College computer science enrollment skyrockets
October 22, 1998
by Bronwyn Fryer
(IDG) -- Mike Clancy, a senior lecturer in the computer science department at the University of California at Berkeley, is facing a serious information technology skills shortage. And it's a shortage every bit as dire as the highly publicized one facing corporate managers across the U.S.
Clancy coordinates lower-division undergraduate courses for the computer science department. And he simply can't find enough graduate-student assistants. He desperately needs them to help teach the huge influx of students currently entering the computer science and engineering programs.
"Our enrollments are higher than ever," Clancy says. "It's very difficult to hire teaching assistants for all the students who need attention."
And when the graduate students are found, it's equally difficult to hang on to them, Clancy explains. Just last year, a mediocre student who worked at the department as a $9-per-hour tutor got another job as an on-campus systems manager -- to the far-sweeter tune of $27 per hour.
Clancy's dilemma is being repeated on campuses nationwide as the flood of students enrolling in computer science, electrical engineering and IT courses keeps rising. The trend of declining enrollments that began in the early 1980s and continued into the early 1990s has reversed itself -- with a vengeance.
Today, campuses are reporting skyrocketing enrollments in virtually all computer-related fields. Many schools have reported increases in IT enrollments by 40% or more within two years. Some say their enrollments are doubling. And schools such as Berkeley are seeing a critical shortage of qualified teachers.
Eleanor Jordan, information systems chair of the Department of Management Science and Information at the University of Texas at Austin, says enrollment in computer science and management IT programs at the university have nearly doubled in the past two years. The reason: the publicity surrounding the large number of job vacancies and high salaries.
"Students see these as exciting fields where there are lots of jobs and they can make a lot of money," Jordan says. Like Berkeley, the University of Texas recently has struggled with staffing issues in the IT programs. "We can't grow the tenure track fast enough," Jordan says.
A healthy student body?
Although the quantity of students is up, the quality may be down
Does increased enrollments mean that hiring organizations should breathe a collective sigh of relief? Not quite yet. Even as the number of students enrolling in computer-related courses increases, the quality of students enrolling appears to be declining.
Jordan, for one, has observed a slight drop in the ability of lower-division undergraduates. She attributes that to the fact that, as a major, computer science is now widely perceived by college students as a more attractive major than one with more of a business focus, such as IT management. That may be because the word "computer" is in the major's title, leading students to associate it with a career in computers.
The recent interest in computer science is, in part, because of the fact that the current crop of students spent their teen-age years playing games and hanging out in chat rooms. But once they enroll in their first programming class, they quickly learn hard new lessons. Many new enrollees find that they can't quite cut the computer science mustard.
"We're seeing a lot of kids coming into computer science but not making it through the first course," Jordan says. "Students appear to have more interest than ability."
Another, much longer-term, problem has to do with the gender gap. Although male students continually sign up for computer science programs, women, in general, apparently aren't interested in joining their scientific club.
An ongoing study by University of Alabama professor Tracy Camp indicates that the number of female undergraduates in computer science has shrunk by 24% in the past decade, and those levels are stubbornly staying put. At some prestigious universities, such as Berkeley, the number of women in computer science "is holding at about 20%," Clancy says.
Why is that the case? Because computer sciences are still largely perceived by women as unappealing, even compared with electronic engineering or the management-related role of IT manager, observers note. That may be because computer science courses, which center on hard-core technical and programming skills, are frequently male-dominated.
But even though women are staying away from the demanding courses of computer science, they appear to be less averse to business-related programs in IT management, says Jack Callon, director of new program development within the School of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).
"The MIS program in the business school at San Jose State is loaded with women," Callon notes, adding that "a great MIS person is someone who wants to major in marketing, who happens to have technical aptitude."
The discipline problem
It isn't easy to define what discipline a computer science major is in
Academia also appears to have a problem sorting out one discipline from the next. "One of the big issues is that the disciplinary boundaries are so fuzzy," says Barbara Simons, president of the Association of Computing Machinery in New York. Academia tends to break computer-related concerns into finer and finer particles, but students may have trouble understanding which major is which.
At Berkeley, for example, computer-related studies encompass computer engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, applied math and basic sciences. Some of those areas are put under the umbrella of a College of Engineering, while areas such as IT management are often put under the rubric of Letters and Science.
But while colleges and universities struggle with defining what a computer science major is and isn't, industry must deal with an incoming workforce of graduates that it perceives to be inadequately prepared to face its fast-changing needs.
John Keast, vice president and CIO at PG&E Corp. in San Francisco, said schools need to do a better job of making their graduates attractive to employers. He added that he didn't care about academic definitions of degree programs.
"CIOs are measured by how well they deliver systems that meet business requirements," Keast says. "For me, it's a question of finding a graduate that has successfully melded computer science principles with business focus."
How does Keast think universities are doing in preparing graduates for this challenge? "Not very well," he says.
Some observers within academia agreed with Keast. Callon says what's needed is a whole new way of thinking about computer-related curricula --one that more directly reflects the broader needs of the real world.
"Look, there's technology everywhere in the business world -- in research, product development, manufacturing, sales and marketing, design and implementation, and in the user community, too," Callon says.
"A university should be able to offer various program choices to address each of these various dimensions," he says.
Some schools already are coming up with new programs that encompass both business and technical curricula. Take, for example, the growing number of colleges and universities that offer MBA degrees in technology ["The top 25 techno-MBAs," CW, May 19, 1997]. Callon, too, is starting a new class at UCSC that he calls "information systems management," which he contrasts to the business-school area of ITmanagement.
"It's in the College of Engineering, but combines courses like economics, business and computer courses," Callon says. And he says internships are important, letting students learn to hold down a real job.
"In real estate, the most important thing is location, location, location," he says. "For a student who wants a good job, it's experience, experience, experience."
Fryer is a freelance writer in Santa Cruz, Calif.
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