Computer science major loses favor

U.S. students are turning off to computer science degrees, fearing new technology jobs will be in India. The San Jose Merc reports on a new survey:

Undergraduates in U.S. universities are starting to abandon their studies in computer technology and engineering amid widespread worries about the accelerating pace of offshoring by high-technology employers.

A new study, to be published in May, shows there was a dramatic drop-off of enrollment in those fields last year — 19 percent — and some educators warn about the potential consequences for America’s global competitiveness.

Enrollment in undergraduate computer-science courses continued to grow after the collapse of the dot-com bubble until the sharp decline in the 2002-03 academic year, according to the Washington-based Computing Research Association. The number of newly declared majors in computer science also showed a sudden 23 percent plunge last year.

San Francisco State is trying to create programming internships for students to lure them back to information technology.

About Joanne


  1. I can understand the rationale of students not wanting to pursue degrees in computer science or information systems. The potential for rewards is there, but you’ll spend your entire career with your nose in a book, if you want to keep current on material.

  2. Trends in college majors are nothing new. Just think of all those who want to study Aramaic in the coming years….

    Of course, most of the techie types at my work were self-taught to a good degree. Unlike nuclear physics, computer science is something many of us could study at home.

  3. College kids need to keep in mind that a CS degree can be useful for things other than programming/software engineering per se. If I were hiring a product marketing manager in a software-related business(and I’ve hired a lot of ’em, directly and indirectly), I would ideally want someone who had (a)sales experience, (b)marketing training and experience, and (c)software education/experience. So an undergrad CS degree, coupled with an MBA and then a job in field sales, makes a pretty potent package.

  4. My son has a BS in CS – unlike Information Technology, specific operating system or programming languages, etc. you are NOT likely to want to do this at home. Computer Science is mostly mathematics.

  5. It may indeed be true that enrolment is down due to outsourcing. However its also possible that enrolment is down for some other reason, maybe the dot-com bust? Maybe the writer has an agenda –
    promoting the evils of outsourcing? Maybe he’s just repeating something that his interview subjects tossed out – as an aside, don’t you find it amazing that business writers are always able to condense the reasons for market movements into a few words leaving no room for doubt. In any case the speed of this movement contrasts pretty
    remarkably with the existence of continuously strong enrolments in English, Sociology, and other programs not exactly noted for being career opportunity engines.

  6. I have to commend PeterW’s comments in regard to business writers and their ability to get to the story without bothering with all the facts. It sure is a good thing no other journalists ever engage in such behavior.

  7. Cousin Dave says:

    A few observations: First of all, in my area, companies are screaming for more computer scientists and software engineers. Part of the problem, from what I’ve seen of new hires over the last ten years, is that few schools teach the subject properly. Just learning a bunch of programming languages does not constitute computer science. Graduates come out of school without the skills they need, and so when they get into a complex field (like aerospace, my field) they face a long period of on-the-job learning and apprenticeship before they become productive. In the aerospace field, we generally figure that it will take a fresh-out-of-school new hire a year to get to the level where they can accomplish anything without constant direction and assistance. That means that for a year, not only are they not being productive, but they are tying up a more experienced engineer in the process of bringing them up to speed. That makes it tough for companies to consider a lot of new hires, despite the lower salaries they can command. Internships help tremendously in this regard, but it seems that few colleges offer them any more, and few students are interested.

