By The Book

Declining computer-science enrollments should worry anyone interested in the future of the U.S. IT industry.

By Eric Chabrow,  InformationWeek
Aug. 16, 2004

Approaching San Angelo, Texas, on Route 87, travelers behold apanorama of a stony, flat terrain blanketed with buffalo and Indian grasses, cacti, yucca, prickly pears, and mesquite trees. The arid landscape segues into fields of maize and cotton. Nearby, sheep and cattle graze on large ranches. San Angelo, an oasis of a city of nearly 90,000, is situated near the junction of the southern stretch of the American Great Plains and the northern tier of the Great Chihuahuan Desert. It hosts a school that for three decades has been a quintessential training ground for the American IT workforce and that, like computer-science programs around the country, finds itself at a crossroads.

Angelo State University has been turning out computer-science graduates since 1974, supplying American businesses with the professionals who develop, implement, and operate their IT systems. Angelo State and other schools offering undergraduate computer-science programs are facing declining enrollments as the profession loses some luster, and fields as diverse as biotechnology and criminal justice are seen as more exciting choices for talented science-minded students.

"IT is an important factor in our future," says Stuart Zweben, chair of Ohio State University's computer- and information-science department.

Photo by Jeff Sciortino
Perception has become reality. Enrollment at undergraduate computer-science programs peaked at the turn of the millennium, then plummeted in the past few years by 30%. "In the '90s, people saw computer science as a quick opportunity for lucrative, high-paying jobs," says Stuart Zweben, chair of Ohio State University's computer- and information-science department. "Then companies began layoffs, and people heard about offshore outsourcing. That got them scared to go into this field. Students are becoming cautious. They have cold feet."

Undergraduate enrollment at Angelo State's computer-science department is down sharply. In the late 1990s, the school, which has 6,000 total students, graduated about 40 computer-science students a year; last spring, 18 received bachelor's degrees from the program. Angelo State isn't alone. Boston University's Metropolitan College counts some 400 computer-science majors, down from more than 500 just a few years ago. Intensely competitive, elite universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Stanford have no problem filling their classrooms, but they're getting fewer applications. Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science's incoming freshman class has 130 students, but applications have fallen about 40% from a peak of 3,200 in 2001. Mark Stehlik, assistant dean of undergraduate education, characterizes the 2001 application figure as artificially high. "We had too many kids with parents who dreamed of six-figure initial job offers," he says. Stehlik says it would take another 40% drop-off in applicants to adversely affect the quality of the students admitted to the program.

Yet declining computer-science enrollments should worry anyone interested in the future of the U.S. IT industry. While the Carnegie Mellons and Stanfords of the world won't have trouble filling their chairs, the future of IT innovation depends on them getting their fair share of the very best young science minds to come up with the truly breakthrough ideas in still-emerging fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and next-generation information security. On the more practical level, if companies can't get enough people in the United States trained in the IT skills they need, it provides one more reason to ship work to places such as India, which will mint more than 100,000 graduates in IT-related disciplines in the coming year, according to Nascomm, an Indian IT business association.

Here's one look at where the numbers have gone: In 1995, some 10,000 undergraduate students at Ph.D.-granting schools--which represent about a third of the nation's computer-science programs--declared majors in computer science and computer engineering, according to research conducted by the Computer Research Association, a group supported by more than 200 departments of computer science, computer engineering, and related fields. That number doubled two years later. By 2000, the number of students declaring computer-science majors at these universities approached 24,000 and hovered at that level for another two years. Enrollment in computer-science programs soared in the mid- to late 1990s, as year 2000 remediation and the dot-com and telecom booms created an IT labor shortage. "Parents steered their children to computer science for dreams of instant wealth," Stehlik says. "It wasn't that the field was cool, but the dollar signs were cool."

However, the bust doubled the nation's IT jobless rate to about 5.5%, and IT started looking like most any other field--you had to scrape and hustle for a job out of college, especially a high-paying one. The number of undergraduate students declaring as computer-science majors at Ph.D.-granting schools plunged by some 30% to about 17,700 last year. Non-Ph.D. programs reported similar declines.

Computer science often loses out to other fields of study, many of which depend on high-end computing. The type of student who once expressed interest in computer science now is lured by life sciences such as biology and chemistry, or even criminal justice, attracted to those fields by the popularity of criminal forensic shows such as CSI and Crossing Jordan. "Things on TV guide their interests," says Charles McCamant, head of Angelo State's computer-science department.

Leaders of computer-science programs, having ridden a rising tide of employment and prominence for decades, concede they need to do a better job promoting their discipline and highlighting the great challenges ahead. Stehlik notes that in real life, criminologists rely heavily on computers to solve crimes, something represented on TV shows by images of fingerprints quickly flashing by on a PC monitor. "What's really happening here is pattern matching. That's computer science," Stehlik says. "On these shows, we see the test-tube side; there's a computer-science side, too, that's not played up. ... As a field, computer science has done a lot less PR than it needs to do."

