I regularly am contacted by reporters who read the CRA “Taulbee Survey” and inquire about the current state of computer science undergraduate enrollments. Here’s what I said last night to the most recent reporter who inquired:
The Taulbee Survey “headline” this year was (roughly) “computer science bachelors degrees drop again.” In my view, this is not news — it was entirely predictable from the legitimate headline four years ago: (roughly) “freshman interest and new enrollments drop again.” The actual news right now in the CRA data is that freshman interest and new enrollments seem to be stabilizing and turning the corner — starting to trend upward. “Degrees granted” is a lagging indicator — it lags freshman interest by 4 years. The fact that the number of bachelors degrees granted this past year decreased is not news — anyone could have looked at the freshman interest data from 4 years ago and told you it was going to happen.
The natural question is “What’s responsible for these oscillations?” There are a number of factors. I want to be really clear that I am not in denial about various substantive areas in which we need to continue to work to improve our field and its attractiveness. But by far the most important factors are (a) the job market (or people’s sense of the job market), and (b) the level of “buzz” associated with the field.
Let’s start by considering graduate enrollment, rather than undergraduate enrollment. For the past 15 years, the number of Ph.D.s granted annually in computer science has been in the 900-1100 range. Suddenly, though, in the past 2 years, it has climbed to 1800. Why is this? The answer is totally obvious:
- In 2001, lots of startup companies went bust.
- This dumped onto the job market a number of the best bachelors graduates from a few years before, who now had two or three years of experience under their belts.
- This made it hard for some excellent new bachelors graduates of 2001 and 2002 to get the super-exciting jobs they had anticipated — they were competing with people whose academic records were every bit as good as theirs, but who also had 2 or 3 years of experience working at a hot startup.
- Because these great new bachelors graduates couldn’t get exciting jobs, they went to graduate school instead.
- And, mirabile dictu, 6 years later, they’re emerging with Ph.D.s.
This is not a news flash — it didn’t take a genius to predict, a few years ago, that it was going to happen, and it doesn’t take a genius to explain it, either.
Similarly for bachelors degrees. Starting in about 2002, there was lots of news about the tech bust. Tech was no longer sexy. Jobs were no longer plentiful. Subsequently, there was a lot of misleading information about the impact of offshoring. And the newspapers never bothered to report that by late 2004, US IT employment was back to the 2000-2001 level — we had fully recovered from the bust — somehow that wasn’t considered newsworthy. So it’s not surprising that interest in bachelors programs decreased sharply, and that 4 and 5 years later, the number of degrees granted precisely mirrored this decline.
Also, it’s not surprising that things are turning around. Google is hot. Tech in general is hot. There are startups everywhere. It’s clear to anyone that there are plenty of jobs. (By the way, given the incredible state of today’s bachelors job market, it doesn’t take a genius to predict that the number of Ph.D. graduates in 2014 will show a decline. When you read the scary headlines 6 years from now, remember that you heard it here first!)
So, what about the enrollment at my university — the University of Washington — and enrollments vs. projected need nationally?
At UW, our enrollments are stable, because they are limited. We take 160 new bachelors students every year. This is far lower than the demand. So changes in the level of interest result in changes in the proportion of applicants that we must reluctantly turn away.
One place where we can easily measure changes in student interest is in the enrollment in our first introductory course, which serves the entire university. Between 2003-04 and 2007-08 (a 4-year period), enrollment in this course is up by 27%. Enrollment by women is up by 45%. (Annual enrollment of women into the major is up by 64% over that same interval.)
Our national peers see this same sort of upturn in interest — not surprisingly, as explained above.
Here’s one more comment about enrollment. There is lots of discussion about computer science enrollment, because it actually matters to the nation! But take a look at this NSF data for bachelors degrees granted in 2004 by all US institutions:
- Computer science: 57,405
- Mathematics: 13,755
- All of the physical sciences combined (astronomy, physics, chemistry, …): 14,240
- All of the earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences combined: 3,903
- All of engineering combined (aero/astro, chemical, civil, electrical, industrial, materials, mechanical, …): 64,675
Now, we know that computer science degrees have decreased since then, but they’re heading back up, and it’s important to keep things in perspective relative to other fields. Nobody is crying in their beer about the death of the physical sciences, yet computer science produced 4x as many degrees as all of the physical sciences together!
