Meeting the demand

SCS now turns away almost 95 percent of those who apply to its undergraduate program, which leads to two obvious questions: Can more students be admitted without diluting the qualities that made the program so desirable in the first place? If so, how?

Scaling up the CS undergraduate program means “potentially, more dorms, more cafeterias, more post office, more everything,” says Tom Cortina, associate teaching professor and SCS assistant dean for undergraduate education.

Many feel called, but few are chosen for Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate computer science program.

In 2015, according to the university’s admission office, 6,756 high school students applied to SCS for admission as first-year computer science students. Only 350 were admitted—a rate of less than 5.2 percent. (About 150 are expected to enroll.)

Compare that to the 19 percent acceptance rate for CMU’s other seven undergraduate programs. It’s even more selective than the acceptance rates at Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

“The demand is absolutely stunning,” says Klaus Sutner, SCS teaching professor and associate dean for undergraduate programs. “The admission office is doing a heroic job taking this very large number of qualified students and trying to filter them down. It’s very frustrating to have to turn so many people away.”

Prospective students are attracted to an undergraduate computer science curriculum that’s arguably the best in the world—and, according to several published reports, the most lucrative for graduates.

That’s left SCS with a dilemma—how can it meet the overwhelming demand without diluting the very qualities that make its undergraduate program so desirable?

It’s not—pardon the pun—an academic question. Faculty and administrators are studying possible ways to dramatically increase the size of the undergraduate population, including what that would entail in terms of raising money, adding classrooms, attracting teaching talent and expanding the applicant pool.

Of course, no final decision has been made to proceed, no timetable has been attached and no exact target figure has been decided. SCS currently has about 600 undergraduates. If—for example—the decision were made to double that number, Sutner says, scaling up the undergraduate program would not mean simply multiplying everything by two. “That would be a mistake inherently, and also in terms of allocating resources,” he says.

Growing the SCS undergraduate program also would have a significant ripple effect on every other university department and unit, from housing, dining and transportation to other undergraduate departments that teach CS majors. “You’re talking, potentially, more dorms, more cafeterias, more post office, more everything,” says Tom Cortina, associate teaching professor and SCS assistant dean for undergraduate education.  “However,” he adds, quickly, “the demand is there.”

In fact, the demand for computer science degrees is a national trend, according to the annual Taulbee Survey of U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities conducted by the Computing Research Association. The number of CS majors in the United States has climbed steadily since 2007, with double-digit enrollment increases in three years, the CRA reports.

That still may not be enough to meet the requirements of the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American economy in 2020 will have 1.4 million jobs that require a computer science degree—but only 400,000 computer science graduates. BLS says that 70 percent of all newly created jobs for the remainder of this decade will be in computer science.

It’s not the first time that interest in computer science careers has reached a fever pitch. Many SCS faculty remember the “dot-com boom” of the late 1990s; it was followed by the “dot-com crash” of 2000-2001, and after the crash, the number of students seeking CS degrees plummeted. But the conditions that led to the crash no longer exist, says Frank Pfenning, President’s Professor of Computer Science and head of the Computer Science Department. “There have been deep changes in society since then in terms of the role of computer science, not just in our field but in other fields,” he says. “I expect that (the demand) will probably level out, but it won’t crash.”

The tech industry “can’t get enough new engineers,” reported the GeekWire website in 2014, and although more and more college students “want to become computer scientists … in many cases there isn’t enough room or faculty to meet the demand.”

A few commentators argue there are actually too many students going into computer science for the number of technology jobs available. Writing in the IEEE Spectrum in 2013, Robert N. Charette called the perceived shortfall of science and technology graduates “more fiction than reality” and said some CS and IT graduates were not finding work in their fields. But U.S. News and World Report points out that many computer scientists aren’t working in computing because they’re also in demand in non-technology industries such as finance.

“Computer science really, really matters, and it matters to non-CS majors,” says David Kosbie (CS’90), assistant teaching professor in the Computer Science Department. “The world needs better medicine, better materials, better art, better science, better movies, more efficient buildings, and all of these things require computing.”