While waiting for a reversal in computer-science enrollment, schools aren't necessarily panicking. Though criminal justice and other disciplines gain at the expense of computer science, universities and colleges haven't made knee-jerk changes. At Angelo State, for instance, university president James Hindman maintains the status quo. "We don't respond to fads," he says. "If a program becomes entrenched after four or five years and passes from the fad into the mainstream, we'll adapt. The marketplace is a greater arbiter."

Most troubling for the future of computer science is the idea that students wouldn't pursue the field because they believe there are no jobs, that all the work is going to India, or that all the cool stuff has been done. "It's natural for people to look at a narrow point of time and conclude that businesses aren't well capitalized and jobs aren't plentiful," Ohio State's Zweben says. "They're wrong on both counts. You've got to believe IT is an important factor in our future." Indeed, over the next decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics sees the need for an additional 307,000 computer-software engineers, 184,000 systems analysts, 106,000 network-systems and data-communications analysts, and 103,000 managers.

For the next 20 years, "every advance we can anticipate is going to require software that has not yet been written," predicts Grady Booch, an IBM fellow and author of several books on software programming.

The drop in computer-science enrollment concerns business executives who'll need that talent so their companies can properly function. Bernie Francis, owner of IT services firm Business Control Systems LP, worries that lower computer-science enrollment will results in a dearth of qualified IT workers to hire in the not-too-distant future. "The development cycle time is getting shorter and shorter, and we need more and more innovators," says Francis, a member of the Texas State University System board of regents. Without an increase in the IT workforce, Francis sees employers' costs rising. "We'll go back to the situation of tremendous salary increases for those who care to choose IT for a career," he says.

Beyond whether U.S. computer-science programs will turn out enough graduates lies the question of whether they'll turn them out with the right skills. Too often, they're not, IBM's Booch says. They're good at what he calls out-of-the-box thinking but weaker on fundamental business skills such as teamwork and project design. "Many universities teach people how to program, but they don't teach them how to work in projects," Booch says. "They don't teach them how to design."

Computer-science programs can't function in a vacuum. As technologies quickly mature, academia must work closer with industry to identify the skills needed to be taught, says Tanya Zlateva, chair of the computer-science department at Boston University's Metropolitan College.

Ohio State's Zweben, a former president of computer society Association for Computing Machinery and the Computing Sciences Accreditation Board, says he believes U.S. colleges and universities generally do a good job of providing technical skills and an improving job of teaching students how to communicate and collaborate. But teaching students how computers help businesses be more effective is something most computer-science programs must improve. "I don't think most schools do that great of a job," Zweben says. "We don't do it here."

Zweben laments that the demands of the computer-science program, especially one tied to engineering, leave precious little room for courses outside the technical area. Still, at Ohio State, computer students can minor in business if they find the time.

There's growing pressure on schools to provide computer-science majors with an understanding of how information systems have an impact on an organization. It's not just business but how computers help researchers find new drugs, designers make sleeker cars, or police solve a crime. "The one thing that's more important now than before is having an understanding of the application's domain," says Gerald Engel, a University of Connecticut computer-science professor and president-elect of the IEEE Computer Society, an association of computer academics and professionals.

As at Ohio State, the University of Connecticut is finding that an interdisciplinary approach to computer-science education isn't easy to pull off. At UConn, for instance, there's pressure on the faculty to reduce the number of hours for a student to earn a bachelor's degree to 120 hours from 128, the equivalent of two or three courses. The larger course commitment "makes it difficult for a student to pick up some type of minor in some application area," Engel says. "How do you decide amongst this whole array of choices out there? How do you cram more and more stuff into four years?"

Some schools are trying. Carnegie Mellon requires computer-science majors to take a minor. But for many students, that means extending their stay in college for a year. Nationwide, fewer than 40% of undergraduates complete their degrees in four years.

At Angelo State, the search for business experience (and spending money) leads about a third of the department's undergraduates to work part time in the university's IT department (see story, "No Games, Campus Work Builds Business And Life Skills").

Most schools that mix computer science with other disciplines, such as bioinformatics, do so at the graduate level, though upper-level undergraduates can sample interdisciplinary subjects. Boston University's Metropolitan College, for instance, lets senior computing-science majors take courses in cell biology and medical imaging.

A decade ago, computer-science programs would have offered courses in specific languages. That's less common now. Today, courses tend to be more process-oriented, such as software development or enterprise computing, with a language such as C# or Java merely used as a tool to teach the subject matter.

Topics such as information assurance and security are becoming a core part of the computer-science curriculum. At Boston University, the subject isn't just a single course or two but is embedded into the coursework of all basic computer-science classes. "That's what everyone must understand to function in today's world," Zlateva says. "Terrorism or no terrorism, information security must be in place."

