The field of computer science (CS) is currently experiencing a surge in undergraduate degree production and course enrollments, which is straining program resources at many institutions and causing concern among faculty and administrators about how best to respond to the rapidly growing demand. There is also significant interest about what this growth will mean for the future of CS programs, the role of computer science in academic institutions, the field as a whole, and U.S. society more broadly.
This study was convened to provide a better understanding of the current trends in computing enrollments in the context of past trends. It examines drivers of the current enrollment surge, relationships between the surge and current and potential gains in diversity in the field, and the potential impacts of responses to the increased demand for computing in higher education, and it considers the likely effects of those responses on students, faculty, and institutions. The committee provides recommendations for what institutions of higher education, government agencies, and the private sector can do to respond to the surge and plan for a strong and sustainable future for the field of CS in general, the health of the institutions of higher education, and the prosperity of the nation.
THE CHANGING COMPUTER SCIENCE ENROLLMENT LANDSCAPE
A primary task for the committee was to address the question of whether the current enrollment increases “are similar to other cyclic fluctuations that have occurred in the past or whether they are more likely to be sustained.” A review of past degree, enrollment, and employment trends informed our projections for the
future, which indicate that strong demand for CS and related courses will likely continue for many years to come.
The past four decades have seen the rise of computer science as a creative and evolving field, with striking growth in undergraduate degree production in computer science and related fields. That growth, however, has not been uniform over time. Both core CS1 and the broader category of “computer and information science and support services” (CIS)2 saw two major fluctuations in degree production in the form of pronounced peaks and valleys in the 1980s and in the early 2000s. These past booms in CIS degree production coincided with the appearance of personal computers in the 1980s and the dot-com explosion in the late 1990s.
The growth has also not been uniform across institutions. On average, institutions with very high research activity have experienced the greatest growth in CIS degree production among not-for-profit institutions between 2009 and 2015 (by 113 percent). However, it is important to note that average trends by institution type do not adequately reflect the unique conditions at institutions experiencing the largest enrollment increases.
Although authoritative degree production data provide a helpful historical picture, degree production does not equal enrollment, which includes non-majors. Furthermore, degree production obviously lags current major enrollments by 1 to 4 years. Thus, one must look at course and program enrollment data to understand better the current conditions at institutions of higher education. Unfortunately, data on course or program enrollments are not tracked in the national statistics.
For this, the committee turned to the results of surveys conducted by the Computing Research Association (CRA), the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), the Consortium for Undergraduate STEM Success, the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and the American Society for Engineering Education. While these data sets have inherent limitations, they provide the best information available about current conditions in academia.
Enrollment growth varies by course level and institution. Historical data from the CRA Taulbee survey show that the number of CS majors in U.S. computer science departments responding (a subset of all institutions with CS Ph.D. programs) has been on the rise since 2006, and rose at a steeper rate beginning in 2012. From 2006 to 2015, the average number of CS majors increased for large departments (25 or more tenure-track faculty) from 341 to 970 and for small departments from 158 to 499 majors.3 These data likely underestimate the
1 Defined here as those programs categorized via the Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) as “computer and information sciences, general” (CIP 11.0101) or “computer science” (11.0701) in the national degree completion statistics available from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS); it is important to note that there were changes to the CIPs within the 11 series in 2000 and 2010 which could affect the accuracy of the time series trends for any of the six-digit CIPs.
2 Defined by the CIP 11.x series in the IPEDS national degree completion.
actual demand, because some of these institutions cap the number of students who may major in a program.
The CRA Enrollments Survey similarly illustrates that enrollments in all levels of CS courses have increased at the group of CS Ph.D.-granting and non-Ph.D.-granting units that responded to the poll. The average increases reported ranged from 75 percent in upper-level courses at non-doctoral CS institutions to 181 percent in upper-level courses at doctoral CS institutions, with similarly impressive increases in lower-level courses. While these data are not necessarily representative of national trends, they are the best data available; they make it clear that significant growth is under way at many institutions.
