For the first time in six years, enrollment in computer science programs in the United States increased last year, according to an annual report that tracks trends in the academic discipline.
The revival is significant, according to computer scientists and industry executives, who in the past have pointed to declining numbers of science and engineering students as a canary-in-a-coal-mine indicator warning about the nation’s weakening ability to compete in the global economy.
The number of majors and pre-majors in American computer science programs was up 6.2 percent from 2007, according to the Taulbee Survey, an annual survey conducted by the Computing Research Association following trends in student enrollment, degree production, employment and faculty salaries for computer science, computer engineering and schools of information in the United States and Canada.
“This could be a sign that we are beginning to make headway as well as increased attention, increased interest and increased investment,” said Andrew A. Chien, director of research at Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of semiconductors.
The latest report uncovered a series of bright spots for an academic discipline that underwent a midlife crisis after the dot-com collapse beginning in 2000. After a wave of students came to the discipline during the Internet boom, there was an equivalent decline during the past eight years as the nation’s college students decided en masse that the future lay in fields like investment banking and financial engineering.
The Taulbee Survey, with data tables covering different time periods, also found that the number of new undergraduate majors in computer science increased 9.5 percent and that the rate of decline in new bachelor’s degrees improved to 10 percent, from 20 percent in the previous report. Total Ph.D. production grew to 1,877 for the period July 2007 to June 2008, a 5.7 percent increase over the previous period.
“The most compelling story for our community is that interest in computer science appears to have turned the corner,” said Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association, an organization representing 200 North American academic departments of computer science, computer engineering and related fields; 26 industrial research labs; and 6 affiliated professional societies. “We think this bodes well for efforts to change the perception about careers in computing.”
In recent years the computer science community has done a good deal of hand-wringing over fears that students increasingly saw the field as one of drudge work involving sitting at computer monitors and writing endless lines of code. Now, say Mr. Harsha and others who are following student interests, there is a sense that computing science skills are increasingly being seen as a toolkit for pursuing a number of modern careers.
“We’re seeing amazing increases in enrollment,” said Eric Roberts, a computer scientist at Stanford University. “It’s not that people have forgotten about the offshoring of jobs, but our competition isn’t what it was. There are fewer places to go, and we don’t have Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns and Citibank to compete with.”
He noted that seven or eight years ago, few students would think about the possibility of a computer science graduate education, and that it was all about wealth.
“The ability to make a billion dollars by the time you are 30 years old is a huge motivation,” he said.
The latest survey was not entirely optimistic. The study, which for the first time included data from schools of information, indicated that diversity in computer science programs continued to remain poor. For example, the fraction of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women remained steady at 11.8 percent in 2008.