Obama on Tonight Show urges students to study engineering, not finance

Enrollment data shows increasing interest by undergrads in computer science

WASHINGTON -- The idea that Wall Street's collapse may be computer science's gain turns out to have some legs to it.

Enrollment in computer science is on the rise after six years of decline, and even President Barack Obama is urging students to eschew finance in favor engineering.

Obama's advice was offered on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (see video). "We need young people, instead of -- a smart kid coming out of school, instead of wanting to be an investment banker, we need them to decide if they want to be an engineer, they want to be a scientist, they want to be a doctor or a teacher," the president said.

Obama didn't specifically cite computer science in his riff on Leno's show, but the message was clear. He would rather see students pursue "things that actually contribute to making things and making people's lives better -- that's going to put our economy on solid footing."

The economy may be helping to reverse a major shift away from computer science that began after the collapse of the dot.com bubble and the rise of offshore outsourcing. The total enrollment in U.S. computer science programs by majors is up 8.1%, according to the annual Taulbee Survey by the Computing Research Association. The survey only looks at a subset of the total computer science enrollments, those students at Ph.D.-granting institutions, but it's the first enrollment data to identify the trend. That subset shows an enrollment change from 28,675 to just over 31,000.

Peter Harsha, CRA's director of governmental affairs, said there's "increased optimism about the continued demand for CS graduates in the workforce. Students, and their parents probably, understand that even in these tough economic times, companies that want to innovate need graduates who can think computationally."

Harsha said, anecdotally, there "seems to be a growing understanding among some of the best students of the intellectual depth and societal benefits of computing. It's an intellectually rich, rewarding place to be."

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