Computing Profession News

Booming Enrollments

The Computing Research Association works to quantify the extent, and causes, of a jump in undergraduate computer science enrollments.
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At the Computing Research Association (CRA) Snowbird conference in 2014, Jim Kurose (then at University of Massachusetts-Amherst) and Ed Lazowska (University of Washington) presented a session on burgeoning enrollments in U.S. computing courses. In response, CRA’s Board formed a committee to further study enrollment-related issues, chaired by CRA board member Tracy Camp.

A panel on the upsurge in undergraduate computer science (CS) enrollments in the U.S. took place at the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education Technical Symposium last year (SIGCSE 2015); shortly thereafter, the full committee went to work with the goal of measuring, assessing, and better understanding enrollment trends and their impact, with a special focus on diversity.

Explained Susan B. Davidson, CRA Board Chair and a member of the CRA enrollments committee, “Over the past few years, computing departments across the country have faced huge increases in course enrollments. To understand the extent and nature of these ‘booming enrollments,’ CRA has undertaken a study that surveys both CRA-member doctoral departments as well as ACM non-doctoral departments.”

In addition to attempting to identify the extent of the “boom” in CS enrollments, Davison said, “We are trying to understand which students are making up this boom: CS majors? Students from other fields seeking to minor in CS? Students in other fields taking a course or two in CS? And why are they doing so; what is driving them?”

The study also aims to determine how academic departments are coping with such a boom, Davidson said. “Are they restricting enrollments and, if so, what is the impact on the diversity of students enrolled? Are they increasing class sizes and, if so, what is the impact on quality of instruction? Are they increasing faculty sizes? What other strategies are being used?”

The hope, Davidson said, “is that answers to these questions will give university administrators and computing departments insights into the extent of the boom, and enable them to develop better strategies to managing booming enrollments.”

The study includes data acquired from several sources, including sources involved in the annual CRA Taulbee survey (the principal source of information on the enrollment, production, and employment of Ph.D.’s in computer science and computer engineering (CE), also providing salary and demographic data for CS and CE faculty in North America), and sources from the annual ACM NDC Study of Non-Doctoral Granting Departments in Computing. In addition to surveying institutions, data was collected from students via a Fall 2015 student survey by the CRA Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline (CERP).

The slide deck for the preliminary results of these surveys may be seen at

Among the preliminary results to be gleaned from the institutions surveyed (key findings will be presented at CRA Snowbird 2016, with a final report planned for the fall):

  • About two-thirds of 123 doctoral departments and one-third of 70 non-doctoral departments surveyed reported increasing undergraduate enrollments were having a big impact on them, resulting in significant challenges.
  • About 80% of doctoral programs reported significant increases in demand for introductory courses in a CS or CE major; less than half of participating non-doctoral programs reported similarly significant increases.
  • Increases in undergraduate enrollments were seen as creating problems in at least 40% of the departments surveyed. Most (78%) doctoral departments had issues with classroom space, followed by the availability of sufficient faculty (69%), sufficient teaching assistants (61%), and faculty workloads (61%). In non-doctoral programs, the most frequently reported concerns were sufficient faculty (44%) and faculty workload (42%).
  • In response to those concerns, more than 80% of doctoral departments increased the size of classes and the number of sections offered during the academic year. More than 40% of non-doctoral departments reported increasing class size, and more than 60% reported increasing the number of sections offered in a school year.
  • In terms of staffing, more than 70% of doctoral departments reported increased use of undergraduate teaching assistants, while more than 60% reported the increased use of adjuncts/visiting faculty, having graduated students teach, or increasing the teaching faculty. More than 40% of non-doctoral departments reported increased use of adjuncts/visiting faculty; another 42% said they would like to expand their tenure-track faculty, but cannot.
  • In the context of diversity, no adverse effects on recruitment or retention were reported, but only 35%-40% of responding departments said they explicitly consider the impact on diversity when choosing actions. Diversity concerns have not prevented or nullified any enrollment-related actions taken in those departments.

The student survey received responses from 2,477 students, 98% of whom had enrolled in an introductory CS class; 72% of them were computing majors, 7% were computing minors, and the balance were either undeclared or had declared non-computing majors or minors. The gender mix was roughly 2:1 men to women.

The survey found most (86%) enrolled in an introductory computing class because “it was required for my major/minor.” The next most frequent response, “curiosity or interest in computers,” was reported by 39% of respondents.

“The survey responses are giving us a lot of information on how universities are handling the ‘boom’ and what the biggest concerns are.”

When the 55 respondents who had dropped an introductory computing course were asked why, nearly half (46%) said it was too challenging; 75% of those were women. About 29% (20% of men and 45 % of women) said they dropped the class because they did not enjoy the professor’s teaching, and 26% said they were “no longer interested in computers.”

Tracy Camp, professor of computer science in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Colorado School of Mines, and past co-chair of CRA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W), observed, “The survey responses are giving us a lot of information on how universities are handling the ‘boom’ and what the biggest concerns are. We are also learning why students are so interested in taking an intro to computing course.”

ACM president Alexander L. Wolf said the study’s findings were critical to ensuring North American universities are prepared to handle the growing numbers of students who will enter computer-related degree programs in the coming years. “Particularly in the context of President Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative, we are going see enrollments in computer-related classes continue to skyrocket.”

Wolf added, “But this is not a phenomenon specific to the U.S.; rather, we’re seeing booming interest in CS education around the world.”

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UF1 Figure. From Booming Enrollments Survey Data preliminary results presentation, Computing Research Association.

UF2 Figure. Why are students dropping introductory computer science classes?

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