American college students aren’t flocking to computer science

Credit: Image credit: flickr/Benson Kalahar

Strong demand for software developers doesn’t seem to be influencing the choice of major for U.S. college students

It’s no secret that demand for software developers is sky high these days, with no signs of easing up, which helps to explain the crazy salaries and benefit packages they’re being offered. This also, of course, isn’t a new thing, either; developers have been in demand, and been getting well paid, for quite some time. Surely, then, the appeal of a well-paying career writing code has translated into an increasing percentage of college students choosing to study computer science in recent years, right?

Turns out not really, according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics’ Digest of Educational Statistics on undergraduate degrees awarded in the United States over the past 40 years. NPR recently used these data to highlight the changing distributions of college degree subjects since 1970 in one handy, interactive graph. If you click on any subject, you get a graph of the percentage of degrees awarded to that subject over the years. Here's the one for computer science:

npr_cs_degrees-600x400_0.jpgImage credit: Quoctrung Bui/NPR
The percentage of U.S. college degrees awarded in computer science since 1981 has been fairly constant

Here we see that the trend for CS degrees as a percentage of all U.S. college degrees awarded has been pretty flat since 1981 (2.2% of all degrees then, 2.76% in 2011).

We do see two distinct peaks, one in 1985 (4.4% of U.S. college degrees) and one in 2002 (4.42%). These would represent big increases for the classes entering school in 1981 and 1998 respectively. The former year corresponds to the beginning of computers coming into the home and the release of things like MS-DOS 1.0, all of which may have increased interest in programming. The latter year was during the dot com bubble, which, no doubt, also boosted interest. 

In short, despite the red hot market for developers, it doesn’t seem that the rate at which undergrad students are choosing to major in computer science is increasing ery much.

As NPR points out, the subject areas with the most significant growth in degrees awarded over the years are business and health professions. Computer science still lags behind a lot of other subjects in terms of popularity. Other subjects that awarded more degrees in 2011 than computer science (47K degrees) included Art & Performance (96K), Communications and Journalism (83K) and psychology (101K).

Are to we to conclude then, that the gap between the supply of and demand for programmers will grow over time? Not necessarily. Certainly, you can become a software developer without a computer science degree. Undoubtedly, some of the business, communications or arts majors will find their way into programming. And, these days, you don’t even have to graduate from college to get hired as a programmer. If you can code well, you’ll be in demand. 

All the same, I find the lack of more students choosing computer science as a major a bit surprising. Perhaps people are still scared off by it? Or maybe students just assume they can always make a career of it and may as well study something else that they find more interesting? It will be interesting to see how and if things change in the coming years.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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