Guest Post: Eric Roberts on the Dangers of Escalating Enrollments

April 13, 2011 at 9:56 am 29 comments

Eric Roberts just sent out a note of concern to the ACM Education Council, and he kindly allowed me to share it here as a guest post.  When I read his note, I thought about my May 2009 CACM column on “Teaching Computing to Everyone” where I argued that, once non-CS majors figure out the value of what we have to offer, our problem won’t be declining enrollments, but dealing with capacity issues. Two years later…

Just before heading off to the CSTA Advisory Council meeting at the end of last week, I sent out a few thoughts to the other Advisory Council members about what’s been happening this year at Stanford in terms of computer science enrollments. Enrollment trends have been a major topic of concern for CSTA in recent years, just as they have for the Education Board and Council. For most of the past decade, enrollments have been falling, and they remain low at many institutions, some of which have been cutting staff or even closing departments in response.

In many ways, that decline in enrollments has served as the primary narrative for the computer science education community for several years now. In most of the meetings I attend, one still hears a lot about the decline in student interest, the vanishing diversity of the field, and the urgency of developing well-trained people to fill the jobs that will go begging unless we can repair this broken pipeline. I believe those problems are absolutely real, and I myself sometimes talk about them on the road. Doing so has become much harder because I spend my day job worrying about the opposite problem: enrollments that are rising so fast that it is nearly impossible to stay on top of them.

As some of you may have heard from Mehran Sahami’s presentations, Stanford has seen its computer science enrollments recover at about 20% per year since 2007-08, after turning the corner the year before that. A 20% rate of increase is healthy and manageable. What we’re seeing this year — and particularly this quarter — is at a level that I find downright scary, having lived through a period in the early 1980s in which enrollment growth outpaced the ability of academic institutions to respond.

Here are a couple of data points to give you a better sense of our situation. In 2009-10, Stanford fell just short of its all-time record enrollment in our CS1 course, which we call CS106A. That record of 762 for the three regular-term quarters was set back in 1999-2000 at the height of the dot-com bubble. I know that I have already told several of you that I was confident we would pass that mark this year. What I didn’t know was that we would leave that old record in the dust. The numbers are now in, and the enrollment in CS106A in those three quarters is 1087, which represents a year-on-year growth of 51%. More frightening still, the enrollment this quarter in CS106A is running ahead of last spring by 120%, suggesting that the trend is accelerating rapidly. That conclusion is supported by enrollment data from other courses. Compared to last spring, enrollments this quarter are up by 74% in CS107 (Computer Organization and Systems), by 78% in CS109 (Introduction to Probability for Computer Scientists), and by 111% in the course I’m teaching, which is CS181 (Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy).

We have some ideas as to why this growth is occurring at Stanford. In his paper at SIGCSE, Mehran offered data to suggest that about half of growth we’ve seen in majors is attributable to adding greater flexibility to our requirements and that the rest has more to do with the bad economy driving students into different career tracks. The scale of the phenomenon and the fact that the effect seems to have gathered tremendous steam this year are as yet beyond our powers to explain. Several of us here have also observed a change in the way students are perceiving our courses that may help understand the basis of this resurgence of interest. Although I as yet no evidence to support such a claim, I’m convinced that the growth spurt we’re seeing here at Stanford comes from subtly but distinctly different sources than the one we saw during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. In those years, one of the things that drove me up the wall was the number students who were choosing to major in computer science for reasons that were essentially wealth-seeking. I had many students — probably never more than ten percent of my classes, but nonetheless enough to poison the classroom atmosphere — who would freely admit that they hated the material but knew that if they got their Stanford CS degree, they could soon make enough money to put all that unpleasantness behind them.

What my colleagues and I are seeing today is entirely different. The students who are now inflating the ranks of CS106A are, it seems, deciding to take a computer science course as a way of bolstering their credentials before they emerge into a weak economy. Most have majors in other areas but recognize, probably correctly, that having programming skills will likely increase their chances of gaining employment in their own field. A surprising number of those students, however, once they get into our introductory courses fall completely in love with the material and continue on to double the size of the downstream courses in the curriculum.

