The Real Story on CS Enrollments

Ed Lazowska, Chair of the Computing Community Consortium, has a passionate post today on the CCC Blog about what the latest numbers from CRA’s Taulbee Survey really mean. The news is not, he points out, that computer science bachelors degrees show another year of decline — that was completely predictable from the enrollment statistics for freshman CS majors published four years ago in the survey. The real news (as we noted back in March) is that for the first time in many years, freshman interest in CS as a major increased and enrollments have stabilized — indicating that perhaps we may have turned a corner. What’s responsible for the turnaround? According to Lazowska:

[B]y far the most important factors are (a) the job market (or people’s sense of the job market), and (b) the level of “buzz” associated with the field.
Let’s start by considering graduate enrollment, rather than undergraduate enrollment. For the past 15 years, the number of Ph.D.s granted annually in computer science has been in the 900-1100 range. Suddenly, though, in the past 2 years, it has climbed to 1800. Why is this? The answer is totally obvious:

  • In 2001, lots of startup companies went bust.
  • This dumped onto the job market a number of the best bachelors graduates from a few years before, who now had two or three years of experience under their belts.
  • This made it hard for some excellent new bachelors graduates of 2001 and 2002 to get the super-exciting jobs they had anticipated — they were competing with people whose academic records were every bit as good as theirs, but who also had 2 or 3 years of experience working at a hot startup.
  • Because these great new bachelors graduates couldn’t get exciting jobs, they went to graduate school instead.
  • And, mirabile dictu, 6 years later, they’re emerging with Ph.D.s.

This is not a news flash — it didn’t take a genius to predict, a few years ago, that it was going to happen, and it doesn’t take a genius to explain it, either.
Similarly for bachelors degrees. Starting in about 2002, there was lots of news about the tech bust. Tech was no longer sexy. Jobs were no longer plentiful. Subsequently, there was a lot of misleading information about the impact of offshoring. And the newspapers never bothered to report that by late 2004, US IT employment was back to the 2000-2001 level — we had fully recovered from the bust — somehow that wasn’t considered newsworthy. So it’s not surprising that interest in bachelors programs decreased sharply, and that 4 and 5 years later, the number of degrees granted precisely mirrored this decline.
Also, it’s not surprising that things are turning around. Google is hot. Tech in general is hot. There are startups everywhere. It’s clear to anyone that there are plenty of jobs. (By the way, given the incredible state of today’s bachelors job market, it doesn’t take a genius to predict that the number of Ph.D. graduates in 2014 will show a decline. When you read the scary headlines 6 years from now, remember that you heard it here first!)

Ed also talks about the experience at his institution, the University of Washington, tries to put the “crisis” in computer science in perspective by offering up some comparisons to the other science and engineering disciplines, and emphasizes the bright outlook suggested by various Dept. of Labor workforce projections (pdf). In typical Lazowska style, it’s a forceful but accurate refutation of the standard story on CS enrollments we’ve seen for the last few years. It’s definitely worth a read (and comment!) over at the excellent CCC Blog (Disclaimer: CCC is an activity of CRA, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome.)

The Real Story on CS Enrollments