Computer Science Attracting Fewer Applicants

By Sean Cavanagh — May 01, 2002 5 min read

Not that long ago, the promise of a solid career—and a fat paycheck in a soaring industry—had computer-savvy high school students looking to boost their know-how with specialized college degrees.

But with the slumping technology economy, some of the nation’s top undergraduate computer-science programs have seen a major drop in applications from seniors around the country.

Applications for admission next fall to computer schools at California Polytechnic State University, Carnegie Mellon University, and other popular degree programs have fallen, with students seeking out majors in other specialized fields, or broader, liberal arts degrees.

“We saw a huge growth in applications in recent years, [but] you may be seeing the pendulum swing back a little bit,” said Mike Steidel, the director of undergraduate admissions at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh. “Profession-oriented fields [like computer science] are definitely more susceptible to slumps.”

Until this year, interest in computer-based programs among students seeking admittance to Carnegie Mellon was on the rise, having climbed the previous two years. But that trend reversed for this coming fall’s class, when applications to the university’s computer-science program fell from 3,229 in 2001 to 2,328 this year, a drop of 28 percent.

California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo received 1,752 undergraduate applications last year to its computer-science department, but only 1,334 for fall of 2002, a 24 percent decrease. The university’s school of computer engineering saw a drop in applications, too.

College-admissions chiefs say they’re used to spikes and slumps in different programs. Mr. Steidel saw the number of students seeking entry to Carnegie Mellon’s engineering school slide when that industry struggled. He also remembers a drop in applicants to the university’s architecture program during tough times for the building industry.

Shifting Priorities?

Across the country, computer- science schools hope to attract students like Brett E. Molinder, a 17-year-old high school senior who tinkers with computers at home and polishes his programming skills in class at Greenfield Central High School in Greenfield, Ind. The spate of bad news coming out of the high-tech industry hasn’t discouraged Mr. Molinder, who attends a school with about 1,200 students. Next fall, he plans to enter a school of technology program run jointly in Indianapolis through Purdue and Indiana universities, with a strong emphasis on computers. He figures he has plenty of time to pick a more specific area of expertise after that.

“That’s what I’m going to college to find out,” he said. “A lot of businesses are going to rely on computers. It’s a good option to get into now.”

But few of Mr. Molinder’s classmates are choosing computer fields for college next fall, he said. He saw more of them targeting business schools instead.

His teacher, Gary L. Wynn, said students were aware of the struggles of companies in Silicon Valley and other high-tech hubs, and had seen the headlines about vanishing dot-com ventures.

But Mr. Wynn said the drop in applications for computer-science programs also might be traced back to high school classrooms. With the push for more standardized testing in many grade levels, middle and high schools across the country simply do not have as much time or resources to spend on classes in computer training as they did a few years ago, said Mr. Wynn, who noted his school’s commitment remained strong.

“The push is now on back to basics,” said Mr. Wynn, who teaches six computer- related classes. “At some schools, computers aren’t getting the exposure they used to.”

Another of his students, R. Ethan Davis, said he wasn’t sure yet how much time he would devote to computer science in college. A junior who plans to graduate early, Mr. Davis said he was leaning toward choosing psychology as a major, and possibly a computer field as a minor.

“Wherever you go, there’s going to be a computer screen, and you’re going to have to deal with it,” said the 17-year-old. “It’s more tools in your pocket.”

Job-Market Reaction

Still, high school students seem to be choosing a different route in recent years, said Kendall Starkweather, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based International Technology Education Association, which encourages computer learning in schools. He has seen more graduates pursuing liberal arts degrees, and then following them up with training at community colleges or specialized schools before entering the job market—a trend that surprised him.

“You don’t normally see that,” said Mr. Starkweather. “There’s another career cycle going on. People are not dumb—they realize where they’re being pushed out of, and where they’re not.”

The drop- off in applications doesn’t mean university computer-science programs are hurting, however.

The competition to get into many of them is so tough that the overall impact on student enrollment is minimal. Out of more than 2,000 applications for next fall, Carnegie Mellon is expected to admit only 130 students to its computer-science program, Mr. Steidel said.

Unlike at some universities, high school students who want to study computer science at Carnegie Mellon apply directly to the computer-science program, and are accepted or rejected to the campus as a whole on the basis of whether they get into that school. Students can apply to more than one program.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, applications to the school of computer science plummeted from 1,541 in 2001—an all-time high—to 1,077 for next fall’s class.

Undergraduate admissions director Deborah Smith wasn’t surprised to see high school graduates choose other majors at Georgia Tech. But she said public fears about how the overall economy would affect career choices a few years down the road can be exaggerated.

“Our students are still being offered jobs,” Ms. Smith said. “We have recruiters coming in from all over the country, and what we see is that students may be receiving two or three job offers, rather than four, five, or six.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as Computer Science Attracting Fewer Applicants

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