The bad news is that psychology and the social sciences generated 220,067 degrees. And the biological and agricultural sciences generated 80,933 degrees. So the physical and mathematical and earth sciences and engineering are not faring well. But compared to the other physical and mathematical and earth sciences and engineering, computer science is not looking like the problem child! (Skill testing question: What was the fastest-growing bachelors major in America the last time I checked? Answer here.)
What about workforce demand? There are several things to say about this:
- Computer science, increasingly, is great preparation for all sorts of careers. That is, lots of people get computer science degrees to go to law school, business school, medical school, biotech labs, etc.
- And even “Information Technology” is much broader than the software industry. 70% of all IT jobs are with “IT consumers” (companies that use it) rather than with “IT producers” (companies that invent it).
- And the software industry is really hot right now, and also it is really cool — it’s creative, interactive, vibrant.
Here is a spreadsheet with charts showing Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for employment between 2006 and 2016 for all fields in the sciences and engineering (including the social sciences). What it shows is that of all of these fields, between now and 2016:
- 70% of all newly-created jobs will be in computer science.
- 62% of all job openings (both newly-created jobs and jobs available due to retirements) will be in computer science.
(The latter is a smaller % than the former because other fields are “older” and thus will have a greater number of retirements.)
There is a huge gap between “people” and “jobs” in computer science — there is plenty of opportunity!
What do we do at UW to attract students? Many many things. As one example, starting tomorrow at UW we’re running an annual 3-day workshop for high school teachers of math and science, sponsored by Google. The goal is to show these teachers that computer science is important to their fields, and is a great field to send their smartest students into. Information is available at http://cs4hs.cs.washington.edu/. (We do this jointly with Carnegie Mellon and UCLA.)
We have a set of terrific videos that illustrate several important points:
- People enter the field of computer science for all sorts of aspirational reasons.
- People do all sorts of things with their computer science degrees in addition to working in the software industry.
- Working in the software industry is highly exciting and creative and interactive.
You can take a look at these videos at http://www.cs.washington.edu/WhyCSE/.
Most importantly, we really invest in our students. Word gets out. At the University of Washington, we have the strongest undergraduates, because students know they can get a great education here.
How do we “calibrate” our program — make sure our students are ready for careers? Here is a Word document I prepared recently for another purpose. Every year we are a top-5 supplier to Microsoft, Google, and Amazon.com — our students are fantastic.
You asked what US companies can do. They can demand greater federal investment in K-12 science and math education, and greater federal investment in research in the physical sciences and engineering (which drives education at research-intensive universities, who are the producers of most of the students that high-tech employers seek). And they can invest themselves — they can be good corporate citizens. Obviously they can run internship programs and things like that — there’s lots of mutual benefit in that.
But most importantly, companies and individual citizens can insist on federal policies that support education and research. Stop pissing money away in Iraq. Stop pissing money away on “security theater” in airports and along our borders. Stop being hostile to talented immigrants. Stop destroying K-12 by obsessing over high-stakes tests that can be gamed. Stop denigrating science. Stop substituting ideology for objective analysis in designing federal policies. Stop all of the disastrous policies of the past 8 years. Return sanity and accountability to our national leadership. Institute policies such as those outlined in the Executive Summary of the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm.
Please note that these are not partisan political statements. Historically, support for education, support for research, and belief in a reasonable degree of intellectual integrity have not been partisan issues.
I do want to emphasize again that I am not in denial about various substantive areas in which we need to continue to work to improve our field and its attractiveness — and I don’t think our community is, either. But it’s important to keep things in perspective! Public lamentations are not likely to improve the situation.