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The decline in computer science students (part 2)

June 24, 2008 1 Comment

I previously discussed the up-and-down cycle of college enrollment in computer science and related fields. More accurately put, there have been two large peaks in computer science enrollment: one in the mid- to late 1980s (which happens to be when I was teaching CS at Brigham Young University) and another right around the turn of the 21st century.  Here’s the CRA chart I included in that previous post (click on the chart to see a larger version):

Back in 1985-87, while I was teaching at BYU, I mentioned to my friend Wayne Holder — one the finest software engineers I’ve ever known — that students at BYU could no longer simply declare their major to be Computer Science; instead, they had to take certain prerequisites, apply to the CS department, and be accepted. Wayne thought that was too complicated. He suggested that the prospective candidate be put into a room with (a) a bowlful of money and (b) some really nifty hardware and software. The candidate could then choose either to grab a handful of money and leave or to hang out and play with the computer gear; those who chose the latter would be admitted to the program.

I think Wayne was dead on, and this article in Computerworld (hat tip to Slashdot) tends to support that, though the survey quoted in from the United Kingdom rather than the United States:

Responses from nearly 2,000 undergraduates across the UK showed that most students think the IT sector has a bright future with good prospects for highly paid jobs.

But over 60% of non-computing students do not wish to enter the sector because they think it will be boring.

I’ve written before that talent is a key factor in IT personnel issues, and only a small portion of the general population appears to be talented in IT. People who have little or no aptitude for IT are likely to find it boring at best and confusing at worst.

However, that natural aversion to IT has been overcome at least twice in the last 30 years. The first time was in the mid-1980s and was largely a response to the explosive growth of the personal computer industry, led by Apple, IBM and Microsoft, but including many, many firms making both hardware and software. I wrote for BYTE Magazine back then, and individual issues of BYTE ran anywhere from 300 to nearly 600 pages, due to the sheer volume of ads. My observation as a CS instructor at BYU was that many of our students had come into the program thinking they were going become rich and/or famous, like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.  They viewed computer science the same way my fellow undergrads a decade earlier had looked at law or med school. Hence the tremendous run-up in CS enrollment, not just at BYU but all across the United States.

Then came the First Tech Crash, which hit around 1988 — helped along, if not outright triggered by the stock market crash in October 1987 — and lasted into 1991 or so. Large numbers of hardware and software companies went out of business, and the personal computer market pretty much narrowed down to IBM and a small number of IBM PC clone manufacturers, with Apple treading water (at best). The chart above shows how CS enrollment mirrored that crash. By the early 1990s, the joke in the IT industry was: “Do you know what the status symbol of the 90s is? A job.”

CS enrollment nationwide was pretty flat from 1991 to 1997, and down at a level that you’d have to go back to 1981 to match. Most likely, people going into computer science at that time were — like me, all the way back in 1974 — going into it because we liked the field, not because we thought we’d be rich.

By 1998, however, the “dot-com boom” had become visible enough to start driving CS enrollment up again. There was an enormous demand for software engineers, with a lot of venture capital to back it up — news articles reported programmers being recruited out of high school, and CS graduates were getting large salaries and signing bonuses. Beyond that was the vision of the “nerd lottery” (to use Bruce Henderson’s phrase): dot-com startups would go public, and many of the startup’s employees (right down to receptionists) would walk away multi-millionaires. Mainstream corporations tried to get in on the dot com boom as well, starting various e-commerce and internet intiatives.

In just about this same time period, the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem got everyone’s attention, and even those organizations, both commercial and governmental, that kept the dot-com craziness at arm’s length found themselves having to do exhaustive testing and remediation of their IT systems from top to bottom. Business and government in the United States would end up spending $110 billion on Y2K remediation, all in just a few years.

As the chart shows, CS enrollement skyrocketed again, nearly tripling from 1997 to 2003, largely due to the combination of these two factors.  Unfortunately for those students, Y2K remediation largely finished up almost at the same time the Second Tech Crash (or “Dot Com Crash”) started, namely March 2000. The NASDAQ stock index peaked at its all-time high value of 5048.62 on March 10, 2000, a 100% increase over what it had been just a year earlier. (Stop and think about that: what if the Dow Jones Industrial Average were to hit 24,000 a year from now?) It was a classic bubble, and now it was popping, or at least deflating; the NASDAQ index currently trades at less than half that value. (Note that the DJIA is up roughly 20% — and was up over 30% earlier this year — from its value on that same date eight years ago.)

This tech crash was far more brutal than the first one. The IT employment marketplace was flooded with massive numbers of IT engineers who were no longer needed, one way or the other, and even talented IT engineers had a hard time getting visibility over the sheer number of warm bodies out there.  But it took a while for that feedback to get back into the colleges and universities; enrollment continued to climb until about 2003 but appears to have been slumping since then (see the chart above) and could actually drop back nearly to where it was when I graduated with my own CS degree some 30 years ago.

In other words, the real issue isn’t why CS enrollment is declining; the question is why did it ever climb so high in the first place? And it’s pretty clear that it tracks the two major bubbles of the past 30 years: the personal computer boom in the mid-1980s and the dot-com/Y2K boom of the late 1990s. After each bubble deflates, CS enrollment sinks back to its “natural” level, based on the distribution of IT-related talent and inclination in the general population.

The problem, however — as I first noted over 12 years ago — is that this “natural” level isn’t enough to supply sufficient IT talent for successful IT develompment and deployment in all the businesses, vendors, government agencies and other organizations that need it.

In my opinion, there is no shortage of IT engineers — particularly not after the vast numbers drawn into the industry due to Y2K and the dot-com boom — there’s just a shortage of talented ones. This is why you get conflicting claims and statistics about “personnel shortages” in the IT industry (cf. here vs. here, as well as the battle over raising the limit on H-1B visas and the offshoring debate).

The various attempts to “boost” CS enrollment at colleges and universities will have only a small effect on that talent shortage; for the most part, it will likely bring additional people into the IT industry who lack the talent or inclination to do well there.  In other words, it won’t solve our IT problems at all.  ..bruce..

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About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at bwebster@bfwa.com.

Comments (1)

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  1. L2H says:

    You are leaving the economic piece out of this chart. During the two bubbles your chart shows, the requirements for talent rose, and so did the starting salaries for that talent.

    At least some portion of the depression in IT students has to do with the cost of an IT degree measured in the amount of Student Loans vs. the number of years to Pay off said loans. Do you have a chart that compares the cost of an IT degree vs. Starting IT Salaries over the same period?

    Since H1B visas will fill much of the demand, there are fewer entry-level jobs and those jobs pay lower Starting Salaries then they would without H1B visas filling jobs.

    So, you have fewer IT students. Or to stretch Wayne Holder’s test to make my point, when you have to put a fist full of dollars in another bowl in order to hang out and work with the computers, it becomes much less attractive to even the most talented and interested among us.

    You might enjoy reading the article “The H1B Visa Sham” By John Miano at FrontPageMagazine.com for a good statistical look at H1B visas.

    Perhaps you would also take some time to read my (long) comments there. Although, my comments are based on my experience and not statistics.

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