My most poignant story of the year is of a student in my CS106B class (the reasonably traditional CS2 course that follows after CS106A) who came to my office hours last quarter pretty much in tears. The problem for her was not that she was having any trouble with the material. Indeed, she was one of a handful of students who got a perfect score on the midterm and an even smaller group that ended up with one of our jealously guarded A+ grades in the class. Her issue was that she now wanted more than anything else to spend her life doing computer science, but couldn’t figure out how to make that happen given that she is currently a fourth-year Ph.D. student in geology. We’re working together on that problem, and I’m sure there will be lots of opportunities for her to combine her skills. What’s amazing is how many students there are who seem to be in the same position. I’ve swapped stories with several of my colleagues here, and there are literally dozens of people with much the same tale.

Stories such as this one are dramatically at odds with the narrative that most of us have been following over the last several years. At least at Stanford, both numbers and enthusiasm have rebounded — with a vengeance — to reach their highest levels ever. What I’m less sure about is whether Stanford is an anomaly or whether we represent the leading edge of a more general trend that other places can expect to see within a few years. If it’s the former, those of us at Stanford need to understand better what we’re doing right; if it’s the latter, I think that many organizations — certainly including both the ACM Education Board and Council — will need to do some thinking about what’s going to happen if this phenomenon spreads.

There is some evidence that our experience is happening at other places as well.  At most of the large institutions, enrollments hit bottom a couple of years ago.  The Taulbee survey this year confirms a rise of about 10% in the last year.  That level of increase is significant, but nothing close to what we’ve seen.  At the CSTA meeting last Friday, representatives from Harvey Mudd and the University of Texas at Austin both reported annual increases in the 20-30% range.  If those numbers are representative, we’re going to need to shift our thinking quickly from how to build demand over how to build capacity.

Even at a well-endowed institution like Stanford, growth rates of the sort we’ve seen this year are significantly stretching our resources in terms of faculty and teaching assistants. Although there will be growing pains, I’m sure we’ll be able to cope. The more vexing question is what happen if this resurgence of interest spreads to institutions that are facing shrinking budgets, many of which have recently been downsizing their computer science faculty and closing departments?

I don’t have an answer for this question, but I do have a nagging fear that grows out of my early years as a professor in the 1980. The enrollment bubble of the late 1990s created some problems for computer science departments, but I think in retrospect that they weren’t so serious. If nothing else, the enrollment pressure subsided of its own accord. After the tech crash in 2000, students moved away from the field, relieving the pressure before it had time to build to a dangerous level. Those students whose primary motivation was wealth-seeking found other pursuits; many managed to get in on the rise of yet another bubble, this time in the financial sector.

Things were quite so easy in the earlier growth spurt that occurred at the beginning of the 1980s. In 1999, I published an essay in SIGCSE Inroads (http://cs.stanford.edu/~eroberts/papers/ConservingSeedCorn.pdf) in which I looked back on that crisis, which reached its peak when I was chairing a brand-new computer science department at Wellesley College. As I indicate in that essay, with support from various NSF studies conducted at the time, academic institutions were completely incapable of responding to the pressure of rapidly growing enrollments. The collapse in student interest that occurred in the late 1980s stemmed not from a failure of demand, but rather a failure of capacity. This boom feels more like that one, and I fear the fall may do so as well.

It seems to me that we need to determine if this growth does represent yet another sea-change in the altogether-too-cyclical history of our discipline and, if so, to find some way to respond before we find ourselves drowning in an ocean of students that we have no capacity to support.

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29 Comments Add your own

  • 1. HockeyBias.com  |  April 13, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Some argue we are enterring another internet-related bubble. Might this clobber interest in computer science all over again? Your thoughts? Thanks! (Go Sharks!)