THE FUTURE OF COMPUTER SCIENCE ENROLLMENTS
What can we expect in the future for CS degrees and enrollment? It is easy to predict with confidence that degree production will increase sharply for at least the next few years, in light of the rapid and significant increases in enrollments in the major, in the absence of enrollment limits. Beyond that time the picture is necessarily less clear.
A student’s decision to enroll in a major or course is influenced by many factors, and one of those is job and economic prospects. The demand for employees with computer science and computing expertise is high and has grown steadily over time. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in computer occupations grew by nearly a factor of 20 between 1975 and 2015, nearly twice as fast as production of CIS bachelor’s degrees. BLS has projected that demand for computer science workers will continue to grow over the next decade at a rate higher than that of overall job growth, particularly as computing becomes more central to a wider range of industrial sectors. Employment demand is particularly intense in some specialty areas, including cybersecurity, data science, and machine learning.
Job prospects likely also contribute to the demand for CS courses from non-majors, but this portion of the enrollment increase is also driven by the impact of CS and computing in other fields. Computer science and its related endeavors such as data science have produced powerful tools and software systems that are used by and affect every discipline, giving rise to exciting subfields, such as computational biology, computational economics, computational chemistry, and digital humanities, with more emerging. These subfields require expertise in the traditional domain and a general fluency in tools and methods from computer science. The advantages of a deeper knowledge of computer science in many domains has also led to the recent emergence of new degree programs at several institutions that fuse curricula and formal requirements of CS with those for one of a range of disciplines (referred to as “X+CS”).
The conditions exist for continued growth in the demand for CS and related jobs, degrees, and courses. Every economic sector depends on computing, and
the way we interact with each other and with social institutions has been fundamentally changed by information technology. This dependence will surely grow, and our increasing the demand for mobility, security, privacy, and connectivity will drive further innovation and demand for CS expertise.
Finally, there have been numerous recent efforts to enhance interest and participation in CS at the K-12 levels, including to broaden participation among women and underrepresented minorities in the field. It is likely that some of the recent interest in undergraduate CS has been driven by these initiatives, and that they may continue to drive interest in the future.
While it is impossible to say with certainty whether the current enrollment boom will be followed by a significant decline in degree production as it was in both the 1980s and early 2000s, the committee believes that computing’s deep and growing penetration in virtually all sectors of the economy, all academic disciplines, and all aspects of modern life, and the broad opportunities in computing in both the labor market and for enabling a host of intellectual pursuits, will continue to be drivers of increasing enrollments in undergraduate computer science, from both majors and non-majors. There will probably be fluctuations in the demand for CS and related courses, but the longer-term trend is likely to be high or growing numbers of enrollments for many years to come.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that the way institutions respond (or not) can itself have a significant impact on future enrollments and the health of the field. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that the historical fluctuations in CS enrollment may have been, at least in part, a result of institutional actions to limit student numbers.
DIVERSITY IN A TIME OF BOOMING ENROLLMENTS
Computer science is one of the least diverse disciplines in terms of the representation of women and underrepresented minorities, both in higher education and in the workforce. Many ongoing efforts are under way to improve diversity in the field, and it is of acute interest to understand the potential implications of increasing enrollments on these efforts.
Women and underrepresented minorities make up a larger fraction of CIS bachelor’s degree recipients at for-profit institutions than at not-for-profit institutions, and they are less well represented in core CS than in CIS more broadly.4 Between 2009 and 2015 the average percentage of CIS degrees conferred to Hispanic students increased somewhat, as has representation of this group among college graduates in general, from 7.1 to 9.4 percent for CIS (and 6.5 to 8.6 percent for core CS) at not-for-profit institutions. The percentage of degrees going to black or African American students at not-for-profit institutions decreased from 9.4 to
4 Here, “CIS” refers to the IPEDS CIP 11, “Computer and Information Science and Support Services;” “core CS” refers to the subset of this category including 11.0101, “computer and information sciences, general,” and 11.0701, “computer science.”
