An analysis of survey results from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles (HERI/UCLA) indicates that the popularity of computer science (CS) as a major among incoming freshmen at all undergraduate institutions has dropped significantly in the past four years. Alarmingly, the proportion of women who thought that they might major in CS has fallen to levels unseen since the early 1970s.
The percentage of incoming undergraduates indicating that they would major in CS declined by over 60 percent between the Fall of 2000 and 2004, and is now 70 percent lower than its peak in the early 1980s (Figure 1).
Freshmen interest levels at any given point have been an accurate predictor of trends in the number of degrees granted four to five years later. It therefore seems likely that there will be a sharp decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees granted in CS in the coming decade. Results from CRA’s Taulbee Survey of Ph.D.-granting CS departments reinforce this: the number of newly declared CS majors has declined for the past four years and is now 39 percent lower than in the Fall of 2000. Enrollments have declined 7 percent in each of the past two years (see www.cra.org/info/taulbee/bachelors).
Figure 2 provides a sense of changing interests among incoming freshmen. The majors included within the groupings can be found below.
The upcoming drop in CS degree production will highlight the field’s inability to appeal to incoming female undergraduates. Overall, interest in CS among women fell 80 percent between 1998 and 2004, and 93 percent since its peak in 1982.
Although newly-enrolled women have always been less likely than men to indicate CS as their probable major, the gap between them remained relatively narrow through 1980 (Figure 1). During the surge and drop in interest that occurred in the 1980s, however, the difference between men and women more than doubled. While their interest levels continued to parallel each other, it was at this time that CS appears to have lost its ability to attract incoming undergraduate women. During the second surge of interest in CS that occurred in the mid- to late 1990s, women’s interest in the field did not grow at the same rate as men’s. As a result, the gap between men and women who thought that they would major in CS tripled between the early and late 1990s. Although the difference might appear to have narrowed in recent years, this is because the percentage of women interested in CS was low to begin with, whereas men’s interest levels have had room to fall.
Unsurprisingly, freshmen women’s dwindling interest in CS has affected degree production trends (Figure 3). Unlike most other fields, which have seen women’s representation increase over time, the portion of CS degrees granted to women fell in the late 1980s and has yet to return above 30 percent. With a fall in degree production looming, it is difficult to see how CS can match expected future demand for IT workers without raising women’s participation at the undergraduate level.
Sources and further information:
HERI/UCLA’s “CIRP Freshman Survey” is an annual survey of the characteristics of students attending colleges and universities as first-time, full-time freshmen: www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/freshman.html.
Fields included in Figure 2’s groupings:
(Computer Science is categorized by HERI/UCLA in a group called ‘Other’, which was not included in this article).
Arts and humanities
Art, fine and applied
English (language and literature)
Language and literature (except English)
Theater or drama
Theology or religion
Other arts and humanities
Biochemistry or biophysics
Marine (life) science
Microbiology or bacteriology
Other biological science
Business administration (general)
Music or art education
Physical education or recreation
Aeronautical or astronautical engineering
Electrical or electronic engineering
Atmospheric science (including Meteorology)
Other physical science
Architecture or urban planning
Health technology (medical, dental, laboratory)
Library or archival science
Medicine, dental, veterinarian
Therapy (occupational, physical, speech)
Political science (gov’t, int’l relations)
Other social science
Data processing or computer programming
Drafting or design