Oct. 26, 2017


Colleges and Universities Should Take Action to Address Surge of Enrollments in Computer Science

WASHINGTON – U.S. colleges and universities should respond with urgency to the current surge in undergraduate enrollments in computer science courses and degree programs, which is straining resources at many institutions, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report examines the benefits and drawbacks of a range of strategies that institutions could pursue in response – such as adding faculty and resources, imposing targeted controls on enrollment, or using innovative technologies to deliver instruction to large numbers of students, among many other options. 

An important factor driving the enrollment surge is the labor market, where the number of computing jobs far exceeds the number of computer science graduates being produced. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in computer occupations in and beyond the technology sector grew by nearly a factor of 20 between 1975 and 2015 – nearly twice as fast as the production of bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science and support services. In particular, expertise in cybersecurity, data science, and machine learning are in high demand.

“While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, all institutions of higher education need to make strategic plans to realistically and effectively address the growing student demand for these courses,” said Susanne Hambrusch, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, and professor of computer science at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. “The way colleges and universities respond to the surge in student interest and enrollment can have a significant impact on the health of the discipline.”

As institutions respond to growing enrollments, the report says, they should monitor the effects of their actions on the diversity of their student body in computer science – currently one of the least diverse disciplines -- and take deliberate steps to increase it.

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded nationally in computer and information science has increased by 74 percent at not-for-profit institutions since 2009, compared to a 16 percent increase in bachelor’s degrees produced overall. Assuming no artificial limits are imposed, the number of students attaining computer science bachelor’s degrees will likely rise sharply for at least the next several years. 

The increasing demand for computer science courses is not limited to those majoring in the field, the report says; interest in these courses has grown at a similar rate among non-majors, reflecting the increasing importance of computing skills across occupational fields and in daily life. As they make their plans, colleges and universities should be strategic and consider the role of computing across the institution and for the long term.

Rising enrollments are straining program resources at many institutions, the report says. The most common challenges cited by departments include increased faculty workload; too few faculty, instructors, or teaching assistants; greater need for academic undergraduate advisers and administrative support; and increased need for classroom, lab, and office space. In recent years over half of new Ph.D.s in computer science have taken jobs in industry, posing challenges to finding faculty. Data indicate that from 2006 to 2015, the average increase in tenure-track computer science faculty at research institutions was only about one-tenth of the increase in the number of computer science majors.

The report recommends that college and university leaders work with their computer science departments to develop appropriate targets for faculty size and strategies for hiring and retaining faculty. Institutions should also seriously consider increasing the number of academic-rank teaching faculty.

While some institutions may view imposing limits on enrollment in computer science programs and courses as desirable or inevitable, they should carefully consider the consequences before doing so, the report says. Such limits may cut students off from their true passion, and they may introduce an environment of real or perceived competition among students who desire to enter a program, which could discourage participation among underrepresented groups. At the same time, institutions should not accept students with the promise of entering a major when constraints on resources make their admission into the program unlikely.

The report explores the benefits and risks of these and many other strategies, from using technology for teaching to creating new colleges of computer science. “Every approach has benefits and costs, and leaders will need to select strategies and make trade-offs that are appropriate to their institution’s mission and values,” said committee co-chair Jared Cohon, President Emeritus and University Professor of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “We hope our report will be useful as leaders plan for the future role of computer science at institutions of higher learning.”

Colleges and universities should take deliberate actions to support diversity in their computer science and related programs, the report stresses. The longstanding under-representation of women and some minority groups among computer science bachelor’s degree recipients had not improved significantly as of 2015, the last year for which national data are available, but there is some evidence that representation may be improving among students currently majoring in or interested in majoring in computer science. Institutions should align their actions and the culture of their programs with best practices for supporting diversity and retention, and should leverage the growing interest as an opportunity to recruit and retain more women and underrepresented minorities into the field.

The National Science Foundation can be helpful in advancing undergraduate computer science education in the current context of increasing enrollments, for both majors and non-majors, the report adds. The agency should consider bringing computer science faculty and institutional leaders together to identify best practices and innovation in computer science education across the entire student body. The agency could also support research on how best to use technology in teaching large classes, and on best practices for supporting diversity in computing.  In addition, NSF should consider creating an initiative to expand instructional resources for undergraduate computer science education.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org

Sara Frueh, Media Relations Officer
Joshua Blatt, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
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Policy and Global Affairs Division
Board on Higher Education and the Workforce
Committee on the Growth of Computer Science Undergraduate Enrollments


Jared Leigh Cohon* (co-chair)
University Professor
Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy
College of Engineering, and
President Emeritus
Carnegie Mellon University

Susanne E. Hambrusch (co-chair)
Professor of Computer Science
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Ind.

Brian Blake
Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
Drexel University

Tracy Camp
Department Head and Professor
Department of Computer Science
Colorado School of Mines

David E. Culler*
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
University of California

Susan B. Davidson
Weiss Professor of Computer and Information Science
University of Pennsylvania

Brian K. Fitzgerald
Business-Higher Education Forum
Washington, D.C.

Ann Q. Gates
Professor and Chair
Computer Science Department
University of Texas
El Paso

Charles Isbell
Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
College of Computing
Georgia Institute of Technology

Clas A. Jacobson
Chief Scientist, Controls
United Technologies Corp.
East Hartford, Conn.

Michael S. McPherson
Spencer Foundation

Eric Roberts
Charles Simonyi Professor of Computer Science (emeritus)
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Valerie Taylor
Mathematics and Computer Science Division
Argonne National Laboratory
Lemont, Ill.

Jodi Tims
Professor of Computer Science
Baldwin Wallace University
Berea, Ohio

Sarah E. Turner
University Professor of Economics and Education
Department of Economics
University of Virginia



Emily Grumbling
Staff Officer

Tom Rudin
Board on Higher Education and Workforce

* Member, National Academy of Engineering