Why Fewer CS Students?

Here’s another article about the drop in computer science program enrollment at the undergrad level, attributing the drop to offshoring of programming jobs.
On the one hand, a 23 percent decrease in new majors over the past year is stunning, and clearly too large to be a fluke. But I think the recent focus on offshoring as the core of the problem is too limited.
When I graduated from college about a decade ago, computer science programs were still relatively new and the boom was just starting. You could leave college (and a liberal arts college at that!) with a six-figure starting salary and lots of benefits (I had a friend whose new employer sent a moving company to pack up and relocate his dorm room – the English majors living next door loved that). If you were on the fence about computer science, and you saw the seniors being treated that way, it was a huge incentive to pursue the major. In other areas, you’d probably have to put in graduate work, or many years of experience, to reach the point that computer science students were starting at. The question for computer science students was whether you put in the whole four years, or let yourself be lured away at the two- or three-year point.
Slowly enough students took this path that companies could get their choice of programmers while waiting for people to graduate. The one-year masters program tacked on to the end of your degree became huge, with some schools letting you merge it into the undergrad program if you took extra courses and worked in a project. Now, companies can get a decent supply of good programmers with masters degrees, who come in with more training (and a bit more maturity). And a computer science degree is no longer a ridiculously accelerated track to a high paying job.
So, if you’re the student deciding between rival majors, computer science has lost an edge. Yes, I suspect the decline is exacerbated by the supply also being supplemented with offshoring. But solutions have to be looked at that consider the larger context, and I am dubious that the peak enrollment numbers can be recreated (nor is it agreed across departments that it should be). It doesn’t do CS departments looking to regroup any favors to view the issue one-dimensionally, as a problem of offshoring. I don’t think the numbers will go back up by trying to lure back the same set of students who would have entered the field three years ago. And frankly, I think that most academic departments understand this – I think it’s the media who has honed in on offshoring as a simple scapegoat for a more complicated issue.
Hmmm – if only there were a large population who hasn’t traditionally pursued computer science and might be open to novel recruitment efforts that illuminated computer science as a problem solving field with connections to real-world problems.

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