    And then there’s the social factor. Let’s face it: in our society today, engineers might be admired, but they’re not popular. That is, a lot of people may hold engineers in the abstract in high regard — but that doesn’t mean they want to go out drinking with one. Consider the usual social stereotypes: nerd, geek, pencil-neck, bad haircut, ugly clothes, pocket protectors, too white, too male, muttering acronyms and formulas with lots of Greek letters in them, etc. Away from work I’ve been involved in some un-typical activities like playing in rock bands and participating in ballroom dancing contests. When I’m in these environments and I tell people what I do for a living, they are nearly always surprised because I seem so… well, human. I’ve actually gotten this: “You’re an engineer? Gee, you sure don’t look like one.” Obviously I’m not living up to expectations. Consider the protaganists of TV shows and the type of person usually portrayed in those roles. Doctors? Life-saving, caring to a fault, working their fingers to the bone for a higher purpose, and richly rewarded for it. Lawyers? Powerful, commanding, leaders, movers and shakers. Fighting for the little guy against the evils of society. And richly rewarded for it. Engineers? Well, actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find one on TV. If you do, it’s almost bound to be some kind of “mad scientist” bent on blowing up the world, or evil corporate syncophant raping the environment (and, inevitably, it’s a white male syncophant). I can name exactly two TV series that portrayed an engineer in a positive light: McGuyver and My Three Sons. One every other decade, whether the world is ready for it or not. And nobody on either of these shows was getting rich.

    Considering all this, and the amount of effort required to not only get a job but keep up with the constantly shifting landscape, why would anyone want to go into a technical profession today? Incoming college students look at the risk-reward ratio and perceive that it isn’t worth it. You can make a lot more money as a doctor, and you don’t have to work nearly as hard as a lawyer, and either way you will be much more popular with the ladies, or so they say (I wouldn’t know).

    As for the outsourcing: Some things aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Over the last decade I’ve come into contact with several foreign computer software subcontractors, and I am not impressed. In some countries, India being an example, they give out Ph. D.’s like candy and pretty much everyone has one; I had an Indian acquaintance tell me once that a Ph. D. from an Indian university is about equivalent to a B. S. from an American university. I’ve wrestled with foreign programmers who could write code but had no understanding of the subject matter, resulting in a project disaster in which half of the code had to be re-written after delivery. I’ve had the experience of having to re-write requirements in pictures and made-up heiroglyphics because the foreign programming team (Chinese, in this case, but it happens elsewhere too) had almost no comprehension of written English, and I’ve had the experience of having to wade through uncommented, undocumented code because the programmers couldn’t write English. Like it or not, English is the de facto language of computer programming and aerospace, and in many countries this aspect of it is lacking.

    So, my take is that an American-trained programmer or software engineer has nothing to fear from foreign competition. There may be a lot of it, and it’s getting better, but we have the capability to get even better faster. A well-educated computer scientist who makes an effort to stay current in the field will never lack for work. In 25 years in the industry, the longest I’ve ever been out of work was six weeks, and more often than not, when changing jobs, I’ve had my pick of offers. Of course, I interned and took advanced courses in school, and I constantly take more training and keep up my education. The “cool” quotient of the work I do has got to be in the top 1% of all of the jobs in the world. And I’m compensated rather nicely for it, thank you. Now, I can’t fight the mass media’s attempts to run down my profession and people like me. But then again, I don’t care about any of that stuff anyway. I’ve got my wife and my friends and I don’t feel any need to try to win popularity contests. Young adults entering college aren’t always so self-confident, and when the combined message from mass media, peer pressure, and the primary education establishment is that they are going to turn themselves into bumbling/evil nerds if they go into this field, they don’t. I don’t know what the answer to that is.

  8. Cousin Dave,

    You could be talking about many professions when you mention how education doesn’t offer enough practical application. The educational system (collegiate) isn’t designed for actual training in many fields. Things are often theory and theory, followed by some skills training without any clear connections to actual practical application.

    The internship route is a good idea (I benefitted), but not a practical one for many college students. Too many have nearly full-time jobs, take classes in between shifts rather than the other way around, and don’t have the financial backing to take a low or unpaid position at a company which may or may not offer real experience or guidance. You sound like someone who had an excellent experience, but not everyone can make the sacrifices.

    As for the image of computer scientists, I’m sure that there aren’t any teachers who can relate. Me? I’m a librarian. We’ve always been cool.

