Computer Science Continues Growth on College Campuses

As popularity ascends, some universities struggle to satisfy student demand.

Computer science is gaining popularity on college campuses, but schools struggle to support growth.
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Computer science is now the most popular major at Stanford University, according to a recent press release by the institution. During the 2011-2012 school year, more than 220 students declared a computer science major—a 25 percent increase from the previous high, during the 2000-2001 academic year.

"Enrollments in general have been up and down over the last decade," notes Mehran Sahami, associate professor of computer science at Stanford. "In the last five years really is when we've seen enrollments take off again."

Over the past decade, popularity in computer science has fluctuated nationally as well, reaching the highest enrollment numbers ever during the dot-com boom in 2000 and 2001, and then dropping in 2005 to its lowest levels since the early 1970s. But—as noted at Stanford—computer science enrollments have been on the upswing in recent years. According to a 2011 report by the Computing Research Association (CRA), which tracks enrollments and graduation rates for computer science students, enrollments throughout the country have increased in computer science programs for the last three consecutive years.

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Some of this growth can be attributed to the economy and the job market in technology fields, which are "still seen as pretty strong despite the fact that the broader economy may be perceived as weak," Sahami says. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, employment of computer scientists is expected to grow by 19 percent through 2020.

As a computer science major working on a joint bachelor's and master's degree at Stanford, Sam King says that while employment opportunities may be a motivating factor for students, he has seen others enter the field for reasons beyond job security.

"Certainly, there are many people in it for financial reasons and the high employment rate," King notes. "But there are a lot of people who are interested in the cool factor—that regardless the amount of money you're making, you can make something that will influence the world."

The growth of social networking and mobile applications has cultivated an interest among younger people who aspire to build social platforms like Facebook or mobile apps such as Instagram, which can impact the way people communicate with one another, Sahami notes.

"Young people are actually spending more time with technology through social networks [and] apps on their phones," he says. "They've definitely gotten more exposure to consumer technology, and I think that's [sparked] their interest in how they can actually be the producers of these technologies."

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While enrollment in computer science programs has trended upward, the future growth may be hindered due to enrollment restrictions or faculty limitations at institutions nationwide, according to "anecdotal" evidence that CRA unearthed in its 2011 report.

At some institutions, the computer science program faces a shortage of qualified computer science faculty to meet student demand, notes Gwen Walton, a professor of computer science at Florida Southern College. Walton, who spent more than 20 years working in the industry, says schools cannot compete with the salaries many professionals command in the job market.

"Computer science is one of the few fields where you can start with a very high-paying salary with only a [bachelor's degree]," Walton says. "You don't go into [teaching computer science] for the pay."

Facing financially difficult times, some universities have considered reorganizing or completely cutting their computer science departments. In April, the University of Florida announced plans for cuts to the computer and information science and engineering department, which may have included cuts to research and faculty positions. The announcement, which was met with heavy criticism, has since been reversed, and the university is looking for alternative ways to reduce the department's budget.