Computer science enrollments soared last year, rising 30%

Tech studies are cool again as students see degrees leading to jobs in many fields; Ph.D. enrollment reaches new high, survey finds

The number of new undergraduate computer science majors at Ph.D.-granting U.S. universities rose by more than 29% last year, an increase that the Computing Research Association called "astonishing."

It was the fifth straight year in which the number of students enrolled in computer-related degree programs increased, according to the CRA's annual survey of computer science, computer engineering or information departments at Ph.D.-granting institutions.

Each year, the CRA report includes the change in enrollment numbers at schools that also participated in the survey in the previous year. In the latest survey, number of new undergraduate computer science majors at schools in that category grew nearly 23% from the 2010-11 academic year to the 2011-12 academic year.

The 2011-12 academic year also marked the third straight year in which the percentage increase in bachelor's degrees awarded hit double digits. In U.S. computer science departments, the year-over-year increases were 19.8% overall and 16.6% among those departments that participated in the survey this year and last year, according to the CRA.

Computer science enrollments "are somewhat cyclical based on the perceived strength of the IT sector," said Peter Harsha, the CRA's director of government affairs.

He noted that CRA members have said that the recent upward trend is due at least in part to the fact that "students are much more aware of the importance of computational thinking in just about every other field of science and technology."

Harsha said that many fields "are increasingly data-driven and computationally-driven, and students see that a degree in computer science gives them access to a wide range of well-paying careers."

The CRA's annual Taulbee Survey has been tracking computer-related enrollments and degrees awarded at Ph.D.-granting schools for many years, and it has turned up some interesting trends.

The survey is named after the late Orrin Taulbee, the first chairman of the University of Pittsburgh's computer science department.

In 1999, with the rise of e-commerce, enrollments hit new highs; that year, the survey found that the average computer science department had an enrollment of about 400 students. But with the dot-com crash, enrollments started to fall and hit bottom around 2007, at 200 per department.

The average enrollment per department today is just over 300 students.

Women remain underrepresented in computer science, but latest survey did show an uptick in new female graduates.

In the 2011-12 academic year, women accounted for 12.9% of the students graduating with bachelor's degrees in computer science, up from 11.7% in the 2010-11 academic year. But in computer engineering, the percentage of female recipients of bachelor's degrees decreased from 11.8% to 10.6% during the same time frame.

The survey also found that more students are completing Ph.D. programs. The number of doctoral degrees granted in all computer-related disciplines rose 8.2% year over year, from 1,782 in the 2010-11 academic year to 1,929 in the 2011-12 academic year.

The pool of undergraduate students represented in the CRA survey is 67,850. Of that number, 56,742 are in computer science.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS 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 email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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