  9. The graduates from our 4 year college here in CS and IS are virtually unemployable due to the use of too much theory, and not enough hands-on, real world problem solving which makes a business run.

    The local comm. college I attend does a far better job in practical application of knowledge and imparting of theory to students, which is why at 1/2 the cost, the graduates come out ready to be productive with just a minor amount of training.

    If only the 4 year college didn’t have such a turf-war and pissing contest over the comm. college, the students could really benefit from it (however, politics is politics)…(sigh).

  10. I don’t know why this is such a surprise… In addition to the decrease in the number of people going into the software field, there’s an increase in the number of people leaving it… There was a period where anyone with any claim to computers was guaranteed an incredible salary… Now, that’s not the case… And all of the accountants and roofers that learned how to program in their basements are now returning to accounting and roofing…

    That being the case, there’s still a glut of programmers in the market… It would only make sense for a college freshman to pick a field of study that will most likely land them a good job when they are done… That means picking fields where the demand for employees is high and the supply is low… Computers is not one of those fields…

    This reminds me of myself in high school… I really wanted to be an aerospace engineer… Unfortunately, I remember seeing several news stories describing the large number of aerospace engineers that were going back to school so they could get a job… Hence, I got a C.S. degree…

    BTW: Computer Science is worthless for most of the industry… More universities need to invest in Software Engineering programs…

  11. Da C Man says:

    As a Computer Science graduate with emphasis in Software Engineering, I’ve noticed that many companies don’t necessarily understand what it is they’re hiring, particularly if they are not in the computer industry. Knowing how to develop efficient algorithms and scalable software seems to be overlooked in favor of being fluent in a laundry list of languages. The questions I’ve been asked at interviews are not “How would you design…?” but instead are “Do you know C? Do you know Perl?” With that being the case, I can understand why community colleges are doing so well in language-oriented classes whereas four-year colleges suffer in their CS/SE programs.

  12. My son is a freshman computer science major. He chose computer science because he loves it, not with any concern about what jobs might be available when he graduates. He loves problem solving and is happy being a ‘nerd’.
    A college major does not necessarily translate into a career, after all. I was a psychology major, and now, 29 years later, I am a technical consultant, implementing enterprise system management projects and training people how to use them.
    There are a lot of CS positions available at a lot of companies – here in the midwest. But the coasties don’t want to move here.

  13. I’m hardly a tech industry insider, but I have several family members in the industry, and not a single one of them has a degree in CS. They range from my brother (who didn’t go to college at all, just learned some languages on his own) to my dad (who recently got his Master’s in Business Information Systems, not CS). I suspect one of the reasons CS degrees are less in demand is that degrees in CS are not what is required any more for a tech job.

  14. Jack Tanner says:

    The fact that CS and IS graduates have decreased in this country for the last 20 years is one of the reasons companies turned to outsourcing. There may be a glut of developers in this country but many of them have outdated skills. There’s a tremendous misunderstanding of outsourcing and economics but back to one of the earlier comments that people with limited skills were demanding exorbinant salaries is correct. There are a lot of factors involved – way to many to discuss in a comments post – but the laws of supply and demand won’t be repealed which is bad news for a lot of QA testers, SQL coders, dbas, sys admins, vb developers and mainframe programmers.

  15. Actually, the concept of outsourced coding being better than home grown code is a myth. Indian programmers often code NO better or worse than US talent, they just cost less is all.

    While they might be superb coders, they don’t have any accumen as to how a business actually works, and if the business can’t generate income from the software, it can’t stay in business.

    Interesting, no? 🙂

  16. Jack Tanner says:

    Over half of the technical consulting firms that hold the highest ISO certification for programming are Indian firms. Indian programmers are much more likely to have industry certification and graduate degrees in engineering fields.

  17. Jack, is this supposed to impress me? Somehow, I would wonder how much paperwork went into obtaining the ISO certification, and as another poster pointed out, is the quality of education really that much better? I’m not so sure, anymore.

