Computing Applications News

CS Enrollments Rise . . . at the Expense of the Humanities?

A growing proportion of U.S. college students are earning degrees in computer and information sciences, surprising some in academia.
  1. Introduction
  2. Further Reading
  3. Author
students in graduate caps and gowns

It’s common these days to hear computer science majors and young engineers at startups and large companies alike echo Steve Jobs, with talk of changing the world. The romance of innovation and the ability to give consumers technological products they want before they know it, as well as the ability to expand one’s knowledge base while attaining in-demand job skills, are just some of the reasons the number of students seeking bachelor’s degrees in computer science is rising—apparently at the expense of the humanities.

For centuries, proponents of the humanities have argued that these disciplines that study human culture, which include literature, philosophy, the classics, film studies, art history, music, and religious studies, provide the tools to reimagine and transform the world. Now, suddenly, they find themselves having to make that case anew.

A Harvard University report, "Mapping the Future," published in May, observed, "Just as the engineer makes life-transforming models through drawing on her ingenium, or imagination, so too the artist, and those emboldened to evaluation through responsiveness to art, imagine the remaking of an always recalcitrant world." "Mapping the Future" was written in response to falling numbers of bachelor’s degrees granted in the humanities, both nationally and at Harvard.

The percentage of humanities bachelor’s degrees awarded in U.S. institutions of higher learning slipped from 17% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1966 (88,503) to 7% (115,627) in 2011, according to figures published in 2013 from humanities indicators of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). (Although absolute numbers increased, so did the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded; consequently, the humanities’ share of all bachelor’s degrees remains well below the 1971 peak of 16% (136,213). The total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in 1970–1971 was 836,730, and in 2009–2010 the total was 1,650,014, according to the Digest of Education Statistics published by the National Center for Education Statistics.)

The AAAS also compared humanities degrees awarded to those granted in selected other academic fields, including engineering. In 1987, humanities bachelor’s degrees awarded were 10% of the total bachelor’s degrees granted, whereas engineering bachelor’s degrees made up 11.4% of the total. In 2010, humanities degrees awarded made up 11.5% of the total bachelor’s degrees granted, compared to 6.7% for engineering (AAAS did not offer absolute numbers). At Harvard, the percentage of students concentrating their scholastic efforts in the humanities has fallen from 36% in 1954 to 20% this year, based on the "Mapping the Future" report.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences and support services that were conferred in the U.S. rose 9% from 2010 to 2011, to a total of 43,072. The 2011–2012 Taulbee Survey, which tracks newly declared computer science majors in doctoral-granting programs, found a 29% jump, from 13,227 bachelor’s degrees awarded at the end of the previous school year to 17,226 in 2011–2012, a "remarkable increase," according to Stuart Zweben, past president of ACM and professor emeritus of Computer Science and Engineering at Ohio State University, who co-authored the 2011–2012 Taulbee Survey. "This is the kind of one-year jump that’s really hard to sustain," he says.

The Taulbee Survey found the total enrollment in bachelor’s degree-granting computer-related programs in the U.S. (new computing students plus returning majors in computer engineering departments, information departments, and Canadian departments as well as U.S. computer science departments) was 67,850 in 2012, up from 60,636 in 2011.

Over the past decade, the peak for CS and IT education was 60,000 bachelor’s degrees granted in 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It took a while after the 2000 dot-com bust for the pipeline to run its course and the number of relevant degrees to diminish; the nadir was 38,000 in 2009, as undergrads abandoned computer science in favor of other disciplines. However, between 2009 and 2010, the decline in the number of IT bachelor’s degrees turned around, jumping 4%.

It is not clear how many humanities degrees are being lost directly to computer science and IT, but it is known that degrees do not necessarily translate into jobs related to workers’ majors. The Harvard study noted an "intellectual diaspora" for humanities majors, and said the humanities still "represent solid launching pads into professional schools" in fields like law and medicine, "which admit humanities majors at similar, and sometimes higher, rates as any other branch of study."

Zweben says the uptick in computer science degrees is indicative of the impact of the country’s push toward STEM technologies, from which CS benefits. Also, students see computing used pervasively—in hospitals, cars, movies, getting the news, and accessing social media. "It is all over the place, and the generation going to college today grew up with technology, so they are very comfortable with it and see what it can do," says Zweben.

Last spring, Hal Salzman, professor of Public Policy at Rutgers University, and colleagues Daniel Kuehn and B. Lindsay Lowell, interpreted National Center for Education Statistics data and what it means for the IT workforce. In the April 2013 paper "Guest Workers in the High-Skill U.S. Labor Market," Salzman et al. analyzed supply, employment, and wage trends, finding that there are multiple routes to IT employment, most of which do not require a STEM degree. "Only about a third of the IT workforce has an IT-related college degree. Thirty-six percent of IT workers do not hold a college degree at all. Only 24% of IT workers have a four-year computer science or math degree," the report said.

Contrary to many industry claims, the Salzman paper found U.S. colleges and universities provide an ample supply of highly qualified STEM graduates. Guestworkers may be filling as many as half of all new IT jobs each year, according to the report, and IT workers earn the same salaries today that they did 14 years ago.