    Reply
  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  April 13, 2011 at 11:56 am

    I started a comment and got long winded so wound up with a blog post at http://blogs.msdn.com/b/alfredth/archive/2011/04/13/be-careful-what-you-wish-for.aspx

    Reply
  • 3. Jake McGraw  |  April 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    The difference this time around is that there are REAL companies, generating REAL value, that are in desperate need of employees with the technical skills which are typically present in a computer science student. Technology provides automation, in a service based economy I’d say the market for programmers won’t dry up until every process has a digital equivalent, at which point, whole new economies will be present.

    Reply
  • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I think that CS should not try to match 50% growth rates, but should provide a more constant capacity. Producing huge numbers of graduates one year and tiny numbers 5 years later amplifies the cyclic nature of the job market. When demand is high, the upper-division courses should get more selective. When demand is low, weaker students can be let through (though not arbitrarily weak—it takes a lot more effort to bring weak students up to snuff, so when weaker students are in the program, the capacity of the program is significantly reduced).

    Trying to match wildly fluctuating demand is not in the best interests of the field or the university.

    Reply
  • 5. Andrew Shebanow  |  April 13, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    In the early 80s at Cal, I spent a lot of time tutoring people who had no idea what a pointer was, even after passing their introductory programming class with high marks. Most of them had no aptitude for CS, and the ones I stayed in touch with ended up moving into less technical careers (product management, product marketing, customer support, tech writing, etc.) over time. I suspect the same thing will happen again.

    Reply
  • 6. ROMAN SANCHEZ  |  April 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    I can relate to the young lady in tears (w/o the tears), I wish I’ve would’ve went to comp sci early on, but I’m already in my senior year as an IS major. : (

    Reply
  • 7. Eric  |  April 13, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    This is great news! The more people learn the nuances of programming and computing in general the better off our society will be.

    Reply
  • 8. Issa Diao  |  April 13, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    My guess is that this is a direct result of the success of Facebook. Movies like “The Social Network” in pop-culture have a huge effect on career/education choices by students. Someone should refer to the application figures for Naval Aviators after Top Gun came out in the 1980s.

    Reply
    • 9. Mark Miller  |  April 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm

      I would be somewhat of a “data point” in that theory. I was partly motivated by “Tron” (from 1982) to get into CS, though I had started programming a couple years before I saw it, and had fallen in love with the subject from that. The movie gave me more of a sense of the wide open possibility of the field I had entered into.

      Reply
  • 10. iTec | Fluctuating enrollments in computer science  |  April 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    [...] Fluctuating enrollments in computer science by Amber Settle 13. April 2011 09:09 During the dot com boom DePaul CDM, along with a lot of other institutions focused on technology education, faced problems having to do with large enrollment increases.  Then, of course, the dot com bust occurred and we began to worry about shrinking enrollments.  Each kind of enrollment change brings different problems with it.  As a guest on Mark Guzdial's blog, Eric Roberts addresses this issue: http://computinged.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/guest-post-eric-roberts-on-the-dangers-of-escalating-enr… [...]

    Reply
  • 11. Emily  |  April 13, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    This is a perfect supply vs. demand problem.

    I graduated from Duke last year – another private institution on the same level as Stanford. Private schools, like Stanford and Duke, are not as affordable as state schools. Students who attend schools like Stanford and Duke expect to graduate with the degree of their dreams and not settle for something else based on resource issues.

    If I was turned away from a compsci class because the school couldn’t scale, I would question the benefits of attending a high calibar school. Stanford has a great endowment and is situated in an area that values computer science graduates. This is an opportunity for Stanford to really accelerate and produce awesome graduates.

    My sister, current Stanford student, attends Stanford for all the reasons which I attended Duke. We’ve payed a lot for our education and expect the school to educate us accordingly.

    Reply
  • 12. Mark Miller  |  April 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I can relate to the motivational aspect of this post. From what I’ve seen on this blog, there have been a mixture of economic and academic motivations to get into this field from most of the participants, by which I mean there is the desire to promote a career, but at the same time promote a love and understanding of the subject. I agree with Eric Roberts that there is something grating about the “gold diggers” who pursue CS. It’s a mindset I’ll never quite get used to.

