Could our CS enrollment boom and bust cycle be the result of inability to manage the boom?

February 4, 2015 at 7:36 am 6 comments

I wrote my Blog@CACM post for January on the rising enrollment in computer science and how that is making irrelevant our advances in retaining students (see article here). Retention is simply not the problem in US CS programs today.

But thinking about the 1980’s and today (as described in this blog post), I began wondering if our boom-and-bust cycles might be related to our inability to manage the boom.

  • First, we get a huge increase in enrollment due to some external factor (like the introduction of the personal computer).
  • Then, we have to manage the rise in enrollment. We try to hire faculty, but we can’t bring them in fast enough. We stop worrying about high-quality, high-retention education — we need the opposite! We set up barriers and GPA requirements.
  • Word gets out: CS is hard. The classes are too difficult. It’s too competitive. Minority group students suffer from the imposter phenomenon and leave faster than majority students.
  • Result: Enrollment drops. Diversity decreases.
  • Then the next external factor happens (like the invention of the graphical Web browser), and we start the sequence again.

If we could give everyone a seat who wanted one, and we continued to focus on retention and high-quality education, might we actually have a steady-state of a large CS class? Could our inability to manage the load actually be causing the bust side of the cycle?

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , .

Why there’s no such thing as an ‘F’ in computer science: The Fear Factor in CS (and other things we learn) Belief in the Geek Gene explains Lack of Diversity in Computing PhD’s

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  February 4, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    I think that may be a factor but not the only one. There are external forces that have caused bubble to pop as well. I remember a time when everyone seemed to think that all the software jobs were going to India which caused recruitment of CS students to become difficult. And then the Internet boom went bust and people were under the impression that jobs were now scarce. don’t have a solid timeline for any of this but it seems that these external forces are also cyclical. The movement of software to India never became as much a factor as predicted. Following the Internet bubble people still created new companies and new ideas in software especially as phones and tablets came onto the market. But there was still a misperception for a while in both cases.

    • 2. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  February 6, 2015 at 9:59 am

      To add anecdotal evidence about the dotcom bust, I was a student right at that time, graduating in May 2001. I had many friends who had job offers rescinded because of the bust. When those stories made it back to friends I knew in the department, the result was devastating and a lot of people switched to a different major because they were afraid of the same thing happening to them.

  • 3. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  February 6, 2015 at 10:07 am

    If we do accept this as an explanation, the immediate question then becomes what we can do about it. The external factors are beyond our control. The speed with which we can bring on new faculty is also beyond our control (and often under the purview of state legislatures that aren’t always up to date on the latest trends in academia).

    So we are given a sudden influx of students that require more sections than we can offer. Our rooms for existing sections are at capacity, so we cannot just add more students to existing sections. Is it better to just do first-come-first-serve for all classes? Or to add progression standards and grade prerequisites as filters for the better students? (And, thanks to your encouragement, I am currently planning a study to see the effects of our changes on enrollment.)

    In previous posts, you and others have seemed to suggest that the latter approach reduces diversity by implicitly endorsing the geek gene myth (those who are best in CS1 will be best in the field overall). But it also seems to me that the former approach reduces diversity, particularly in regard to socioeconomic status. Students from lower SES will be less likely to wait around for a required class because an extra semester or two is a huge financial burden.

    So the question is, what can we do?

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  February 6, 2015 at 10:20 am

      That’s what the Google grant program is about, and is a big topic of conversation in all the computing education communities I’m part of (e.g., ACM Education Council, NSF BPC). There are various solutions being tried, and I don’t know that we have enough evidence to recommend any of them. For example, the Ed Council is exploring creating a TEALS-like program, to bring in professionals from industry who might want to try teaching intro courses to help fill in the gaps. I know that there are places who are taking the best students and putting them in all on-line classes — those students can most easily learn on their own, and it leaves the in-class seats for those who could most benefit from the face-to-face help.

      It’s a really hard problem.

      • 5. Bonnie  |  February 7, 2015 at 2:24 pm

        “bring in professionals from industry who might want to try teaching intro courses”… Hmm, that sounds awfully like “bring in the adjuncts”, which lots of schools do already. We use a lot of adjuncts at my school, but try really hard not to staff intro courses with them, because they are not as available to struggling students and cannot mentor them the way a fulltimer can.

  • 6. Ivan  |  February 7, 2015 at 5:01 am

    Around of quarter of degrees awarded in the CIS field that get reported in the US nationwide statistics, more in some years, are by nearly fraudulent, for profit diploma mills (eg Phoenix).

    Looking at the real data for non-profit institutions might be helpful for really understanding these trends.

    And all sorts of the “elite” schools like Yale could always just stop admitting so many students who major in History and English and whatever if they wanted more CS students, minorities and all. No one can pretend they don’t have sufficient applicants. To a certain extent, for places that could easily afford any staff and fixed expenses, enrollment caps are completely artificial.


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