Coding is Cool Again on Campus
April 6, 2009 Dan Burger
According to a new study from the Computing Research Association, you’re likely to hear a college-bound student say the words “coding is cool.” It’s been a while, but there are indicators now that back this up. For the first time in six years there is an enrollment increase in computer science classes.
This welcome news comes within weeks of a report conducted as a joint effort between IBM and the Marist Institute for Public Opinion that students are increasing their emphasis on technology skills before they graduate. That’s not necessarily an indicator of CompSci degree mania. It’s really an awareness that computer technology is part of the world as we know it. It touches all careers as well as a huge portion of our kick-back time and it’s cool.
Before anyone gets too stoked on this news, let’s have a reality check. A little perspective is a good thing. The same CRA study that pops the cork on enrollment celebrations also reveals that bachelor’s degrees in computer science decreased 10 percent in 2008. Even the vision impaired can see we have a ways to go before enrollment increases are converted into degreed graduates. And it’s not like the hole was dug in 2008. The 10 percent decline last year was on top of a 20 percent decline in 2007. And, by the way, the graduation numbers have been in free-fall for at least a decade. In fact, 2008 holds the dubious distinction of graduating the most undersized computer science class in 10 years.
The pipeline for software engineers graduating from universities in the United States and Canada (the focus of the CRA survey) has slowed to an annoying dribble. And picking concerned quotes from executives at North American hardware and software companies that “we are losing–or have already lost–our competitive edge” in terms of developing young talent is as easy as finding April showers in the upper Midwest.
Exactly whose fault is that? Students, not being as dumb as grizzled old industry veterans like to think, have been defining computer science degrees as preparation for careers as programmers and the grizzled guys were sending all programming jobs overseas. Many companies attempted to refute that contention by claiming jobs were being outsourced because the pipeline of applicants for available jobs had dried up. OK. Let’s move on.
A case can be made that the skill sets of 10 or 20 years ago are not terribly relevant in today’s fast-changing market. Yet there remains a critical need for technical skills and programming abilities. IBM’s Academic Initiative has shown that by introducing the business community to colleges and universities in order to demonstrate the need for graduates and the types of skills required to fill jobs, the result is CompSci pipeline maintenance. And you’ll find that in certain schools the Academic Initiative is plugged into business and finance degree programs because in the real world business and IT are inseparable. But you’ll also find in other schools the academics are focused on programming and system administration and software engineering–sort of a pumping iron approach to IT.
So who’s filling the pipeline? The CRA study says there is clearly a male dominance among CompSci bachelor’s degree recipients. Dudes are walking away with 88 percent of the degrees. Where are the women? Twelve percent is weak. If you step up to master’s degrees, the women step up by collecting 21 percent of the diplomas. And, by the way, that’s down slightly from the previous year.
Also off the demographic menu, CRA points out that two-thirds of the undergraduates are white. That’s a huge differential compared to the second largest percentage (16 percent) of bachelor’s degrees that go to Asian students. But then check out the master’s programs where the largest percentage of degrees (50 percent) go to nonresident aliens, while the second largest percentage (34 percent) are white.
The CRA report, which you can read in PDF format here, also includes a ranking of the top computer science departments at universities in the United States. You might be interested to know the top 12 schools are: Stanford, MIT, Cal-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Princeton, Texas, Illinois, Washington, Wisconsin, Harvard, and Cal Tech. If your favorite school didn’t make the top 12, positions 13 through 36 can be found on the PDF link noted above.