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Wall Street's collapse was computer science's gain

Patrick Thibodeau | May 14, 2014
Computer science undergrad enrollments rise 13 percent last year, continuing trend.

Here's a short history on computer science student enrollments. Leading up to the bust, computer science enrollments soared to new highs, and then they plunged. Like a rock.

Computer science graduates at Ph.D. granting institutions reached a low of 8,021 in 2007, down from 14,185 in the 2003-2004.

But it's been rising since. The number of new undergraduate computing majors at Ph.D.-granting U.S. universities rose by more than 13.4% last year, according to the Computing Research Association's just released annual report on computer science programs.

This wasn't as large of an increase as the last few years but, nonetheless, it represents the sixth straight year of enrollment gains. The crash in 2001 turned people away from computer science, and sent enrollments falling until they bottomed out in 2007.

Bachelor degree production in computer science last year increased 3.7% overall to 12,503, but 9.4% among those schools that reported in both years.

The number of computer science graduates will continue to increase. While last year's enrollment increase is positive, it is behind 2011-12, when computer science enrollments rose by nearly 30%, and the year before, when it increased 23%.

The much larger increase in new enrollments since 2010 "bode well for future increase in undergraduate computing production," according to the report.

When the recession that kicked in 2008, it sent IT unemployment soaring, but it may have done more damage to the finance sector, especially in terms of reputation. That prompted some educators at the time to predict that the recession might send math-inclined students from hedge funds to computer science.

It's hard to draw a direct apples-to-apples comparison on computer science enrollments versus business, in part, because it's a smaller base and it may not be a fair comparison. But still, according to government data, there as 327,500 business bachelor degrees awarded in 2006-07, rising to 366,800 in 2011-12, a 12% increase. Meanwhile, computer science bachelor degrees have increased by 55%, but over a slightly longer period.

There were 63,873 students enrolled in computer science programs last year, versus 56,307 in 2012. This includes all the majors in computer science departments, such as computer engineering. The overall number doesn't include computer science schools without Ph.D. programs.

Despite this relative slowdown in enrollments last year, the data may be better than it appears. Among those schools that submitted their enrollment data to the annual Taulbee Survey in two consecutive years, enrollments were up 22%.

There are 266 Ph.D.-granting institutions, and of that number 179 responded to the survey. The list of responding schools includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, George Tech, Purdue, Berkeley, Davis, and other California system schools, as well as many of the major universities in all the states.


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