    In a way I could relate to the geology student pursuing her Ph.D. I entered CS because I was very interested in continuing to hone my programming skills into that of a professional. My goal was a good paying career at the end of it, and I didn’t quite know what the subject entailed. At one point I considered going into CIS, because I was more interested in business applications at the time, but I quickly figured out it was not for me. It was only after talking to my high school’s computer teacher that I was convinced to take CS. Once I got into it, though, I fell in love with it, to some extent, in a way I didn’t expect. It’s an interest that stayed with me for years, even though the environment in the IT industry tends to not be interested in it. I started revisiting CS 5 years ago, this time on my own terms, after having spent several years in IT work, and I’m loving CS more now than I did in my undergraduate years!

    Thanks for sharing this post.

    Reply
  • 13. Top Posts — WordPress.com  |  April 13, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    [...] Guest Post: Eric Roberts on the Dangers of Escalating Enrollments Eric Roberts just sent out a note of concern to the ACM Education Council, and he kindly allowed me to share it here as [...] [...]

    Reply
  • 14. human mathematics  |  April 14, 2011 at 4:08 am

    If wealth-seekers are filling your courses, why not just add more practical programming courses? Then theoretical CS people and wealth-seekers can both get what they want. And your hiring criteria don’t need to include a Ph.D.

    Reply
  • 15. Joshua Resa  |  April 14, 2011 at 5:11 am

    I can relate to the phd student. I took cs106a spring quarter of my senior year. I won the karel algorithm contest, fell in love, graduated, and now I’m in med school. Cs would have been a whole lot of fun. I wonder where i’d be if I had taken cs freshman year instead of senior year…

    Reply
  • 16. datt  |  April 14, 2011 at 5:39 am

    The number decline enrolling computer science course is due to recession.in that people want to cut their spending to do a course and at the present what is market value for that course these are the consideration when student enroll a course in the university…..More over CS is uncertainty from the past for every four years this is also one of the reason student showing disinterest towards the course….

    Reply
  • 17. Harold  |  April 14, 2011 at 10:56 am

    MIT has also seen an explosion in their “CS1″ course enrollment. 6.01, which would appear to be much more engineering oriented than CS106A, had 250 students last spring and has 380 this spring (!).

    A substantial jump in EECS undergraduate major enrollment is expected; it was ~ 400 per year (out of a total class size of ~ 1080) before the ’80s through the ’90s (and that put great strain on the department, which MIT didn’t allow to get “too big” due to the history of other fields cratering, e.g. aero-astro in the early ’70s), went a bit below 200 after the dot.com crash and the last time I checked was a bit about 200.

    Reply
  • 18. Denis  |  April 14, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    I agree with the idea that computer science and engineering now have a higher profile in our culture. Our children interact with the Internet far more than television and movies. Our schools have competitive engineering teams (FIRST, Lego Leagues and the like). It’s no surprise that by the time they have to decide, “What do I want to do with my life?”, they end up picking the very thing they’ve been having so much fun doing for years.

    Reply
  • 19. Daniel Swanson  |  April 17, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    I think Apple, Inc. deserves some mention here with its introduction of the iPhone and its subsequently released third-party developer program as well as its now well-developed iOS. To me, Objective-C with its OOP and MVC design pattern stresses is one of the most elegant and efficient languages to master. Apple’s reasonably priced and reasonably compensated developer program (having already paid out billions to registered develoers) and its App Store terms would also seem to be a significant draw for would-be developers.

    Reply
  • 20. Frantzdy romain.  |  April 17, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Cs is a great major. the satisfaction of finding that little logic error is amazing and what makes the field so awesome. And the reason for increased enrollment? easy; The Social Network. unfortunately some have forgotten that Cs is not just about creating a scaling social website/network. There are many many other aspects of it.

    Reply
  • [...] is clearly the report that Eric Roberts was referencing in his recent (very popular) guest post (over 20K page views!): For the third year computer science enrollments have increased, ending the [...]

