Computer science major is cool again

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

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.  

Pie chart showing survey results

"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."

Harsha says computer science majors are critical for the U.S. economy because their training provides them with computational thinking and problem solving skills that they can deploy in any industry.

"IT has been the main driver of innovation in the economy for the last 15 to 20 years," Harsha says. "Ceding that leadership in IT innovation is absolutely what the U.S. cannot afford to do if it we want to stay globally competitive."

The number of computer science majors at U.S. universities began a precipitous decline after the dot-com bubble burst, dropping by half from 16,000 in 2000 to 8,000 in 2006. The number of co-eds pursuing computer science degrees held steady around 8,000 for the last two years until it began climbing again this year. .

"The primary reason for the downturn in computer science majors was the erroneous fear that everything was being outsourced to India, which we know is not true," says Prof. Jerry Luftman, executive director of the School of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

"If you take a look at the number of jobs that are going offshore, it's a small percentage of IT jobs," Luftman says. "We know that companies are identifying more opportunities to leverage IT, which is going to increase the demand for IT professionals. If you take into consideration the number of Baby Boomers nearing retirement, the number of available IT jobs will far exceed the pipeline of students that are going to be available."

Stephen Pickett, past president of the Society for Information Management and an auto industry CIO, says the decline in computer science majors has been a "big problem." That's why SIM's local chapters have been working with nearby universities to enhance the computer science offerings in business programs.

"We feel that without a strong bench in IT -- and college students basically form the bench -- we may not be seeing a problem tomorrow but we will be seeing a problem long term," Pickett says.

Pickett says the demand for IT workers will continue rising. "Somehow, we need to energize these students to become more interested in technical degrees or business degrees with a technical flavor," he said.  

The lobbying group TechAmerica says computer software engineering and computer systems design are the fastest-growing high tech jobs, even in the fourth quarter of 2008.

"The latest unemployment numbers for 2008 for computer software engineers is 1.6%...That's beyond full employment," says Josh James, Director of Research and Industry Analysis with TechAmerica. "Computer programmers' unemployment rate has gone up from 2.5% in 2007 to 3.7% in 2008. That's a sign that programming skills are easier to do from anywhere in the world. But the high-growth jobs include skills that are hard to send abroad such as systems integration and IT managers."

The demand for tech jobs may rise further thanks to the Obama Administration's stimulus package, which could create nearly 1 million new tech jobs.  

One area that didn't show improvement in the latest Taulbee Survey is the number of women pursuing computer science degrees, which held steady at 11.8%

The data also is skewed towards white and Asians, with little representation from African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. More than two-thirds of computer science students are white, the survey found.

"Diversity turns out to be a difficult problem," Harsha concedes. "We've had a lot of strong efforts in this space… But the Taulbee Survey data says we're kind of static. The increase in enrollment is not coming from these minority populations."

Attracting women to the computer science field "continues to be a challenge," Google's Agyei says. "We're really passionate about changing that. We have scholarships for women and people from under-represented minorities to study computer science."

The number of Ph.D. candidates in computer science also rose 5.7% last year.

Carnegie Mellon University, for example, received 1,400 applications this year for 26 Ph.D. slots opening in the fall, Lee says. "It's completely crazy competition," he added.

Harsha says the CRA data showed that this year's newly minted doctorates may have a tougher time finding academic jobs due to hiring freezes at many universities, but that demand remains solid in industry.

"Even on the Ph.D. side, as of the fall 2008, we saw only 1% unemployment," Harsha says. "So these folks are getting jobs."

The Taulbee Survey measures student enrollment in computer science and computer engineering programs at 264 universities in the United States and Canada that offer Ph.D.s. Data was gathered in the fall of 2008

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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