Computer science enrollments rebound, up 10% last fall

But it may be many years, if at all, before enrollments reach the dot-com boom's highs

WASHINGTON -- For the third year computer science enrollments have increased, ending the precipitous decline in enrollments that followed the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000-2001.

When that speculative bubble burst, the subsequent shakeout and unemployment in the tech industry sent enrollments plummeting, raised concerns that the U.S. competitiveness would suffer in the long-run. Enrollments are arching up, but are still well below the peak reached nearly 10 years ago.

The Computer Research Association (CRA), which tracks enrollments and graduation rates for computer science students, says enrollments in computer science programs were up last fall by 10%.

The CRA's annual Taulbee Survey, now in its 40th year, tracks students that are enrolled at Ph.D.-granting institutions. Its latest findings are based on responses from 195 universities.

The dot-com era increased demand for programmers, engineers and analysts and prompted many students to enroll in computer science programs. Enrollments swelled. At its peak in 2001, the average enrollment in computer science departments was 398, but by 2007 it had declined in half .

Enrollments now average at about 253 students per department.

Peter Harsha, director of government affairs for the research association, said "it's hard to say whether we will see those numbers again anytime soon."

"The dot-com run-up was a pretty heady time for computer science, with many students flocking to the discipline with dreams of internet millions," said Harsha, who saw the decline as "perhaps a bit of an over-correction."

The interest today may be "a more reasoned response to a field that seems positioned at the hub of just about every national priority," Harsha said. "If you want to do work in science, engineering, health care, national security , finance, and on and on, a computing degree can be the ticket."

In terms of graduates, the survey counted 12,500 computer science graduates last year, compared to 20,677 in 2002. Stuart Zweben, associate dean of the College of Engineering at Ohio State, who wrote this year's CRA report, said dot-com enrollment "was a historic peak" and was due to factors that were not sustainable, referring to the speculative bubble.

Although the computer science increases over three years have been healthy, Zweben doesn't see enrollments going back to an average of 400 per department.

What is motivating students today to study computer sciences is the availability of jobs, as well as the impact of computing in society, said Zweben. "We have students who are intrinsically interested in computing and interested in computing as a tool to help them solve problems in other fields," he said.

Another finding in the CRA survey is this: Men continue to dominate computer science. The share of women graduates in computer science rose to 13.8% in 2010, an increase of 2.5% from the prior year.

The CRA, founded in 1972, is focused on research policy. Its board members include academic major universities as well as IT companies, including Microsoft , Intel , IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

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 e-mail address is .

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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