IT recruitment site in May also released a study, "America’s Tech Talent Crunch 2013," which also cites National Center for Education Statistics. Besides the growth in CS and IT bachelor’s degrees, the Dice study notes that associate’s degrees in those fields rose 16% between 2010 and 2011 (totaling 37,677 in 2011), and increased 36% (from 28,000) over the previous four years. Between 2010 and 2011, 19 states conferred more two-year degrees than bachelor’s degrees, the report says.

Asked what sorts of jobs IT workers with AAs can get, chairman, president, and CEO Scot Melland said his site typically sees people with that level of qualification becoming entry-level software developers, helpdesk employees, and IT support personnel. "At some community colleges, students already have BAs in something else and come back for AAs in IT," says Melland. "We find them in project management or administrative jobs."

The Dice study says the rise in BAs and AAs with CS or IT degrees will crowd the field. "As the growing demand for tech workers meets a growing supply—a higher number of new two-year and four-year graduates entering the workforce—the result may well be more competitive pressure for job applicants and a tougher fight among the best and brightest for coveted jobs on the enterprise side of the tech world," the report said.

To those who question the need for IT guest workers, Melland replies, "We do have a lot of qualified people, most of whom are employed, and companies can’t find the exact skills they are looking for, so they feel they either need to bring those people here, or need to go outside the country to get them."

Melland says there is still a shortage of people with technical backgrounds and specific technology skills in certain metropolitan markets. "The unemployment rate overall is 7.5% and it is 3% for tech," he says, "but if you look at specific skills, it is quite low. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says for software developers, it is 1.8% across country; that includes some tech-intensive markets where it’s practically zero. In more rural areas, it might be a little higher. But for network architects it is 2.2%; network and systems administrators, 1.1%." In these specific, highly demanded skill sets, there is more demand than supply, he says.

Yet Melland says the labor market for technology remains very tight, as evidenced by the low unemployment rate. Furthermore, average salaries have been rising substantially, he says. "The average tech salary across many skills is $85,000, way above the national average," he says, "which shows demand, and it has been going up several percentage points every year for the last three to four years. To get that, you have to offer a better package."

Salzman says IT salaries have stalled at 1998 levels, however, and that this is one indicator there is no shortage of qualified IT workers, because competition would have driven salaries up

Anecdotally, the report noted that at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, the number of IT undergraduates earning bachelor’s degrees had spiked 41% year-over-year. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported last spring that the University of Pennsylvania was seeing overcrowding in its introductory computer science classes—the number of students had surged from about 50 in 2007 to 170 students this year—and included more than the usual number of students from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School.

Meland says there is still a shortage of people with technical backgrounds and specific technology skills in certain metropolitan markets.

The Harvard report articulates challenges and "hostile arguments" that humanists face nationally and internationally, and attempts to refute them. It presents the economic, cultural, social, scientific, vocational, and technological argument, as follows:

"Human societies, both literate and non-literate, have universally understood themselves through works of art that require deep immersion. In the twenty-first century, however, deep immersion is no longer the order of the technological day. New technologies disfavor the long march of narrative, just as they mitigate against sustained imaginative engagement. Students born after 1990 will not read paper books; much more significantly, they might not read books at all. The study of the ‘deep-immersion’ art forms is the study of shrinking, if not of dying, arts. Instead of lamenting that phenomenon, we should adapt to it. If we support the humanities, we should support media studies, not the study of the high arts."

The authors of the Harvard study offered their recommendations for bringing traditions into the 21st century "in a way that speaks to modern concerns." These include developing resources to attract freshmen to back to the humanities, creating more arts and exhibition spaces, obtaining funding for internships that allow undergraduates to experience a career in the humanities, investigating cross-school courses and co-teaching, and funding new faculty positions in the humanities.

James Simpson, a Harvard professor of English, said, "The humanities almost always tell us the same thing, that there is nothing new under the sun." Yet there are always new developments in computer science, which probably is part of what attracts an increasing number of students away from the humanities.

Back to Top

Further Reading

Brittany Ballenstedt
"America’s Tech Talent Crunch 2013," Nextgov, May 14, 2013 (

James Simpson and Sean Kelly
"In Brief: The Teaching of the Humanities at Harvard College," Harvard University Arts & Humanities Division, May 2013 (

James Simpson and Sean Kelly
"The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future," Harvard University Arts & Humanities Division, June 2013 (

Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn, and B. Lindsay Lowell
"Guestworkers in the high-skill U.S. labor market: An analysis of supply, employment, and wage trends," Economic Policy Institute, April 24, 2013 (

Hal Salzman
"What Shortages? The Real Evidence About the STEM Workforce," Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2013 (

"Computing Degree and Enrollment Trends," CRA Taulbee Survey 2011-2012, Computing Research Association (

"Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences" (

Corydon Ireland
"Mapping the future: Reports tackle issues, concerns involving strengthening the humanities in a scientific age," Harvard Gazette, June 6, 2013 (

Back to Top

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More