Wall Street's collapse was computer science's gain

Computer science undergrad enrollments rise 13% last year, continuing trend

Here's a short history on computer science student enrollments. Leading up to the dot-com bust, computer science enrollments soared to new highs, and then they plunged. Like a rock.

The number of computer science graduates at Ph.D.-granting institutions reached a low of 8,021 in 2007, down from 14,185 in the 2003-2004 academic year.

But it's been rising since. The number of new undergraduate computing majors at Ph.D.-granting U.S. universities rose by more than 13.4% in the 2012-13 academic year, according to the Computing Research Association's just-released annual report on computer science programs.

That was slightly lower than the increases of the previous few years, but it nonetheless represents the sixth straight year of enrollment gains. The dot-com crash of 2001 turned people away from computer science and sent enrollments falling until they bottomed out in 2007.

The number of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science last year was up 3.7% overall from the previous year, reaching 12,503, according to the CRA, but the increase at schools that reported figures for both last year and the previous year was 9.4%.

The number of computer science graduates will continue to increase. Computer science enrollments rose by nearly 30% in the 2011-12 academic year, and they increased 23% the year before that.

The trend of enrollment increases since 2010 bodes well for a "future increase in undergraduate computing production," according to the report.

The recession that hit in 2008 sent IT unemployment soaring, but it may have done more damage to the finance sector, especially in terms of reputation. That prompted some educators at the time to predict that the recession might send math-inclined students from the world of hedge funds to computer science.

It's hard to draw a direct apples-to-apples comparison between computer science enrollments and enrollments in business-related disciplines, in part, because the number of students pursuing computer science degrees is much smaller and comparisons may not be fair. But still, according to government data, 327,500 business bachelor's degrees were awarded in 2006-07, and that figure rose 12% to 366,800 in 2011-12. Meanwhile, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science has increased by 55%, but over a slightly longer period.

There were 63,873 students enrolled in computer science programs last year, compared with 56,307 in 2012. That includes all the majors in computer science departments, such as computer engineering. The overall number doesn't include computer science schools that don't have Ph.D. programs.

Despite the slowdown in enrollments last year, the reality may be better than the data indicates. Among schools that submitted enrollment data to the CRA for its annual Taulbee Survey in two consecutive years, enrollments were up 22%.

There are 266 Ph.D.-granting institutions, and 179 of those schools responded to the survey. The list of responding schools includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgia Tech, Purdue and several schools in the University of California system, including Berkeley UC Davis, as well as many of the country's other major state universities.

The data on computer science graduates reflects the fact that women are still under-underrepresented in the tech workforce. Women accounted for just 14.2% of the recipients of bachelor's degrees in computer science in the 2012-13 academic year. While low, that figure does represent a modest increase from 11.7% in 2010-11.

Meanwhile, just 13.9% of the students enrolled in computer science programs last year were women.

The number of Ph.D. degrees granted last year rose 3.2% to 1,991. Of those, 58% went to non-resident aliens.

Artificial intelligence, networking and software engineering, in that order, were the most popular areas of specialization for recipients of doctoral degrees, according to the report. The next two most popular disciplines were databases and theory and algorithms. These five areas "have been the most popular for the past few years," the report said.

The job prospects for Ph.D. grads are exceptional. Their unemployment rate is currently 0.8%, compared to 0.4% last year, and only 8% of them took jobs outside of North America, according to the report.

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Bachelor's degrees in computer science and computer engineering at Ph.D.-granting schools. (Source: Computing Research Association)

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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