    Reply
  • 22. Tony  |  April 22, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Another data point here. I started in CS as a Yale junior in 1980 with a major in sociology. The economy was definitely on my mind. In my first course on Fortran, I didn’t do well. It had a challenge at its end, to program a “snake” game instead of taking the final. I tried, failled, took the final. Then I worked harder in an APL course which was a prereq for entering the major. That went fine. I took more courses in senior year and accepted a minimal major in sociology. When I graduated in 1981, the economy was horrible, but I got a job programming. After a year, I tried again the “snake” game and it was a breeze. Later I went to grad school in sociology at Stanford, but I quit it and went back to programming in Santa Clara. So my hedge became my career. And I love it. The bad economy led me to work I love. Young people have energy and are flexible. Why shouldn’t they try CS?

    Reply
  • [...] of this shift in the student data comes from the Computing Education Blog, which recently shared a note from Professor Eric Roberts who has taught introductory computer science courses for 30 years. His [...]

    Reply
  • 24. Dolo  |  April 25, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    I don’t get why he says “the growth spurt we’re seeing here at Stanford comes from subtly but distinctly different sources” and then goes on to say “What my colleagues and I are seeing today is entirely different.” I’d argue that they aren’t the same–the pre-professional arrogance that plagued (10% of) the CS majors before is true today, possibly even more so. It’s profitable to major in CS (I think it has the highest average-paying salary out of Stanford undergrad), so those kinds of students are inevitable. That a seasoned professor like Eric Roberts suspects a different source seems a bit naive to me.

    @Emily, why do you feel the need to explain what Duke is (did you think we haven’t heard of it) and then to say that it’s on the same level as Stanford? So that we know that it’s just as good? Honestly, the problems of paying for a private school are different at Stanford and Duke–a state school may be cheaper than Duke, but it is not cheaper than Stanford (whose financial aid policy is way more generous than any state school). And the difference between Duke and Stanford in computer science is very stark. Sorry, there just isn’t a comparison here.

    Reply
  • [...] on campus.  CS faculty, for the most part, teach to our own.  Maybe as we teach CS to more (as Eric Roberts’ post suggests), we too will have to increase our focus on teaching. What cCWCS [...]

    Reply
  • [...] What’s different this time? I don’t think much. There are only things that will cause it to move faster and slower. My sense is that we are at the third stage (increasing supply of software engineers) of this and we are about to see a huge increase in the number of software developers for iOS and other mobile platforms. But its not going to happen overnight – it may take 2-4 years, because it will take a while to build new development capacity. But, look at what’s happening at students entering Stanford: Stanford has seen its computer science enrollments recover at about 20% per year since 2007-08, after turning the corner the year before that … In 2009-10, Stanford fell just short of its all-time record enrollment in our CS1 course, which we call CS106A.That record of 762 for the three regular-term quarters was set back in 1999-2000 at the height of the dot-com bubble. The numbers are now in, and the enrollment in CS106A in those three quarters is 1087, which represents a year-on-year growth of 51%. More frightening still, the enrollment this quarter in CS106A is running ahead of last spring by 120%, suggesting that the trend is accelerating rapidly. That conclusion is supported by enrollment data from other courses. Compared to last spring, enrollments this quarter are up by 74% in CS107 (Computer Organization and Systems), by 78% in CS109 (Introduction to Probability for Computer Scientists), and by 111% in the course I’m teaching, which is CS181 (Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy).  From Eric Roberts Source [...]

    Reply
  • 27. Sara @ Manchester IT services  |  June 21, 2012 at 7:52 am

    I think that those companies who want to enroll IT professionals are facing such an issue as well because the people are moving abroad for good IT jobs. The global economic crisis has hit the markets badly in different countries, and I personally know a lot of people who have been hired by outsourcing companies rather their own country base companies that pay lesser in comparison

    Regards :)

    Reply
  • […] I totally buy that.  That’s what Eric Roberts saw from his informal survey when the boom in enrollment first starte…. […]

    Reply
  • […] CS higher-education today, especially in the face of rising enrollments in CS classes (discussed by Eric Roberts here and by Ed Lazowka and Dave Patterson […]

    Reply

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