At Carnegie Mellon, applications to SCS’s undergraduate program have more than doubled since 2010, when 3,046 high school students applied. Yet the number of slots available for students has remained more or less the same. In 2010, 143 first-year students entered CMU as computer science majors; 151 new undergrads entered SCS in 2011, 127 in 2012, and 138 in both 2013 and 2014.

(SCS’s undergraduate program is facing other pressures as well, such as the demand from non-majors for CMU’s computer science classes. Some 700 to 800 students take the Fundamentals of Computer Programming course every year; only 10 percent or so are CS majors. “The number of non-majors who take our courses has exploded,” Pfenning says; according to Cortina, virtually every other college at CMU requires its students to take at least one computer science course.)

Comparing the admission rate to CMU’s undergraduate computer science program to those at other universities is difficult, because many comparable universities don’t require students to declare a major until their sophomore year, while others combine computer science with electrical engineering or other disciplines.

But there isn’t any difficulty figuring out why so many students want a bachelor’s degree in computer science from CMU. In a word: Jobs. One widely quoted (if unscientific) published survey claims that graduates with a newly minted B.S. in computer science from CMU have the highest starting salaries not only in their field, but in any field. In a survey done by SCS in May 2014, the median starting salary reported by students graduating with a B.S. in computer science was $100,000. According to a Wall Street Journal survey of corporate recruiters, CMU computer science graduates are more highly sought than any others. “We have companies, literally, competing with one another for our students,” Sutner says.

Why are SCS grads so highly desired? Pfenning argues the design of the SCS undergraduate program results in a different kind of computer scientist than those graduating from some other universities. “A lot of schools provide a very shallow understanding of computer science as programming,” he says. “For the first two years, we just teach fundamentals, before (students) really start to specialize. We’re not in the business of giving our undergraduates a vocational education. We’re in the business of broadly educating them in the field of computer science.” Students who overspecialize too soon will find themselves “boxed in” later in their careers, Pfenning says. Adds Kosbie: “I think we get really, really good students, and I think we do better with ours than MIT and Stanford.”

Besides the major fundraising effort that would be required to increase the number of undergraduates admitted to SCS, other constraints include recruiting teaching-track faculty—in computer science and other departments—and advisors. Graduate programs also would have to grow to provide additional teaching assistants; and unlike other universities, Pfenning notes, CMU doesn’t offer teaching fellowships for Ph.D. students.

“If we (were to) have double the number of students doing research, will we have enough faculty to keep them engaged?” Cortina asks. Preserving the gender diversity of SCS’s undergraduate program is also a concern, he says: “If we were to double the size of the program, what would the demographic profile be?”

Kosbie and others suspect that scaling the program up drastically would require additional automation—for example, to help grade student work—and some component of online learning. “Eventually, we are going to replace clever course design by humans with more clever course design by computers,” he says. “The future is to beat our competitors in the online game with something better, while still leveraging the tremendous human resources we have here at CMU.”

If SCS were to begin admitting more students, Kosbie is concerned about getting a bigger pool of applicants from which to choose. SCS, he says, must work harder to keep top students from bypassing CMU in favor of East Coast and West Coast schools with bigger “brand names.” Kosbie advocates expanding SCS’s outreach to K-12 schools—perhaps even developing a branded “CMU computer science” curriculum that could be offered, free of charge, to educators. “We have got to get into these students’ consciousness more so they don’t just go to MIT and Stanford,” he says.

Under the current conditions, Cortina has an additional worry. He thinks SCS’s current low acceptance rates may actually be working against it. “I worry we may be losing some superstars who don’t even bother to apply here due to those very low acceptance rates,” Cortina says.

Despite the serious challenges to expanding the program, Pfenning argues that standing still isn’t acceptable, either. Growing the undergraduate program would “require extremely careful planning and research,” he says. “But we currently have to turn away an enormous number of undergrads who would do extremely well here. Industry views our students as really being the top graduates, and we don’t supply enough of them. We would be doing both ourselves and the economy a favor if we could educate additional students.”

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Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 |