  18. ISO certification says nothing about the quality of your product or service; it does not certify the product. All ISO certification says is that you have a management system, processes, customer feedback, etc., and that you follow your system.

    I say this as an ISO lead auditor and former chemist/engineer who now designs and implements management systems. So I know a bit of what I speak.

    I am also spending a lot of time these days working with information systems and knowledge management issues, including security/control/access issues. The biggest problem that I find is not finding someone who can go do coding; the problem is designing the system in the first place. My biggest complaint is that most software I encounter is designed by techies for fellow techies, and gives little or no consideration to the needs and skills of the end users. The coolest design is useless if users can’t easily both put information IN and get information and reports OUT quickly, easily, and on demand. If your system can’t do that, then people are gonna develope their own workarounds and use those instead.

    Cousin Dave’s definitely got it right: recent grads take at least a year or two before they’re competent enough to be worth their salary.

  19. Seconding Claire’s comment…most CS programs seem to give little or no attention to the design of user interfaces. And some of the interfaces one sees on widely-deployed systems give the impression that no thought at all has been given to the interface (like credit card terminals that ask APPROVE: YES/NO while the yes & no buttons are actually in the opposite order; ie, NO/YES.) A trivial example, perhaps, but revealing.

    I think bad system design is a huge tax on US productivity. Given the huge amounts being spent on IT, we ought to be getting far better systems.

  20. My professor friend here in the IS department at the local college teaches a course entitled “Software User Interface Design” in which she attempts to expand the level of knowledge of the student as it relates to software usability. She also stresses that coding is the easy part, it’s the design phase which is often the hardest part to do well (ala SDLC).

    I agree with Claire, you can have the greatest software in the world, but if it’s too difficult to use, no one will use it. Also, design is really a skill and a artform, in my opinion.

  21. Kirk Parker says:

    Heh. My favorite bad interface is the credit-card gas pump at a local station: when you get to a certain point, the LCD display reads “Put the nozzle in the filler [or words to that effect] and press Start to begin fueling.” However, the actual button is labelled “Press”.

    In a similar vein, my kids just saw a movie on MST3K that was titled “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” — except when you got to the closing credits, the movie was instead referred to as “The Head that Wouldn’t Die”.

  22. Cousin Dave –
    1) I remember undergraduate school being in engineering – who were the guys having a great time every night ? Humanities, arts, business, . . . Who were the guys “bustin’ their humps and wearing out their slide rules”? Engineering majors. Hey – the math, Computer and hard sciences and engineering paths are LOTS of HARD work, starting with appropriate course work in high school – – why would kids want to work hard? Especially if they see the outsourcing, layoffs, hire and fire cycles. . . . [I would also note that I think I had a very efficient public secondary school education (NJ), any faults therein were most likely mine not the school’s – but what I see today (CA), 40 years later is not at all comparable and a pityfully poor “academic” shadow at best compared to what I had.]

    2) My wife of 32+ years was an RN and frequently says to and of me: “YOU think DIFFERENTLY – You’re an engineer”. Yes, at least I was educated/trained as one and the preceding quote from my wife in print cannot even begin to hint at or convey the TONE and emphasis she uses when she “hurls” that near epithet at me! 🙂 Further- it is true my now adult boys can always pick out other engineers they may meet because of their “thought/behavior/analytic” behavior patterns – and are more often right than not if they ask for confirmation. Their response to the individual is usually, “how did I know? you sound like my dad!”

    Cousin Dave and Clair are right – in my field – defense electronics, new grad hires have a steep learning curve that first year. My experience is that “good” design is characterized as: simple, well thought through, implemented with good human factors considerations, and reflective in general terms of the culture/thought patterns/values of the individuals who will use it. (e.g the difference between using “regular” calculators and those employing Reverse Polish Notation[RPN])

    I have been fortunate and the BSEE w/MS Sys Mgt. has served me well and provided/provides well for me and my family – who am I to complain? I consider myself a “rich” and fortunate man, blessed in so many ways – of course you note I am still working for a living, 🙂

  23. U.S. students shun computer sciences

    “The cause is subject to speculation, but many educators say their students are worried that the growing trend of sending software-industry work overseas limits their future opportunities.”

