This article is published in the February 2021 issue.

Expanding the Pipeline – Minding the Gaps in the CS Pipeline: The MSCS Degree

Education presents a complex and confusing landscape. The traditional view of a CS education pipeline flowing from elementary through secondary, postsecondary, and graduate education is an oversimplification – one that may hinder our efforts to diversify computing. This simplification encourages a focus on educational efforts based on retention across stages and the traditional transitions between them, ignoring the fact that successful students may enter or re-enter CS education through a variety of nonstandard onramps.

One area for nontraditional onramps that remains largely unexplored is the post-graduate domain. Having completed college, most graduates have little or no access to high-quality education and training. Yet with decades of employment ahead of them, today’s post-graduate population could be a valuable source of tech talent and diversity. Post-grad onramps could be used by college graduates with CS-related degrees in upskilling, and by college graduates from other disciplines in switching into tech or adding CS competencies to their existing skills. Current employees would have avenues for further advancement, and displaced or underemployed workers avenues for reentering the job market. Those coming from other disciplines might well offer greater diversity in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, disability, and perspectives, creating a CS-enabled workforce that is more expansive, more inclusive, more productive, and more innovative.

A variety of programs could be used to close the post-grad education gap. B2B certificate programs could build tech resumes, focusing on current, essential topics such as cybersecurity, machine learning, and AI. Affordable BSCS degree completion programs for those holding Associate Degrees in CS-related fields (especially if compatible with holding a full-time job) could provide significant upskilling and bring additional diversity to an expanding tech workforce. MSCS programs that accommodate those with undergraduate degrees in fields other than computing could expand and diversify the tech workforce. Mentored research experiences in academia or industry might encourage BS and MS students to continue to a Ph.D. and a career in research. Pre-Ph.D. programs could help students with computing-related degrees burnish their resume in order to gain admission to competitive Ph.D. programs at top departments, increasing their access to academic careers.

A variety of programs or pilot programs now exist in each of these spaces. But current efforts are too small and too scattered, and are unlikely to provide the scale needed to solve national CS shortages or increase diversity. We do, however, have the potential to build upon successful existing efforts with particular attention to onramps that focus on increasing diversity.

One post-grad onramp that is already established – and is in fact beginning to scale – is MSCS programs aimed at those who did not major in CS for their undergraduate degrees. A successful example is the Align Program at Northeastern University [1], designed specifically for students entering with undergraduate degrees in something other than the computing-related disciplines; even prior experience with coding is not required.

Northeastern’s Align program. Align students start with an intensive, two-semester Bridge curriculum that brings them up to speed, preparing them to take Master’s level CS courses right along with the Northeastern direct-entry MS students who were CS majors as undergraduates. It differs from traditional Post Baccalaureate programs because it is not a full undergraduate curriculum. Instead, it covers the core learning outcomes of Northeastern University’s BS in CS as well as the Core-Tier 1 topics and learning outcomes in the ACM/IEEE-Computer Society Guidelines for Undergraduate Curricula in CS.  The Bridge develops students’ skills in software development, theory and systems as well as their ability to work collaboratively.  A co-curricular seminar series exposes students to potential areas of specialization, showing them the breadth of computer applications and careers. In keeping with Northeastern’s focus on experiential learning, “Aligners” also have the opportunity to do an internship or co-op in industry.

The Align staff provides specialized marketing and recruiting to reach prospective students who represent a diversity of background, socioeconomics, race, ethnicity, and gender. They also provide students with an inclusive environment and a range of academic support, career advising and programming that ensures their success:

  • Math Prep: Align students who are concerned about their math background or recency can take a free, two-week refresher Math Prep course immediately before beginning the Bridge. Pointers to free online math materials are available throughout the Bridge in a just-in-time manner.
  • TAs and tutoring: TAs are deployed in a 10:1 ratio instead of the 25:1 ratio used in most Northeastern classes. This allows Aligners to more easily get support from and build relationships with more senior students. Students needing additional support are provided with individual and/or small group tutors.
  • Mentorship: In partnership with a company called the Mentor Collective, Northeastern provides near-peer, 1-1 mentoring for students during the Bridge and offers numerous mentorship programs each year in partnership with industry.
  • Experiential Learning: Students are encouraged and trained to pursue co-ops or internships or research projects, or to engage in project-based learning.
  • Belonging: TAs are trained on creating inclusive environments. All students are invited to participate in an Identity Series which focuses on the intersection of identity and CS centering BIPOC voices.  A student-led club, called Code 4 the Culture, builds community among Black and LatinX students.

Once the Bridge is completed, students continue directly into the MS program.  Direct admission acknowledges that students’ previous academic backgrounds and degrees are important contributors to their professional development and increase the overall diversity of thought in our field.

The Align program has been very successful and is in high demand. From its start in Seattle in 2013, the program is now offered now at six sites in Northeastern’s Global Network of campuses: Boston MA, Seattle WA, Silicon Valley CA, San Francisco CA, Portland ME, and Vancouver BC. In 2013 the program had just 11 students; In fall 2020, despite the pandemic, it had 1,187 enrolled students coming from 120 different undergraduate majors. Though still evolving, Align’s diversity numbers are good: 52% of students are female and 15% of the domestic students are from the other underrepresented groups in computing. Retention is also good:  from Semester 1 to Semester 2 retention averages around 92%; from Semester 2 to the MS it averages 90%; and once Aligners have started the MS portion of the program, nearly 100% of them continue on to graduation. Finally, in one point-in-time survey, Align students outperformed Northeastern’s direct admit MS students, getting a higher percentage of grades in both the range [4.0, 3.9) and the range [3.0, 3.8).

