The University of Connecticut always allowed flexibility in creating new, unique majors, but the immense student demand for one in particular—data science—came as a surprise.
“It was almost getting out of hand, in terms of interest from students,” said Elizabeth Schifano, UConn’s undergraduate program director for the Department of Statistics.
That interest is not unique to UConn. The National Center for Education Statistics reported a recent 968 percent jump in data science bachelor’s degrees awarded, from 84 in 2020 to 897 in 2022. The job market also shows increasing demand for data science skills, with the Department of Labor projecting 36 percent growth in jobs for data scientists over the next decade, outpacing statisticians, logisticians and research analysts.
“There are a lot of jobs—and very well-compensated jobs—but it also cuts across different industry sectors,” said Frederick Bonato, provost at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey. “You could be a data scientist and specialize in higher ed, or transportation, or commerce. That’s attractive, because you can get the degree but also follow what you’re particularly interested in.”
As data science degree programs crop up at colleges and universities across the country, women in particular are pursuing data science in greater numbers compared to other computer-related and STEM fields.
Why Data Science?
While the definition of data science can vary, it generally falls under the statistics umbrella and includes a more interdisciplinary approach. For example, most of the UConn students in the individualized data science major also pursued biology or economics degrees.
Data science majors can go on to become software engineers, artificial intelligence engineers or data architects, but their roles reach beyond the tech industry. Nonprofits can use data to maximize fundraising, for example, and logistics companies could use data to avoid car accidents.
The University of California, Davis, launched its data science degree program in fall 2022. A year later, Maine-based Colby College, a small liberal arts institution, launched its program in fall 2023 after a number of students majored in statistics but had a heavy focus on data science.
“Data science is becoming more prominent, and we wanted to give students agency over what it says on their diploma and have it reflected in their degree,” said Jim Scott, Colby’s statistics department chair. Since the major launched last semester, eight students have signed up and two new faculty members have been hired.
A growing statistics program may not be an obvious fit for Colby, but Scott said it’s the college’s liberal arts focus that makes it a place where data science can thrive.
“Students want a liberal arts education and not just siloed in a discipline,” he said. “Data science allows students to follow their passion and also gives a useful skill to implement into whatever you’re doing. Data is everywhere; it touches all of us.”
That data pervasiveness touches Saint Peter’s University, which has been building its newly renamed Data Science Institute. Since beginning with one program in 2014, it has ballooned to eight programs spanning more than 1,000 students—an enrollment that has tripled since 2018.
Saint Peter’s added a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. program in data science in 2022 after officials saw explosive growth.
“In my opinion, adding the programs was obvious,” Saint Peter’s Bonato said. “It wasn’t a hard sell at all [to add more], and it’s been steady growth.”
You could be a data scientist and specialize in higher ed, or transportation, or commerce. That’s attractive, because you can get the degree but also follow what you’re particularly interested in.”—Frederick Bonato, provost at Saint Peter’s University
Like Colby and UConn, Saint Peter’s did not add the program to recruit new students but to keep up with student and employer demand.
“Right now, I think it’s the hot thing,” UConn’s Schifano said. “Having the right tools, knowing how to use them—it’s becoming more important in every aspect. Every discipline has data and wants to understand what it means.”
Women and Data Science
In addition to appealing to more students in general, data science, a recent study found, has a higher concentration of female students than comparable majors, such as computer science and cybersecurity.
For the last five years, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has tracked the enrollment and retention of STEM-focused disciplines with the help of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. After anecdotally seeing the rise of data science interest, ACM spent two years looking at enrollment and retention for the major, spanning the 2021–22 and 2022–23 school years.
The interest among women is likely due, in part, to the field’s cross-disciplinary focus, allowing students to pursue their interests while having the safety net of an in-demand field, said Stuart Zweben, chair of the ACM task force on enrollment and retention.
“Students interested in analyzing data but also applying it to a passion of theirs might be interested in data science,” said Zweben, who co-authored the latest report. “They can have specializations in a variety of areas, and that’s more likely to attract a diverse group of students.”
There’s also spillover from the rising—and sometimes overwhelming—interest in computer science. Universities turning students away from computer science may push them into data science.
“Students see what the barriers are in computer science and find data science is even better for them, because it aligns with their interest and it’s easier to get into,” Zweben said.
There was a similar interest and growth in cybersecurity in previous years, Zweben said, although data science has already outpaced that. While he continues to expect growth in data science, there’s already a hot new area looming: artificial intelligence.
“Because of the heightened interest in AI and its strengths, weaknesses and fears, AI is of interest to a lot of people,” he said.
While Schifano agrees there is sure to be interest in AI, she expects data science majors to benefit by association.
“We’re creating more AI technology, but AI is very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing,” she said. “Coding might be easier with AI, but you still need the knowledge; some aspects of data science will be easier because of AI, but you still need to know the underlying principles.”