The chart above tells quite a story. That blue line — the one that looks like a hockey stick — shows how interest in computer science from freshmen at the University of Washington in Seattle has skyrocketed since 2010 compared with other engineering fields.
The UW is not alone. Countless other U.S. universities, from Harvard to Stanford to the University of Michigan, are seeing similar demand for computer science degrees.
On the surface, it’s an encouraging trend for the tech industry, which can’t get enough new engineers. But beneath the surface is a problem: College students want to become computer scientists, but in many cases there isn’t enough room or faculty to meet the demand.
“Kids are waking up,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the UW. “Every field is becoming an information field, and if you can program at a level beyond an intro course, it’s a huge value to you.”
It’s also becoming the popular thing to learn. Yep, being a geek is cool in today’s world.
“Students feel that computing is socially relevant and even hip,” said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, the computer science department chair at Harvey Mudd College.
But while it may be encouraging to see so many young minds yearning to build technologies and change world, is there a solution to the insane demand?
In search of potential fixes to this growing problem, GeekWire spoke with computer science professors from some of the nation’s top universities; with experts like Code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi and Washington STEM Chief Policy Officer Caroline King; and with those leading new coding trade schools.
What we found, in short, was that universities do not appear prepared for the demand now, nor do they have much planned for the future.
There is hope. The nascent online education industry could provide some help, while programs like Code Fellows and Devbootcamp are proving beneficial for those who want crash courses in coding outside of the typical university system.
But much more needs to be done to satisfy the unprecedented demand for computer science education.
THE THIRD SURGE
This isn’t the first time there has been an explosion in computer science interest.
Back in the mid 1980s, there was a surge after the advent of the personal computer. Some argue that universities tried to apply short-term fixes to keep up with demand — a strategy that ultimately led to a substantial fall off just a few years later.
Then there was the big dot-com boom in the late 1990s. Students saw entrepreneurs creating websites that made them millionaires, and they wanted to do the same.
“There were a small number of highly-publicized cases of this actually happening with our alumni and that helped fuel the frenzy,” said Libeskind-Hadas, the Harvey Mudd computer science chair. “It was something like every college basketball player thinking that they were going to play in the NBA.”
But that dot-com bubble burst, leading to another steep reduction in computer science degrees.
Now we are seeing the third “surge” — though this one differs greatly from the previous spike. What happened in the mid-to-late 90s was financially driven, but the interest today appears to be coming from new technologies and particularly what we’re seeing with the power of smartphones.
“This time around, I see most students choosing to major in computer science because they are genuinely excited about it,” Libeskind-Hadas said. “Good jobs almost certainly factor into the decision in many cases, but I see fewer dollar signs in my students’ eyes and more enthusiasm to contribute something meaningful to society and do ‘cool’ things.”
Eric Roberts, the former Stanford computer science department associate chair, also cited the big demand from employers for graduates with computer science backgrounds. He said that this latest surge is more about “flight-to-quality.”
“It’s the idea that, at uncertain times, people are looking for what will be the best and most stable education that will ensure they will at least have a job,” Roberts explained. “It’s less of the, ‘Wow, I could become a billionaire,’ like we saw in the 90s.”
Lazowska and Roberts gave a presentation last month on the nuances this particular wave in computer science majors. They found that there are huge spikes in demand for the major, for introductory course enrollments, and for upper-division computer science courses by non-majors — those that realize the need for computer science skills in their particular field.
“This vastly outstrips the previous enrollment peak in the late 1990s,” Lazowska said.
The graphs below show what Lazowska is talking about. Here’s the increasing demand for introductory courses (CS50 is about to pass ECON10 for the most popular intro class at Harvard, for example):
And increasing demand for the major itself:
Finally, increasing demand from non-majors:
So that begs the question: What can universities do about this crazy level of interest?
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
There are simple answers to that question: Increase classroom sizes and hire more faculty. However, that’s easier said than done.
At a private institution, adding space and faculty can be more doable because of stronger funding. At Stanford, where 95 percent of students take a computer science course, the school does not place a cap on its programs. If, say, 2,000 people want to study a certain subject, Stanford is historically expected to figure out ways to accommodate for that.
Publicly-funded universities have a more difficult time. The UW, for example, couldn’t expand its computer science program until just two years ago, constrained by funding from the state government.
“We’re turning away many students we’d love to have,” Lazowska said. “That’s the tragedy.”
Lazowska offered up a bevy of potential but “crappy” solutions to the increasing demand:
- Restrict the size of the major
- Exclude non-majors from upper-division courses
- Retreat to “the core” — turn over many of our courses to other departments
- Have enormous class sizes and/or enormous teaching loads
- Have a beer while the students use Coursera
That last idea — online education — is something that many agree will continue to grow and be used at every level of education, including at universities. Partovi, the Seattle-area technology veteran who co-founded non-profit Code.org to help expose computer science to millions of kids in the U.S., is a big believer in learning to code online.
“The good news is that the absolute best university courses in computer science are also available to study online via platforms such as EdX, or Coursera,” Partovi said. “Although online courses don’t have the same completion rate as in-person courses, for the motivated student who can’t access a university program — due to rising tuition costs, or the shortage of spots in a program — the course-work is still available to them.”
But while online classes may provide a cheaper and more accessible solution, Lazowska warned that computer science education without face-to-face interaction is simply not good enough. He said that the lessons his UW students learn while working in small teams in upper-level classes is invaluable — and another reason why increasing class sizes could have detrimental implications on the quality of learning.
