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2016 March 14

History of the CS enrollment roller coaster

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I just read a report by Eric Roberts, A History of Capacity Challenges in Computer Sciencewhich I was pointed to by a guest post on Mark Guzdial’s blog.  The report discusses the two previous rapid increases in CS enrollment and BS degree production (peaking in 1986 and 2004), comparing them to the current rapid growth.  He makes the argument that the current growth is more like the 1986 peak (triggered by the introduction of the PC) and less like the 2004 peak from the dot-com bubble.

Number of CS bachelor's degrees per year, which trails total enrollment by a couple  of years.  [Copied from]

Number of CS bachelor’s degrees per year, which trails total enrollment by a couple of years. [Copied from

The crash in enrollments after then 1986 peak was a “capacity crash”—that is, it was not triggered by a loss of interest by the students nor by a lack of interest from industry, but by deliberate university policies to make CS unwelcoming to limit the demand.

The rapid growth of enrollment in CS poses a problem that academia is ill-equipped to handle, for two reasons:

  1. The rate of growth is much faster than the rate at which universities respond.  Faculty growth in any department is generally limited by bureaucratic processes to a maximum of about 10% a year and generally only allocated after a 2–5-year delay, but enrollment growth has been 15–20% a year for several years in a row.
  2. The PhDs to fill CS faculty positions are not available.  This is an unfamiliar problem for academic administrators, because most of the rest of academia has a huge buffer of under-employed PhDs (the “postdoc holding tank” in life sciences) that can be tapped to fill any new positions.  But in CS, and in some other engineering fields, the existence of attractive industrial jobs with more resources, better working conditions, and higher pay than academia means that there aren’t many people waiting for an academic position to open—in the earlier spurts of enrollment growth, there were as many as 7 faculty job openings per qualified candidate, and the current market seems to have 4 faculty job openings per qualified candidate.

Eric Roberts makes the case that we can’t know for sure whether the current rapid enrollment growth is like the dot-com bubble, but if we don’t do something to address capacity very quickly, we will trigger a capacity crash like the 1986 one.

I think that one point he missed, which is affecting UCSC strongly, is that the enrollment growth in this round is much broader than in previous ones—many fields of engineering are seeing rapid growth in enrollment, and all the departments in the Baskin School of Engineering at UCSC are seeing capacity problems.  The problem is most acute for Computer Science, but it is not a single-department problem as it was in the two previous peaks. (Note: Eric Roberts presents a slide which shows that engineering as a whole is not in crisis, while CS is, but I think that a lot depends on which engineering fields you look at—there is a glut of petroleum engineers, but shortages of electrical, robotics, and computer engineers.  UCSC is unusual in having mainly the fields in which there is high demand, due to deliberate planning to grow only those programs, rather than having the full complement of traditional engineering programs.)

He shows the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates of jobs in various fields for the next few years:

Note that computing and engineering jobs make up huge fraction of the job market, despite the relatively small proportion of engineering and CS faculty in most universities. Figure copied from

Note that computing and engineering jobs make up huge fraction of the job market, despite the relatively small proportion of engineering and CS faculty in most universities.
Figure copied from

Unfortunately, Eric Roberts’s paper does not offer solutions, merely historical perspective, but even that is valuable, as there are relatively few CS faculty who remember the enrollment problems of the early 1980s—too many faculty left for industry or took early retirement.  He points out another interesting challenge for newer CS faculty learning about the enrollment problems:

Much of the early history lies beyond the Google “event horizon.” In putting together this history, I was interested to discover that several relevant articles I remembered from the early 1980s were invisible online because they predate digital archiving for the journals in which they appear. Looking for evidence about faculty shortages in the 1980s becomes much harder when none of the references from, for example, The Chronicle of Higher Education, show up in Google searches.

I highly recommend reading the full report by Eric Roberts, as I’ve only touched on a couple of the highlights here.

1 Comment »

  1. The invisibility of fairly recent but pre-Internet articles is a big problem in general! When I try to research anything about trends in education, it becomes a barrier. The problem with this is that it makes people short-sighted: they can’t easily see that things were similar in the 70’s, for example.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2016 March 16 @ 15:08 | Reply

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