    … Boy, is this a lousy article! I really don’t think students worry about “offshoring”. I have seen various forms of this article over the years. I think the internet bubble burst had a delayed effect. The industry is no longer hot and glamorous. Besides, getting a computer science or software engineering degree takes a whole lot of hard work.

    I remember some students I had many years ago when I taught college math and computer science. They liked the idea of a high-paying career, but it seemed they did not like to program. I told them that they were in for tough life.

    In my software development business, I have been approached by numerous Russian and Indian companies looking to take over a portion of my software development. I have not been impressed. Perhaps if you are a large corporation with lots of simple or low-end programming needs, this might work. For critical or leading edge projects I would not consider it at all.

    I think that computer science and software engineering should be promoted to all kids – not because of US competitiveness or a way to make lots of money. It should be promoted because for many kids, it many be just the thing they are looking for to have a happy and fulfilling career. As for this “nerd” business, that is just culture hype.

  24. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “In the aerospace field, we generally figure that it will take a fresh-out-of-school new hire a year to get to the level where they can accomplish anything without constant direction and assistance.”

    I got out of school and into the aerospace industry 40 years ago — and I don’t think I did much the first year. What skilled profession DOESN’T require on-the-job training?

    On the other hand, I did make some contribution because I was fresh out of school and still remember stuff others had forgotten. The class I got the most immediate use out of was one I considered a time-wasting requirement. As numerous people have pointed out, at least half your education is wasted. But there’s no way of knowing in advance which half.

  25. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘All ISO certification says is that you have a management system, processes, customer feedback, etc., and that you follow your system.’

    I used to think differently but now I understand

    good process = good product

    ‘you can have the greatest software in the world, but if it’s too difficult to use, no one will use it.’

    If it’s difficult to use then it’s not good sofrware. Design is all part of a good process. If it isn’t you can’t succeed except by luck.

  26. carlos Prochazka says:

    I think this article hits it on the head on many respects. Now whenever someone says there majoring in computer science, someone will immediately point out the outsourcing trend. Why wouldnt the number of enrollments go down. Why would students work hard and risk not finding work, when they can take something easier like business and still get paid decently. I hope all these companies that are outsourcing have a hard time finding people when they find too few technical majors graduating from us schools.

  27. I am just venting my frustration…
    I have just graduated cum laude with a BS in computer science about 4 months ago. I already hold an AS in information technology and also an AS in information systems.

    Finding a job has proven to be near impossible. Nobody wants to hire someone with no experience (I actually have 4 months of internship experience working at a software company but that is still not good enough). The only people that US companies want to hire is someone with experience so they don’t have to waste time on training them! Frankly, I am terrified of being in and out of work the rest of my life. If I would have known about these problems when I first started college I would have chosen a different career path!

    The sad part is that many of the students that were in my classes are from other countries. Our government pays for their school, their housing, their food, and they are actually not even allowed to work here since they are not US citizens. They are living here for free, not working, so of course they all do well with their grades! I struggled working two jobs and going to school full time and STILL managed to graduate with cum laude honors! I have actually known two (not one, but two!) of our computer science foreign students that copied their whole master’s thesis off of the Internet and they got away with it because “they didn’t know the rules about plagiarism in this country”. Most of them go back to their own country to live after their education is finished to work for a salary that is far less than what they would be paid if they stayed in the US. I know this because they told me they were going back! This is just at one university, but I am sure this happens throughout the whole country! If you ask me if outsourcing is a problem, I would say YES!!

    I wish something could be done about this!