Teaching concepts broader than specific skills comes naturally to college educators. Because of their research, academics can identify trends five to 10 years before they're widely adopted by business, though they tend to have a harder time predicting the tools needed to implement those trends. Academics saw the coming of enterprise computing years before SAP and the Web became part of the lingua franca of the business world. Still, they didn't know until recently what specific tools the marketplace would adopt to help make that happen. "We can better tell you what things will happen in 10 years than what specific technology will win this year or next," Zlateva says. "We knew something like the Java enterprise platform or .Net platform would be important. The ideas behind them have been known for years. We just didn't know it would be Sun or Microsoft behind them."

That's why computer-science programs shy away from specific languages and platforms and emphasize broader topics. "We don't train, we educate," Engel says. "The biggest thing you buy a university graduate with a computer-science degree is the ability to adapt."

Angelo State president Hindman recently got into a lively discussion on that topic with Business Control Systems' Francis, the IT services executive who's also a Texas State University System regent. With only about half of the students who declare computer-science majors completing the program, Francis proposed that the school provide certificate training on specific technologies. "We need to do something with the spoilage rate," he says, referring to the students who dropped out of the program. "We need to get people prepared for life." But such training, Hindman responds, belongs at community colleges and other technical training schools, not university computer-science programs. He sees a university computer-science education not as vocational training but as a foundation for a professional career, one that could even lead to the CEO suite. "Knowledge of computer science is a stairway to reach that point," Hindman says. "That's the difference between education and training."

Booch of IBM agrees with the distinction but says there's another way to fill the need that universities aren't meeting. He's on the board of a new for-profit Utah school, Northface University, that's essentially designed to provide ready-to-work software developers. He describes it as a true university where students develop into "whole people," but greater emphasis is on technical skills as well as work skills such as the social dynamics of teams, project-based work, and real-world problems such as designing for the complexities of Java 2 Enterprise Edition and .Net. "There's a fine line here," says Booch, who also sits on the board of a school of theology. "The last thing you want is to corrupt the educational process and become a trade school."

Julie Horsman, human-resources manager for the IT organization at truck maker Paccar Inc., says university computer-science programs need to educate people who are adaptable and able to handle a wide range of business-technology challenges. "We want employees with broader set of skills, as opposed to a large number of people doing .Net or Java development," she says. "How many people do we need to crank out C++ code if we use rewritten components?"

Not all companies are like Paccar. It's the marketplace that makes schools such as UConn teach students the language de jour. As part of a course that teaches the concepts behind programming, Connecticut requires students to learn C++. This fall, it will offer Java to half its freshman computer-science class. Engel isn't comfortable with that approach, but he understands why it's being done. "The trouble with C++--or Java, for that matter--is that they're horribly complex languages. Instead of concentrating on how computers solve problems, we can get mired in the details of C++ or Java, and that's regrettable," Engel says. "But it's a reflection that people want to have skills so they can walk out and get a job. This is the kind of thing personnel departments look for. In the '70s, you put Cobol on your resumé, and you got a job."

Soft skills that help facilitate teamwork and collaboration are being integrated into many computer-science programs. Boston University requires students to work together on projects; one class has four or more students developing an application for which each person is assigned a specific responsibility that mirrors the workaday world. Sometimes the students collaborate in person, other times over the Web, simulating the experience IT managers face when working over the Internet with business partners in India. "Computer science requires teamwork," Zlateva says. "There's no such thing as one person developing one kind of application. On top of that, it does require very good understanding of the business environment to make a product successful. ... What's not going away, and where we need to educate our students, is on the high level of coordination and project management."

Angelo State requires computer-science students to take courses in public speaking and either scientific or business writing because communication is an important skill for most IT professionals. "We have to document everything," says recent Angelo State computer-science grad Ryan Cleere, who took a technical writing class, of his work as a systems administrator for Northrop Grumman in San Angelo.

Parents used to steer their children into computer science because it was lucrative, says Carnegie Mellon's Mark Stehlik, assistant dean of undergraduate education.

Photo by Richard Kelly
Carnegie Mellon computer-science students learn collaborative skills by taking a project-based course in which students from computer science and other disciplines such as art work together to create a software-based virtual world viewed through a head-mounted display. "We're teaching our students the ability to work in teams, helping them develop communications and interpersonal skills, so they can communicate with those who are not necessarily as tech-savvy," Stehlik says.

This interdisciplinary approach might be the salvation for computer science and could eventually attract a different breed of student than from an earlier generation. "The students who come in want to do more than just hack," Stehlik says. "Some students have political designs; they're interested in greater issues that confront society: security, privacy. We're seeing students who are extending the notion of computer science."

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