CS Degree Interest Plummeted Since 2000

By Deb Perelman  |  Posted 2008-03-04

CS Degree Interest Plummeted Since 2000

With blame levied everywhere from the after-effects of the dot-com bust to the impact of offshoring on IT job stability, there is little question that student interest in pursuing careers in computers and technology has declined in the last seven years.

Two new studies sought to quantify the decline by looking at declared computer science majors, undergraduate computer science enrollments and granted computer science bachelors degrees. Both emerged with sobering numbers.

The percentage of incoming undergraduate students who indicated that they would major in computer science declined by 70 percent between the fall of 2000 and 2005, according to new research from HERI (The Higher Education Research Institute) at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA.  Their CIRP Freshman Survey is an annual survey of the characteristics of students attending colleges and universities as first-time, full-time freshmen.

These numbers mesh with preliminary results from the latest Taulbee Survey, due for release in May, conducted by the CRA (Computing Research Association) which tracks PhD-granting North American computer science and engineering departments.

The CRA study found that the number of newly-declared computer science majors in the fall of 2007 was half of what it was in the fall of 2000-7,915 versus 15,958. The number of new computer science majors was flat in 2006 but increased slightly in 2007, which might indicate that interest is stabilizing.

"The survey results are only for schools with PhD-granting computer science and computer engineering programs. However, the numbers there have been accurate predictors in the past of what is happening in non-PhD granting computer science and engineering programs," Jay Vegso, manager of information and membership at the CRA, told eWEEK.

Drop in interest may not be significant

Enrollments in computer science programs have fallen for several years as well. Between the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 school years, enrollments fell 18 percent to 28,675, and they've dropped 49 percent from their 2001-2002 school year peak.

However, researchers caution against drawing too many conclusions from recent numbers, pointing to the cyclical nature of interest in computer science careers.

"Interest in computer science as a major has been essentially flat since 2005. But, it is important to remember that that it has happened before. In the mid-1980s there was a surge of computer science students and a drop off. There was another one in the late 1990s, and this drop off is being measured against that peak" said Vegso.

In fact, the number of Computer Science bachelors degrees granted in 2007 were higher than 1997, suggesting that the drop-off of the last seven years might be less significant than it sounds. In the 1997-1998 school year, there were 7,496 bachelor's degrees granted in computer science at the universities studied by the CRA, a number which jumped to 10,376 in 1999-2000 and peaked at 14,185 in 2003-2004, before beginning its current decline.

"There is still an ongoing effect from the tech industry's downturn in 2001, which created a lingering feeling that computer science wasn't a good field to go into. But the BLS' [Bureau of Labor Statistics'] ten year outlook numbers contradict this, and their numbers are about as neutral and conservative as you can get," said Vesgo.

Released in December, the BLS' 10-year economic and employment predications found that job opportunities for computer professionals would be growing at record paces through 2016. Network systems and data communications professionals made up the single fastest-growing occupation categorized between 2006 and 2016, increasing by an estimated 53.4 percent.

"Even though the slowed interest in computer science careers doesn't look as significant when you compare it to pre-boom levels, there's still an image in peoples' heads about what's going on in the tech sector and that's going to be hard to beat," said Vegso.


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