coordinator for undergraduate education in the Computer Science Department at CMU's School of Computer Science.

One reason applications are up at CMU's computer science program: high starting salaries. The median starting salary for 2009 graduates was $80,000, with the highest reported salary at $105,000.

"Our salaries were pretty consistent last year," Fichtner says. "Our students have always been able to find jobs, and 30% of our students go on to graduate school."

Applications are up 5% this year at Georgia Tech's College of Computing, which currently has 900 students.

"Historically, this was perceived as just for the nerds. But now it's perceived as something everybody can get involved in," Stallworth says. "Our students are looking to solve problems in their lives, and they feel now that technologies can help them do that."

Not another dot-com boom

Enrollment in computer science programs has been rising since 2005, when parents and students stopped worrying that corporate outsourcing of IT functions would result in less demand for computer scientists in the United States. But it hasn't reached dot-com era levels.

"We feel that the bust is over, and the number of computer science students is going to keep increasing,'' says Kate Riley, director of operations for the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department at UC Berkeley.

Undergraduate enrollment in UC Berkeley's Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department's degree program is 929 students, up 8% from last year. Another 120 liberal arts students are enrolled as computer science majors, up 9% from a year ago.

"We're spending a lot of time developing new courses and focusing more on industry," Riley says. "Berkeley is a research school, and that has been our focus for our graduate students, but now we're looking more toward industry partnerships for our undergraduates."

None of the top computer science programs are as big as they were during the dot-com boom. School administrators say they aren't sure they want to grow that large again.

"At our high point, we were at about 2,400 majors. Now we're at 948," Porter says of the University of Texas' computer science program. "We're not aiming to get back to 2,400. That was beyond what we could manage…Our goal is to get back to 1,400."

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