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“Hockey Stick Trajectory” in Computer Science Enrollment

An October 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls for colleges and universities to expand their program offerings in computer science. Colleges are currently unable to meet student demand for computer science courses, it says, while employers are also anxious to see more graduates with training in this area.

Colleges that have struggled to meet enrollment goals may see any potential for enrollment increases as good news but could find it challenging to harness the opportunity. Below, we look into variables that colleges should consider before expanding their programs.

Enrollments increasing, but how much?

According to IEEE-USA InSight, an online publication from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the number of undergraduate degrees in computer science or related degrees decreased by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2004.

On the other hand, IEEE reports that Stanford University went from 87 declared undergraduate computer science majors in 2007 to 353 in the 2016-17 academic year. Computer science majors have also quadrupled at Dartmouth and a similar leap has occurred at Boston University.

Student interest in computer science goes beyond the number of declared computer science majors, Hany Farid, professor of computer science and chair of the department at Dartmouth, told InSight: “I can tell you that 50 percent of accepted students to Dartmouth have expressed some interest in computer science . . .”

Indeed, many students pursuing degrees outside of computer science want to augment their education with skills in coding and information technology. And there are good incentives to do so, according to a Burning Glass Technologies analysis of salaries and job requirements.

Do we really need these programs?

Memories of empty classrooms from the 2000 dot-com bust are still fresh for many colleges, but Jay Ritter, a professor of finance at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration shared a positive outlook with InSight in July 2017. Ritter said that today’s job market is much different from that of 2000, and that he is more worried about the job outlook for people who do not have skills in computer science.

This sentiment is encouraged by labor market data from CareerCast.com, as well as Burning Glass. CareerCast says that software engineering has a career growth outlook of 17 percent. And, according to Burning Glass, employers are willing to pay a $1,058 premium to network/IT support job candidates and a $17,753 premium to candidates in computer programming.

Why is this the case? Because society’s dependence on technology has only grown since the dot-com bust and employers are scrambling to keep up in order to keep popular services and operational systems running. What’s more, data security (a relatively new field of study) continues to be an urgent issue for any company that handles personal consumer information.

Additionally, computer science is now considered a basic skill, even for non-computer science majors. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: “The increasing demand for computer science courses is not limited to those majoring in the field . . . interest in these courses has grown at a similar rate among non-majors, reflecting the increasing importance of computing skills across occupational fields and in daily life.

Burning Glass shares that sentiment, encouraging colleges to integrate digital and computer science skills into all academic programs. In a September 2017 report on digital skills, middle-skill workers and careers, Burning Glass says: “Jobs are mixing skillsets that don’t fit traditional program lines.”

Burning Glass goes on to say that more than 82 percent of middle-skill jobs require digital skills, which is a 49 percent increase over 2015. The most in-demand digital skills include computer and networking support – and programming. Although many jobs do not require a degree in computer science, employers are looking for candidates who have at least augmented their academic degrees with computer-science skills.

So, will it last? Industry analysts seem to think that both student and employer demand for computer science degrees is here to stay – and schools need to adjust for it.

Faculty shortages limit program growth

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine acknowledged that “over half of new PhDs in computer science have taken jobs in industry, posing challenges to finding faculty. Data indicate that, from 2006 to 2015, the average increase in tenure-track computer science faculty at research institutions was only about one-tenth of the increase in the number of computer science majors.”

With a shortage of instructors, colleges may be interested in exploring online education to meet student demand. However, it’s no secret that colleges often underestimate the thought, care and funding required to launch an online program. If most programs require quality instructional design and faculty input, computer science requires even more than the usual resources.

As many of us have learned, computer science courses can be exceptionally difficult to deliver in an online format. This is both due to the nature of the course content and the fact that good programs heavily rely on student/faculty and student/student interaction to drive the learning process. Building in opportunities for effective interaction requires the input of an experienced instructional designer and faculty. After all, a frustrating experience with an online course can be discouraging for students, leading many to drop out.

Collegis Education’s internal experts suggest that colleges should understand that bringing a program of this type online requires a variety of education technologies, such as a learning management system (LMS), communication tools (such as a web conferencing system), file sharing, integration with virtual labs or online simulations – and the ability to adapt as technology advances.

It can definitely be done, but in order to be successful in achieving net-revenue goals, colleges should avoid short cuts and prioritize a quality learner experience.

Where does that leave us?

In light of student demand for computer science education, Burning Glass suggests reorienting academic programs in order to align with workforce needs. Job skill demand can be grouped into four parts: networking support, development, database administration, and management.

With this in mind, it’s time to review your course offerings and resources to evaluate how your college can maximize those areas. Consider how your college might make related courses available to non-computer science majors if you are unable to add full-scale programs. At the same time, while faculty may be in short supply, keep looking toward what is possible in order to keep your college current with market needs. Even a small investment can have a big payoff if it helps your graduates succeed.

About the Author

Leah Otto

Leah Otto is a content marketing writer for Collegis Education. She holds a Master of Business Communication from the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. She has taught over nine semesters of college-level marketing and public relations.

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