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Computer science major is cool again

U.S. undergraduate majors rise 8.1%, first increase since 2000

By , Network World
March 16, 2009 10:42 PM ET

Network World - The number of computer science majors enrolled at U.S. universities increased for the first time in six years, according to a Computing Research Association study being released Tuesday.

Does a computer science degree matter any more?

The Taulbee Study found that the number of undergraduates signed up as computer science majors rose 8.1% in 2008. Total enrollment in computer science classes -- including majors and pre-majors -- was up 6.2%.

U.S. tech industry heavyweights, computer science educators and CIOs hailed the news as a sign that IT is becoming more popular with teens.

"We've been seeing the number of computer science majors going down, and we've been partnering with universities to try to reverse that and get more high school students interested in the field," says Yvonne Agyei, director of talent and outreach programs in Google's People Operations Department. "We're really excited to hear that the trend is going in the opposite direction."

CRA said the popularity of computer science majors among college freshmen and sophomores is because IT has better job prospects than other specialties, especially in light of the global economic downturn.  

"We're seeing more jobs in the field, especially at the undergraduate level. Computer science is becoming a more interesting place to be," says Peter Harsha, director of government affairs with the Computing Research Association. "When you compare the demand for jobs with the production of computer science undergrads, we're way short. It's clear there's an opportunity here."

Another reason for the growing interest in computer science degrees is teens' excitement about social media and mobile technologies.

"The perception that computer science is cool is spawned by all the interesting things on the Web. The iPhone and Web 2.0 reinforces the excitement, and that attracts the best students," Harsha says.

"There's definitely a coolness factor," says Prof. Michael Heath, interim head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has seen its enrollment rise 15% in each of the last two years. "People are involved in computers in an unprecedented way…There's a more human dimension to computing than there has ever been before, so I think that's causing computing and IT as a career to appeal to a wider variety of people."

The university reports more interest in computer science courses among non-majors, too, many of whom are opting for a new Informatics minor.  

For example, Carnegie Mellon University received 2,600 applications for 130 freshman openings in its computer science department for next fall, said Prof. Peter Lee, head of the department. The applications were up 11% from last year and down only slightly from a peak of 3,000 received in the late 1990s.

"We limit our enrollment to 130 new freshmen, so we never had an enrollment dip here at CMU," Lee says. "The quality of the applications is up. We're seeing some pretty amazing kids. Of the 2,600 applications we received, 600 to 800 of them deserve to be here."

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