A steady decline in the number of computer science majors in recent years — a trend that may have been related to the collapse of the dot-com bubble — now seems to be stabilizing, Computer Science Department chairman Avi Silberschatz said this week.
The number of juniors and seniors who declared a major in the Computer Science Department reached a peak of 71.5 students during the 2001-02 academic year, according to the Office of Institutional Research. The number dropped to 54 in 2003-04, 31 in 2004-05, and only 24.5 last year. The data includes students who are enrolled in majors that combine computer science with mathematics, psychology or electrical engineering, and these students are counted as half of an ordinary major in the data.
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Director of Undergraduate Studies Stan Eisenstat said the number of computer science majors at Yale reflects a national trend, which suggests that the popularity of the field of study is dependent on the strength of the software and online industries.
“The dot-com boom led to a surge in the number of computer science majors nationwide, and the dot-com bust lead to a similar decrease,” he said in an e-mail.
But Silberschatz said the number of majors this year has finally leveled off, and Eisenstat said he believes it will increase next year for the first time in five years.
“This decline appears to have stopped and there are some indications that there is a change in trend and that we have reached the bottom,” Silberschatz said in an e-mail.
This predicted increase comes at a time when experts and newspapers around the nation have begun documenting a dot-com resurgence commonly referred to as Web 2.0, a term coined to describe the new generation of Internet-based offerings. The boom has been marked by the advent of social networking sites and deals such as Google’s $1.65 billion purchase of YouTube in October.
Data collected from universities across America document a significant decrease in the number of students pursuing study in computer science. The Computing Research Association reported that the percentage of incoming freshmen among all American degree-granting institutions who said they intended to major in computer science dropped by 70 percent between 2000 and 2005, based on data collected by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Nationwide, the number of computer science majors in 2005 was half of what it was in 2000.
Many of the University’s Ivy League peers have also experienced the boom-bust phenomenon within the computer science departments. The number of computer science concentrators at Harvard University dropped from 174 in 2001 to 98 in 2003 and just 67 in 2005, according to the Student Handbook. At Princeton University, data prepared by the Office of the Registrar indicated that the number of students earning a BSE in computer science decreased from a high of 36 in 2000-01 to 27 in 2003-04 and 14 last year.
The UCLA data also indicated a decrease in the number of computer science Ph.D. students during this time period, though Silberschatz said neither the M.S. nor the Ph.D. programs at Yale witnessed a similar decrease in numbers.
Deputy Dean and Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said in some cases, trends at the University do tend to mirror those that take place on the national level. He said there is no way to definitively determine why students select certain majors from one year to the next, but he thinks in this case, the Computer Science Department itself has little to do with the drop in numbers.
Still, computer science major Nick Piepmeier ’07, who serves on the departmental Student Advisory Committee, said the department is actively trying to recruit more students — specifically, more female students — for the major. He said he thinks the number of computer science majors will increase in the next several years, but not necessarily because of Web 2.0, which he said caters to more of a niche market than the original dot-com boom did.
“I feel like in the aftermath of the bust people are finally realizing that it’s still really easy to get jobs in the computer industry, and that there’s still money to be made there,” he said.
Eisenstat said over the past six years, the department has hired six senior faculty members and two junior faculty, and has dramatically increased the number of introductory courses and electives for computer science majors.
According to the CRA, this is not the first time the number of majors has grown tremendously, then plummeted. The number of undergraduate computer science majors nationwide experienced a similar boom between 1980 and 1986, when the number of degrees quadrupled to over 42,000, according to the National Science Foundation. This was followed by a sharp drop to about 25,000 degrees in the early 1990s and another surge later in the decade.