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Students sit in a computer lab as seen through a keyhole.

At certain colleges, students who do not score high enough in their introductory computer science courses cannot declare it as their major.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images

Before this year, if you wanted to major in computer science at the University of Michigan, your only barrier was getting accepted to the university.

But a new model requires all students who want to study computer science—whether they are incoming or already enrolled—to apply for the major separately.

Michael Wellman, Michigan’s chair of computer science and engineering, said that the university has worked for years to try to accommodate everyone who wants to study the subject, hiring as many as six faculty members annually in recent years and even building a new computer science facility. The number of CS degrees awarded rose from 132 in 2012 to 600 in 2022.

“We’ve done everything we can to grow our capacity and to find new ways to be efficient and scale up our classes over the years,” he said. “Our faculty have the conviction across the board that we should teach everybody.”

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But it hasn’t been enough. So the university had to add the application to the major.

Michigan is hardly alone. According to Wellman, it is among the last of its peer institutions to introduce some sort of restriction in the hopes of capping the number of computer science majors. Over the past decade, STEM degrees have gained rapid popularity, spurred in part by the idea that they lead to better job outcomes with higher pay.

The rise in demand is causing many programs significant strife. Class sizes, especially for upper-level courses in which students receive more personalized attention, are ballooning; some students are unable to get seats in their desired courses. And while departments can grow to accommodate the increased demand, financial limitations on hiring more faculty—coupled with the fact that most computer science Ph.D.s can make far more in industry—complicate that effort.

Instead, many institutions have resorted to limiting the number of students who can become computer science majors. One way to do that is by setting a minimum GPA for introductory CS courses and only allowing students who meet it to continue on in the major—an approach that has obvious drawbacks in terms of equity, said Carla E. Brodley, dean of inclusive computing and the founding executive director of the Center for Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University.

“That’s troubling, because, as you know, if you’ve already had [computer science education] in high school, you’re set up for success, because you’re going to do better than the person who’s a true beginner,” she said.

Michigan’s strategy aims to avoid favoring privilege by admitting students to the major based not on a single metric like GPA but by using a holistic evaluation process. The criteria were formulated by computer science faculty, although the admissions office ultimately makes the decision on whether incoming freshmen are admitted into the program. According to an FAQ on the website about how to apply for the major, factors that may be considered include “dedication to service, an ability and desire to work collaboratively on teams, and consideration of the impact of computing in the context of the broader world.”

“Our general attitude is, it’s very competitive to get into the University of Michigan, and anyone who qualifies for that is qualified to make it in computer science. So, the focus is not on computer science experience or other academic credentials, because they’ve already met that standard,” Wellman said.

The process differs slightly for already enrolled students hoping to join the computer science major—a population called “enrolled discoverers,” who might find they have a passion for the subject after they arrive at the university. Starting next semester, those students will apply for the program directly through the department, answering essay questions about what drew them to computer science.

The University of Maryland is another institution currently struggling with overcrowding in the CS major. With 3,760 computer science students currently enrolled, Maryland boasts one of the most populous departments in the country, according to Robert Infantino, associate dean of undergraduate education within the College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Maryland.

The university first sought to limit the number of computer science majors in 2019 by making it a “limited enrollment program,” in which incoming freshmen had to successfully complete three gateway courses with a grade of a C-minus or higher. Nonfreshmen changing their major to computer science would have to complete the same introductory courses and have a 2.7 GPA over all.

But the strategy made no dent in the numbers, especially when applications to Maryland surged after the college adopted the Common Application and went test optional.

“It made us be more selective, but it didn’t really limit anything,” Infantino said.

Now the requirements are becoming even more stringent, at least for some; starting in fall 2024, students transferring from a different institution or changing their major to computer science after their first year will have to earn at least a B-minus in the gateway courses and have a 3.0 GPA to become a computer science major.

“None of us particularly love to do this,” Infantino said. “We mostly went into our discipline to be people who empower students to meet their goals.”

He added that the lack of resources makes it difficult to achieve that.

“The number of computer science Ph.D.s produced in the United States has remained fairly flat,” he said. “So we have a difficult time getting faculty. The best schools are often competing for the same best faculty.”

Alternative Options

Not all solutions involve limiting the number of students allowed to major in computer science. Columbia University, where computer science is the most popular major, introduced a change to the curriculum this year designed less to manage enrollment than to keep up with trends in the CS field.

Whereas students used to choose a specialization, like software development or artificial intelligence, typically at the start of their junior year, they can now take courses across the specializations and even in other disciplines to fulfill their CS requirements. But the change should also help reduce overcrowding.

“One obvious benefit is that, by giving students more flexibility, it does scale a bit in that there are lots of courses they can take that satisfy different requirements now,” said Adam Cannon, a computer science lecturer and the chair of Columbia’s computer science undergraduate curriculum committee. “We’re only in the first year, so we’ll see if it smooths out our distribution of enrollments.”

While that wasn’t the goal of the “refresh,” he said, “it was absolutely something we kept in mind, because we have crushing numbers of enrollment, so how can we do this in a way that can accommodate all of these students?”

Students believe the solution will help ease some of the stress of getting into the classes they want.

“Computer science is the only major at Columbia University which is open to all four colleges [Columbia College, Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Barnard College, and Columbia University School of General Studies] … which creates a lot of overenrollment problems, particularly with the increased interested in computer science [and] AI,” said Gabriel Guo, a senior computer science major and the vice president of communications for the Engineering Student Council, an undergraduate government body for the school of engineering.

But he also lauded the curriculum’s new interdisciplinary approach: “By making this program open to a wide variety of people, you create future leaders … who have intricate knowledge of the technology, and I think that’s very, very true to our school’s historical mission.”

The University of California, San Diego, meanwhile, has pared down its computer science enrollment by employing an entirely different strategy: it’s random. After an unsuccessful attempt to use a GPA-based approach, the university introduced a lottery system in 2017.

“We quickly saw negative impacts of a GPA-based admission strategy we used at first: due to overwhelming demand for spots in the major, students looking to switch into the major needed a 4.0 in some rounds to have a shot at admission,” Mia Minnes, computer science and engineering vice chair for undergraduate education in the department, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Many of the issues that motivated us to go from GPA caps to a lottery-based admissions policy seemed to improve, but we are continuing to analyze … incoming students and how to best serve students’ needs for access to courses and ability to plan towards timely graduation.”

Brodley, from Northeastern, said she sees UCSD’s solution as ideal if a university truly needs to limit CS enrollment. But she has also witnessed other innovative solutions for managing high demand without discouraging students from pursuing their passion.

“People have done really creative things, like create really large lectures and then have undergrads or grads TA recitation sections, so that you get that more personalized attention,” she said. “There’s been a lot of creativity, because TAs scale more easily with enrollments than faculty do … but that presumes that the university has a budget for that.”

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