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Hottest major on campus? Computer science

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

By , Network World
November 21, 2011 06:09 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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