MSCS as the new MBA? Northeastern began this work with the premise that CS skills are essential to all sectors of our economy – today every company is a tech company – and that the MSCS degree is broadly needed. Much like the MBA, the MSCS could become a degree open to students from a wide range of disciplines that prepares them for a wide range of careers. The MSCS degree, however, will not achieve MBA status through the efforts of any single institution. A much larger community is needed. It is our belief that, like the MBA, MSCS degrees should be made nationally accessible to graduates from any discipline: a professional degree that people can access, succeed in, and leverage along any career path, regardless of prior experience or knowledge in computing.

MS Pathways to Computing Consortium. To pioneer that larger community, twelve institutions – Clemson University, Colorado School of Mines, Columbia University, DePaul University, George Mason University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Tufts University, University of California Riverside, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of North Texas and the University of South Florida – have joined Northeastern in forming the MS Pathways to Computing Consortium.

The Consortium is a networked community of colleges and universities working collaboratively to expand pathways into computing with MSCS degrees for post grads who were not CS majors, with a particular focus on women, people of color, and first-generation students. The programs that member institutions run differ in a number of ways. They differ, for example, in whether they have a specifically designed “bridge” program or simply a required sequence of undergraduate CS courses that must be completed before entering the MS, and in whether the MS program is seen primarily as a professional MS with most graduates going on to industry jobs or as a stepping stone to a Ph.D. program. They also differ in the extent to which the program is primarily online or face-to-face. Some of the programs encourage students to have experiential internships or academic research experiences as part of their programs. Some offer certificates for completing the bridge part of the program, while others package bridge and MS courses together as a single program.

Despite their differences, members of the Consortium work together to solve common problems and learn from each other. They are developing a common data framework to enable the measurement of joint progress.  They are building a common set of resources and a shared marketing campaign with strategies for reaching students from underrepresented groups.  Consortium members are jointly applying for grants to provide scholarships and a virtual community for minoritized students as well as grants that would allow more MS students to have opportunities for research experiences with the expectation that some will continue on to Ph.D.s.

Consortium members are developing common goals with specific, measurable outcomes, and they are collaborating to develop best practices in achieving those goals, aiming not just to understand “whether some practice works,” but to understand “factors needed to make it work reliably and across a range of universities and colleges.” The Consortium will be a source of innovation, providing social connections to accelerate testing and the understanding of new approaches to recruitment, curriculum, teaching, and student support services. This will allow institutions to choose among innovations and best practices based on data, adapt them appropriately for their local environment, and identify where further innovation is needed. It is our hope that these joint efforts will speed the implementation of additional MS in computing programs across the country.

Scaling this onramp nationally. Institutions interested in starting their own MSCS programs for non-CS majors or joining the Consortium should contact the authors.

Next steps. MSCS programs offer just some of the onramps in the post-grad space. Many more are possible. The CISE Directorate at the National Science Foundation, for example, has just announced the CSGrad4US Fellowships that provide a pathway for CS bachelor’s degree holders who have been in the workforce for 2-5 years to return to academia and pursue research-based doctoral degrees. Applicants must address how they expect to contribute to the diversity of the field in their applications. The Fellows will have a year-long preparation program that includes mentoring, community building as well as assistance in identifying a graduate program, finding a research mentor and applying to graduate programs. Once accepted in to a CISE-related graduate program, they will receive a Fellowship covering a stipend and part of their tuition and school related expenses for up to 3 years.

There may be many other creative ways of providing onramps for post grads, both with and without CS degrees. As a community we should encourage piloting and scaling activities in this space, thereby creating a larger, richer CS community more diverse in gender, race, ethnicity and thought.

[1] Carla Brodley, e.t al. “An MS in CS for non-CS Majors: Moving to Increase Diversity of Thought and Demographics in CS,” SIGCSE ’20 Proceedings of the 51st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, February 2020, pp 1248–1254

About the authors

Jan Cuny, Consultant on DEI issues for both Northeastern University and the University of Washington, formerly the Global Director of the Align Program, Northeastern University.

Carla Brodley, Dean of Khoury College of Computer Science and Executive Director for the Center for Inclusive Computing.

Andrea Danyluk, Professor of Computer Science at Williams College, currently Co-Chair of CRA-WP and a Distinguished Member of ACM for contributions to computing education.

Ian Gorton, Professor of the Practice, Northeastern University and Director of Graduate programs for the Khoury College of Computing Sciences in Seattle.

Catherine Gill, Managing Director of the Center for Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University, previously part of the leadership team for the Align MSCS at Khoury College of Computer Sciences.

Jodi Tims, Executive Director of Khoury College in the Global Network and currently Chair of the Association for Computing Machinery’s committee on Women (ACM-W).

Expanding the Pipeline – Minding the Gaps in the CS Pipeline: The MSCS Degree