“We send students in large numbers to Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google because they have team design experiences,” he said. “You may get knowledge of data structure from Coursera, but it’s much less obvious how you learn to work and collaborate in small teams.”
“Learning to code on your own is frustrating and lonely,” she said. “Graduation rates from full online courses are in the single digits generally.”
Having more companies like Code Fellows is another potential alternative solution to a four-year computer science degree. The program is one of a growing number of for-profit organizations that teach intensive coding bootcamps to those that did not take the traditional route of learning computer science at the university level. It has been growing rapidly ever since launching two years ago and is attractive because it guarantees a job after graduation.
“I think that trade schools like Code Fellows are going to be a huge part of the solution bridging the gap between demand and supply for software engineers because of the ability to learn more quickly, efficiently, and at a higher quality with a team of experts guiding you,” she said.
But Hakon Verespej, an advisor with Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group who previously worked at Microsoft and a startup, said that while something like Code Fellows has its place in the tech ecosystem, there really is no replacement to the quality of education someone can receive at the university level.
“No matter how smart you are, there is no way to get the breadth and depth from a four-year education at a top-tier university than you would at something like a bootcamp, ” said Verespej, who earned his Masters in Computer Science from UC San Diego. “It’s just not possible.”
If that’s the case, then perhaps universities can get creative with the way they teach computer science. Caroline King, the Chief Policy Officer for Washington STEM, said one solution could be for more collaboration between businesses and higher education. She pointed out a new partnership between the University of Maryland and Lockheed Martin as one example.
“These partnerships leverage industry faculty to teach courses, design curricula, provide internships and research projects, which have the benefit of enabling students to get work-related experience and industry exposure while earning a degree, a key factor when then looking for full time work,” King said.
Or, as my colleague John Cook suggested 2-and-a-half years ago, maybe it is time for Seattle to launch its own, separate, world-class private technology university, bankrolled by technology investors. Lazowska, however, said that raising money for such a program would be extremely difficult. He also expressed serious doubt that it would succeed.
“People always talk about ‘creating an MIT,’ or ‘creating a Stanford,’ or ‘creating a Georgia Tech,’ ” Lazowska said. “Those are research-intensive universities. There has never been an instance of one being created and becoming truly excellent in less than 35 years.”
Roberts, the former Stanford computer science department head who still teaches classes in Palo Alto, said he likes the idea of special institutions teaching the essential parts of the field, or, as he describes it, a “Hogwarts School of Software Wizardry.”
He noted that the industry may be persuaded to fund something like that, much like how Lockheed Martin is partnering with the University of Maryland. But he’s not hopeful about it, nor is he optimistic about other solutions at the university level. In fact, he expects that academic institutions won’t be able to produce enough workers, which may lead to a downturn in the economy.
Roberts compared the dilemma to global warming.
“We all know it’s a problem and that we should do something about it, but it requires an individual sacrifice even though the downstream benefits are shared,” he said. “It’s a classic tragedy of the commons problem. The entire economics structure goes against finding a good way to keep teachers employed with reasonable workloads.”
Roberts cautioned that this is a problem that can’t be fixed with obvious solutions. He said you can’t simply just have existing faculty teach more and more students — it dilutes the quality of education those students end up receiving, and can eventually diminish the quality of computer science graduates going into a workforce that is in dire need of them.
Roberts noted that something similar happened during the 1980s surge.
“Every short-term fix that you try to impose ends up making the environment less interesting and positive for people that you need,” he said. “If we don’t remember what happened in the 1980s, I am quite sure we will repeat it.”
“BUT THERE’S HOPE”
When asked about the workplace demand for computer programmers coming out of college, Partovi shared the image above. The numbers are a bit staggering — the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be 1 million more jobs than students in just six years.
This is a critical issue not just for universities but for many companies. Robin Andrulevich, a veteran recruiter and the Director of Talent at Madrona Venture Group, said that while there are certainly more computer science graduates than there were five years ago, it’s not enough.
“It still does not meet the demand of today’s employers,” she said.
Partovi notes that in Washington state, there are 27 times more open jobs than there are graduates.
King, the executive with Washington STEM, stressed the importance of computer science education in meeting the demand for future jobs.
“Computer science jobs are growing and pay well. Students who know how to code will have access to the best paying and fastest growing jobs in the nation and Washington,” she said. “It is imperative that every young person have this option — particularly girls, students of color, and students from rural areas who tend to be left out of computer science education, and hence we wonder why tech companies have trouble recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce.”
But unfortunately, no one really has a clear answer as to how universities can adapt to fill those jobs — particularly looking 5-to-10 years down the road. With programs like Code.org and Washington STEM pushing forward K-12 computer science education, you can expect even more high school seniors — likely with support from their parents — wating to study programming in college.
Harvey Mudd’s Libeskind-Hadas said that ultimately, it’s up to the people who have power to control how much money is funneled to schools.
“My advice would be to the folks who control university budgets: Invest the resources to allow computer science departments to meet the demands of all qualified students,” he said. “This investment will pay dividends in the well-being and satisfaction of our students and, ultimately, our economy.”
There may be hope on the horizon. Perhaps governments will allocate funds to allow schools to build more space and hire more faculty. Maybe more high net-worth individuals like Michael Bloomberg will donate their money to help educate tomorrow’s leaders.
“It’s hard to know what the solutions are and I don’t see the resources,” said Roberts, the former Stanford computer science associate chair. “But we’ll keep talking about it. I hope it wakes people up. There’s hope — there’s always hope.”