Falling CS Majors

by on September 19, 2007 · 6 comments

Arnold Kling links to this article at the American about the large drop in computer science majors and the concurrent surge in economics majors over the last seven years. It’s an interesting trend, but I don’t think it’s something to be worried about. I think aptitude for computer programming is pretty close to a congenital condition. The most talented programmers are the ones who really enjoy it, and often they’re the ones who have been tinkering with computers since they were 8 years old. Most of them will choose computer science as a major regardless of whether it’s considered trendy or lucrative.

On the other hand, when I was in school in the late 1990s, there were a ton of people in the computer science program who really didn’t belong there. The tech bubble had inflated the demand for programmers and so lots of people who didn’t really know what to do with their lives chose computer science more or less by default. Some of them switched majors or dropped out before they graduated. Others stuck it out but had trouble finding jobs when they graduated.

I think a lot of them ended up in mid-range tech support jobs that really don’t require a computer science degree. Although those workers are obviously an important part of the economy, they’re not likely to be a major driver of economic growth, and I doubt there are many people out there who find them particularly more enjoyable than being accountants, A/V technicians, or other jobs that require a similar skillset. They could just as easily have majored in something else and gotten a student job in an IT department–or for that matter gotten a 2-year degree in IT.

So if I had to guess, most of the 50 percent of students who have apparently switched from CS to other majors like economics are probably people who probably didn’t belong in a computer science program in the first place and probably will be just as happy with an econ degree. On the other hand, the 50 percent who are continuing to major in computer science probably includes the vast majority of the people who would have gone on to produce groundbreaking technologies in any event.

  • http://www.rollingdoughnut.com/ Tony

    People like me are also an indicator that the degree isn’t necessary to go into CS-type careers. I majored in Finance, but took my first job in IT consulting. Not exactly the same thing, of course, but I’ve programmed a few times in my career. As you say, the aptitude is what’s important. And I’ve spent most of my career designing financial software, since so few in my field had the functional skills necessary.

  • Sam

    The falling numbers are no big deal. Students are just responding to supply and demand. The demand has dropped for CS since 2001. If the demand goes up, either salaries will go up (increasing the incentive for kids to major in CS) or corporate America will pay congress to increase the H1B visa limits and we can import all the CS types we need. Either way, no problem.

  • http://www.rollingdoughnut.com/ Tony

    People like me are also an indicator that the degree isn’t necessary to go into CS-type careers. I majored in Finance, but took my first job in IT consulting. Not exactly the same thing, of course, but I’ve programmed a few times in my career. As you say, the aptitude is what’s important. And I’ve spent most of my career designing financial software, since so few in my field had the functional skills necessary.

  • Sam

    The falling numbers are no big deal. Students are just responding to supply and demand. The demand has dropped for CS since 2001. If the demand goes up, either salaries will go up (increasing the incentive for kids to major in CS) or corporate America will pay congress to increase the H1B visa limits and we can import all the CS types we need. Either way, no problem.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    I switched from computer science to philosophy as an undergraduate because I was already employed as a computer programmer and was being forced to take courses that they should have given me some way to test out of, and I took a strong dislike to actually building circuits in hardware which was also a requirement. I think the last straw was a LISP instructor who refused to let me do my assignments on Multics (I was employed as a Multics programmer at the time), but insisted I do them on an IBM mainframe. I dropped the class and changed majors. In grad school I had a tentative plan to teach philosophy (symbolic logic was my favorite course to teach), but minored in cognitive science and really wanted to find something that could mix philosophy and technology. While ABD, I discovered the World Wide Web and talked a local ISP into creating a position for me, and I ended up doing information security for a living.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    I switched from computer science to philosophy as an undergraduate because I was already employed as a computer programmer and was being forced to take courses that they should have given me some way to test out of, and I took a strong dislike to actually building circuits in hardware which was also a requirement. I think the last straw was a LISP instructor who refused to let me do my assignments on Multics (I was employed as a Multics programmer at the time), but insisted I do them on an IBM mainframe. I dropped the class and changed majors. In grad school I had a tentative plan to teach philosophy (symbolic logic was my favorite course to teach), but minored in cognitive science and really wanted to find something that could mix philosophy and technology. While ABD, I discovered the World Wide Web and talked a local ISP into creating a position for me, and I ended up doing information security for a living.

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