7.9 percent for IS (and from 8.7 to 6.1 percent for core CS) during this time. The percentage of CIS degrees going to women has changed little since 2009, remaining around 18 percent across all race/ethnic groups; the share of core CS degrees going to women is lower, but increased slightly, from 13.6 to 15.9 percent from 2011 to 2015. Although relative representation is not generally increasing, the increasing numbers of both majors and non-majors interested in CS could be a source for engaging more women and underrepresented minorities.
According to the HERI Cooperative Institutional Research Program national survey of freshmen, the relative growth in the percentage of freshmen intending to major in CS was higher for female freshmen than for males, and intent to major in CS is also rising among underrepresented minorities. The CRA Enrollments Survey results also indicate, along with increasing enrollments overall, a larger percentage of CS course and program enrollments comprising female and underrepresented minority students among responding institutions. This increase in participation is likely due to many factors, including a host of broadening participation efforts for women and underrepresented minorities in computing at the K-12 and undergraduate levels.
While prospects for diversity look positive, it is important to recall that increasing participation among women and underrepresented groups may not translate to an increased share of all CS degrees or enrollments, because the absolute number of participants is increasing among all groups. Furthermore, retention upon entering a CS program is not guaranteed, and women and underrepresented minorities have higher rates of attrition.
In the face of increasing enrollments institutions would do well to take lessons from the past. The share of CIS and CS bachelor’s degrees going to women decreased precipitously beginning in the mid-1980s, and again during the dot-com bust. These drops coincided with past peaks in CS degree production, suggesting that high-enrollment conditions or the actions taken by institutions in response to these surges may have contributed to the decrease in representation of women in undergraduate CS during these times. Enrollment management actions taken by institutions in times of high enrollment can be implemented to avoid long-term detrimental effects on diversity in their programs, and to support a culture of inclusivity.
INSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGES AND STRATEGIES
Departments facing sharp increases in demand for computing courses have experienced significant strain on a wide range of resources. Failure to respond thoughtfully to the demand and the resource deficits will result in negative conditions for students, faculty, the programs, and/or the institution as a whole in the near or long term.
The most common resource challenges that surveyed departments face include increased faculty workload; too few faculty, instructors, or teaching as-
sistants; increased need for academic undergraduate advisers and administrative support; and increased need for classroom, lab, and office space. Finding enough faculty is a particular problem. Data from the CRA Enrollments Survey and CRA’s Taulbee Survey indicate that from 2006 to 2015, a period of significant growth in CS majors, the relative increase in tenure-track CS faculty at research institutions surveyed was about one-tenth of the increase in the number of CS majors. Ph.D.s represent a relatively small fraction of degrees in CS, and in recent years most Ph.D.s have taken jobs in industry. This has major implications for the ability of institutions to fill faculty positions and hire short-term or contract lecturers.
U.S. institutions of higher education have differing missions, priorities, and business models, and serve different populations with different needs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for responding to enrollment increases. Decisions about how to deal with high demand for courses must be made based on each institution’s needs and priorities. Although approaches and best practices will differ by the type and mission of institutions, there is a common need to assess the role of computer science and computing and make strategic plans. These plans must address realistically and effectively the demand for courses, student interests and needs, faculty and staff workloads, research and teaching allocations, and physical resources. At all institutions, there is an opportunity to reassess the role of computer science and to consider changes that go beyond the current challenges and position the institution for future success.
In light of the diversity among institutions, the committee did not attempt to recommend universal courses of action. Instead, the committee identified a range of potential strategies that could be pursued alone or in combination, and the advantages and risks of each, along with key areas for self-assessment to inform institutional action. The reader is referred to the full discussion in Chapter 6 as a guide to support planning and decision making at institutions of all types. The nature and availability of instructional resources (faculty and teaching staff, teaching assistants, support staff, facilities and associated equipment, and other local or regional resources) will affect an institution’s ability to respond to demand for CS courses via any of the particular strategies.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
FINDING 1: National bachelor’s degree production in computer and information science and support services at not-for-profit institutions increased significantly between 2009 and 2015 (by 74 percent), above and beyond the general rate of increase of bachelor’s degree production overall (16 percent) during this period. Over the longer term, the rate of growth has varied, with two notable large declines but with a positive long-term trend, and it has differed by institution type and among individual institutions.
