Falling Behind

Even though colleges have increased production of computer science bachelor’s degrees, it’s not enough to fill the jobs available in the field, according to a new report.

October 27, 2017
 
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Colleges can’t seem to keep up with computers.

The growing number of jobs in the computing field far outpaces how many students are earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science and similar fields, according to a lengthy new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

The continued demand for computer science programs at colleges and universities has strained faculty workloads, especially as more and more students enroll. Of those students, few are women or from underrepresented minority groups, and that’s not likely to change unless academe begins targeting those populations.

These are the takeaways from the report -- and the national academies have suggestions, though they stressed some solutions will vary by institution.

“Strains on educational institutions are significant,” the report reads. “There is a growing sense of an impending crisis in many universities.”

The academies’ recommendations are as follows:

  • Colleges and universities should consider funneling more resources into their computer science departments to address professors' increasing workload. Administrators should be working with their departments to develop new goals on faculty and staff retention and seriously mull increasing those numbers and the academic rank of those professors.
  • It’s temping for institutions to enforce caps on computer course or major enrollment -- but that decision should be weighed carefully.
  • Computer science courses should be taught creatively with a heavy focus on technology for “high-quality instruction.”
  • Institutions should try to increase interest in computer science programs among their students -- both those people who intend to major in it and not, and be deliberate in recruiting and keeping more women and black, Hispanic, Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native students.
  • Partnerships should be developed among colleges and universities and industry professionals. This could also encourage certain companies to provide research funding.
  • Because computer scientists are so in demand, and public institutions train them, states should be providing more money to help boost the work force in this area.
  • Education on the importance of computer science should begin in kindergarten through secondary school.
  • Trends in undergraduate enrollment should be tracked better, and government at all levels should be working better with colleges to understand these data and how they can be used to influence decisions on academic programs.

The report also mentions increasing reliance on the National Science Foundation’s resources.

Computer sciences were previously merged in with larger departments, as were engineering programs. As time went on, they emerged as their own separate entities, as their popularity and society’s reliance on these skills grew.

The report questioned whether the current enrollment boom will be sustained. And while it’s impossible to know whether the enrollment increase will decline significantly, as it did in both the 1980s and the early 2000s, computing has deeply penetrated all sectors of the economy, academic disciplines and “all aspects of modern life,” according the report.

Past jumps in enrollment came after the advent of the personal computer and then in the late 1990s, with the dot-com era -- which eventually turned into a bubble that burst.

Degree production in computer information sciences jumped by 115 percent from 2009 to 2015, according to the report. At the same time, the numbers of jobs in the field also continued to rise.

“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 nonmajors,” the report states.

In recent years, students, particularly those concerned about cost and seeking to learn these skills more quickly, have taken to alternatives, such as certificate programs and boot camps.

Free and low-cost massive open online courses have grown in popularity, and the Education Department has in the past signaled its support for programs free of the traditional limits of higher education.

Recently, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, in conjunction with the for-profit Southern Careers Institute, launched a program called Woz U, courses that can lead to certifications in software development, computer support and, eventually, data science and cybersecurity.

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