FINDING 2: Enrollments in CS courses and the number of CS majors have risen markedly since 2005 at many institutions, and there is no indication that enrollments will fall in the near term. Both CS majors and non-majors have contributed significantly to the recent growth in enrollment in undergraduate CS courses. Information about current program enrollment trends suggests that the boom in enrollments has only begun to register in the national data on CS degree production, and that CS bachelor’s degree completions will rise sharply for at least the next few years in the absence of institutional actions to limit or discourage participation in the major.
FINDING 3: With more than half of new CS Ph.D.s drawn to opportunities in industry, hiring and retaining CS faculty is currently an acute challenge that limits institutions’ abilities to respond to increasing CS enrollments.
FINDING 4: Employment in computing fields has grown steadily since 1975, and the number of jobs in computing occupations far exceeds bachelor’s degree production in CS. The BLS projects that employment in computer occupations will rise more quickly than overall job growth for at least the next several years.
FINDING 5: Computing is pervasive, and its penetration is deep and growing in virtually all sectors of the economy, all academic disciplines, and all aspects of modern life. The broad opportunities in computing, both in the labor market and for enabling a host of intellectual pursuits, will continue to be drivers of increasing enrollments in undergraduate computer science, from both majors and non-majors. While there will probably be fluctuations in the demand for CS courses, demand is likely to continue to grow or remain high over the long term.
FINDING 6: CS and CIS have historically had low representation of women and underrepresented minorities. This trend of underrepresentation in bachelor’s degree completions had not improved significantly as of 2015, but there is some evidence that representation may be improving among students currently majoring or interested in majoring in CS.
FINDING 7: There is no guarantee that the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in CS will improve without a focused effort. Retention is always a challenge, and adverse conditions associated with high demand for courses—as well as actions taken by institutions in order to manage enrollments—could negatively impact the inclusiveness of undergraduate computing programs.
FINDING 8: Departments facing sharp increases in demand for computing courses have experienced significant strain on a wide range of resources. Failure to respond thoughtfully to the demand and the resource deficits will result in adverse conditions for students, faculty, the programs, and the institution as a whole in the near or long term. Conditions such as an unwelcoming academic climate and loss of faculty members can be especially harmful in the long term.
FINDING 9: U.S. institutions of higher education have differing missions, priorities, and business models, and serve different populations with different needs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for responding to enrollment increases. However, all institutions need to assess the role of computer science and related fields and make strategic plans to address realistically and effectively the high demand for courses, student interests and needs, faculty and staff workloads, research and teaching allocations, and physical resources. At all institutions there is an opportunity to reassess the role of CS and computing and to consider changes that go beyond the current challenges and position the institution for future success.
In light of the preceding findings, the committee sees both an urgent need and an opportunity to evaluate strategically the role of computer science and related fields at academic institutions and plan for a compelling future where student, departmental, institutional, and national needs can be met.
RECOMMENDATION 1: The leaders of the institutions of higher education that have experienced rapid increases in computer science course enrollments should take deliberate actions to address this trend with a sense of urgency.
RECOMMENDATION 2: A range of actions should be considered as part of a comprehensive institutional strategy, from targeted controls on enrollments or resource additions to meet demand, to more extensive institutional changes that extend beyond the computer science department.
RECOMMENDATION 2.1: Institutions experiencing a computer science enrollment surge should seriously consider an increase in resources to address the rising workload on faculty and staff in computer science and related departments, and the limitations arising from inadequate facilities.
RECOMMENDATION 2.2: Some institutions may view the imposition of limits on enrollment in computer science and related courses as desirable or unavoidable. However, before imposing limits on
course or major enrollments, the consequences of doing so should be considered comprehensively, and the benefits and costs weighed for the entire university community.
RECOMMENDATION 2.3: Institutional leadership should engage directly with computer science departments or programs to develop appropriate faculty hiring and faculty size targets, and develop strategies to improve faculty retention. Increasing the number and enhancing the role of academic-rank teaching faculty should be given serious consideration.
RECOMMENDATION 2.4: Larger institutions—in particular, research universities—should reevaluate the organizational placement of the computer science department and other departmental units with a computational mission.
RECOMMENDATION 2.5: Institutions should pursue innovative strategies for using technology to deliver high-quality instruction at scale to large numbers of students, and pursue additional, creative strategies for meeting demand for quality computer science courses and skills development among the entire student body.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Institutions should take deliberate actions to support diversity in their computer science and related programs. In particular:
RECOMMENDATION 3.1: Institutions should assess how computer science enrollment growth—and any actions or strategies for responding to it—affects the diversity of their student bodies, and deliberately align their actions and the culture of their programs with best practices for diversity and retention.
RECOMMENDATION 3.2: Institutions should leverage the increasing interest in computer science and related fields, among both non-majors and intended majors, to engage, recruit, and retain more women and underrepresented minorities into the field to help address the diversity problem proactively.
RECOMMENDATION 4: The National Science Foundation (NSF) can be especially helpful in advancing undergraduate computer science education in the context of increasing enrollments, for both majors and non-majors. The following actions should receive serious consideration:
RECOMMENDATION 4.1: Use NSF’s convening power to bring computer science faculty and institutional leaders together to identify best practices and innovation in computer science education in times of limited departmental resources. This should include assessment of the computer science skills and knowledge needed in non–computer science academic disciplines.
RECOMMENDATION 4.2: Support research on how best to use technology in teaching large classes. Such research should be multidisciplinary, spanning learning sciences, educational pedagogy for computer science, development and deployment of assessment instruments, and technology design.
RECOMMENDATION 4.3: Support research to advance the understanding of best practices for diversity in computing, including rigorous and longitudinal assessment of the efficacy of specific institutional practices, especially those taken or considered in times of high enrollments. This research should be multidisciplinary, with experts in both micro- and macro-level social science research, statistics, computer science education, and diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and computing.
RECOMMENDATION 4.4: Create an initiative to expand instructional resources in computer science, informed by an understanding of the constraints and dynamics of the supply and demand for computer science Ph.D.s. This might include research support and doctoral fellowships for domestic computer science undergraduates, and support for incorporating teaching into computer science doctoral programs and junior faculty research.
RECOMMENDATION 5: Computer science departments and the computing industry should develop new partnerships to help higher education meet workforce needs, continue to graduate well-prepared students, encourage industry to provide increased support for research funding, and allow a better exchange of Ph.D.-level researchers between academia and industry.
RECOMMENDATION 6: Public institutions produce a significant fraction of each state’s workforce and the nation’s computer science undergraduate degrees. States should provide sufficient support to their public institutions to enable them to support fully their academic missions, including with respect to computer science education.
RECOMMENDATION 7: To prepare students better for the expanding role of computing in academia, industry, and daily life underlying the increase in interest in computer science, government agencies and states should support local, state, and national programs for computing education for the purpose of increasing exposure to computing, computational principles, information security, and data analytics throughout the K-12 pipeline.
RECOMMENDATION 8: Actions should be taken to facilitate an improved understanding of national undergraduate enrollment trends by improving the primary data available about them, and facilitating the availability of those data in a timely fashion. In particular, the following actions should be considered:
RECOMMENDATION 8.1: Improved data sources about undergraduate enrollment should be pursued by federal and state governments in collaboration with academic institutions. To the extent possible, data should be made available in a time frame where the information can be useful for academic and government planning purposes.
RECOMMENDATION 8.2: The taxonomies and classifications for undergraduate computing degrees and jobs should be reexamined and updated, so that those used in national statistics are more easily brought into alignment, and map more directly to the current organization of computer science and related fields in higher education.
RECOMMENDATION 8.3: In the absence of comprehensive national statistics, the computer science community, in collaboration with education, social sciences, and statistics researchers, should continue to pursue or refine effective strategies for tracking enrollment, retention, and graduation rates and measuring student diversity.
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