The only exposure Yancarlos Diaz had to computer science during his high school years in New York City was when he used a computer to write essays. When it came time to apply to college, Diaz, who says he was good in math, "blindly signed up" for the computer science program at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), figuring it was a major that would help him easily find a job when he graduated.
That decision already is paying off.
Now a fourth-year student at RIT, Diaz expects to graduate in 2021 with dual bachelor and master of science degrees in computer science (CS). He then plans to work in the private sector as a software engineer "mainly to pay the loans," he says.
Diaz is not alone. Colleges are not producing large numbers of CS majors, and many of those who graduate with a CS degree are opting to go into industry rather than academia, which can pay twice as much as what professors earn. This is causing a perfect storm: a shortage of computer science teachers is making it harder for many students majoring in the discipline to get into the classes they need to graduate.
Finding enough qualified computer science teachers is also an issue in secondary education. Only 36 teachers graduated from universities with computer science degrees in 2017, compared with 11,157 math teachers and 11,905 science teachers, according to the nonprofit Code.org. In 2016, 75 teachers graduated from universities equipped to teach the subject, the organization reports.
"I can say at the K-12 level there's a dramatic shortage" of computer science teachers, says Jake Baskin, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), which worked with Code.org to produce a report in 2018 on the state of computer science education policy in the U.S. Surprisingly, the study revealed that only 35% of public high schools in 24 states offer computer science courses.
However, 33 U.S. states now offer teacher certification in computer science, up from 27 last year. "Overall, the theme of the report is very much that we're moving in the right direction and adopting policies ... to increase participation in computer science in the K-12 space," Baskin says.
The increase is also trickling up, making computer science a far more popular college major. The average number of undergraduate computer science majors per department at U.S. doctoral institutions grew from 818 in 2016 to 900 in 2017, according to the Computing Research Association (CRA) annual Taulbee Survey. This has proven to be a mixed blessing, says Elizabeth Bizot, director of statistics and evaluation at the CRA.
"There's a lot of demand for students with those skills, and in that sense, increases are a good thing," she says. However, the average number of CS majors per department has increased 368% from 2006 to 2017, according to Bizot, "and that puts a lot of strain on departments in terms of teaching resources, classroom space, etc., as they seek to serve students well."
That has been the issue at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), where demand for the CS major is rising and the faculty is unable to keep pace, says Donald Fussell, chairman of the university's computer science department.
"As enrollments keep growing without bounds, it's very hard for anyone to keep their faculty size growing as fast as the demand for computer science majors," Fussell says.
Two ways to respond to that in the short term are to "start trying to hire like crazy," Fussell says, and compromise your quality standards, or leave enrollments open and have very large programs, which translates into increased competition for courses. At UT Austin, the solution has been to put a cap on the number of computer science majors, Fussell says.
"It's not so much a shortage (of faculty), it's just when you grow that quickly, there's no quick way" to find enough qualified teachers to meet the demand for courses, he says.
Fussell says his department is hiring new faculty members on a non-tenured track "much more aggressively," which works out well, "because these folks are really good teachers. But the pay scales are such that it's hard to offer compelling salaries" at a state-run university.
A typical non-tenured position at UT Austin commands under $100,000 for a six-course, nine-month teaching load, he says. "Anyone with reasonable experience in the [computer science] industry is going to be looking at something twice that much. So that's the problem."
The problem also exists at private institutions, not only because industry pays so much better, but also because there is a shortage of CS Ph.D. candidates, and a doctorate is a requirement for tenure-track positions. RIT, which has over 4,200 students enrolled in graduate and undergraduate computing degree programs and is one of the largest colleges of computing in the country, has been able to address the problem with increased class sizes and by using current Ph.D. students to assist with teaching, says Mohan Kumar, chair of the Computer Science Department.
Having doctoral students help with the teaching is alleviating the problem of students getting shut out of computer science classes, he says. "We do have a large number of non-tenure-track faculty to do the bulk of teaching," Kumar says. He adds that his department also has some people who work in industry teaching part-time, "but the number is very small."
RIT recently hired four tenure-track faculty with Ph.D.'s as well, he adds.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has nearly doubled its number of undergraduate computer science majors in the past seven to 10 years, according to Leonard Pitt, associate head of the Computer Science Department. To cope with an ongoing shortage of computer science professors, UIUC created the CS + X program, which blends computer science with a discipline in the arts and sciences. "That's allowed us to expand the number of programs without taxing the upper-level computer science courses and, hence, the faculty," says Pitt.
Right now, UIUC has about 1,100 computer science engineering majors, and another 700 in the CS + X program. "We saw skyrocketing demand for computer science offerings, so this was a 'build it and they will come' solution," Pitt says. In the CS + X program, students take the same foundational courses as computer science and engineering majors, amounting to about 30 hours of course work. The main difference is that they also take courses in disciplines such as advertising, astronomy, crop sciences—and even music.
At the same time, hiring both tenure-track and non-tenure-track computer science faculty remains a challenge, Pitt says. "We are trying to grow like everybody else and have a number of open slots, and the limitation on our growth is ... the rate at which we can hire for faculty, both teaching faculty as well as tenure-track faculty."
Pitt recalls that last year, the department hired a teaching faculty professor to teach a 400-person math class. "The week before classes began, he came and said, 'I hate to do this, but I had applied for a position at Cisco and thought it was dead, but they came to me and offered me three times the salary.' So how do you compete with the incredible demand for Ph.D.'s in industry and the amount of money they're being paid?"
Not only are such candidates being offered top salaries, but if they are interested in conducting research, many companies also offer the autonomy to do that, Pitt adds. "So we struggle with that and also, there's a limited pool of top talent [among] computer science graduates with Ph.D.'s and we're competing with all of our peer schools," he says. "It's a sellers' market if you're a graduating Ph.D. computer science student."
These dynamics are causing some students to get shut out of classes, Pitt says. The department used to open computer sciences classes to all students until a few years ago, when "it was pretty clear we had to restrict registration to computer science students initially, until all [of them] had a chance to register."
Normally, priority is given to seniors first; the problem, he says, was that seniors from different disciplines were taking spots away from computer science majors. "We have an obligation to help them graduate in four years," and the department didn't want students not to be able to graduate because they couldn't get into a computer science class. But it continues to be "very competitive to get into one of these classes," he acknowledges.
UIUC is addressing the issue with larger class sizes and by offering classes online, in recognition of the fact that "some students prefer to stay home and watch a lecture in their pajamas," Pitt notes. "So by creating online resources for classes, we've been able to expand our offering."
The university has also started using some adjunct faculty, "but more often than not, they'll be someone who is maybe at the post-doctoral level who is passing through on their way somewhere and just serendipitously happens to be" in the area, he says. But that doesn't happen often, since "we're on Silicon Prairie, not Silicon Valley, so the number of professionals in town is no-where near as large as what you'd see in the Bay area."
Pitt believes one way that universities can prepare more students to become computer science professors is to increase interest among women and underrepresented minorities. Another way is to get undergraduates to see the value of research early on.
UIUC has a program that matches freshmen and sophomores with graduate students to work in faculty research labs for credit. Pitt says it's a win-win because it gives the graduate students the ability to see what it's like to mentor undergraduates and lead research, while the undergrads are exposed to research work early.
RIT's Diaz says eventually, he would like to go into academia and teach at the high school level, even though it means he will have to take a pay cut. "I've always had passion for teaching," he says. "I've been a tutor since my second year here and I like it, and people say I'm good at it. And it's my way of giving back, after a few years."
System Crash, Inside Higher Ed, May 9, 2018 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/05/09/no-clear-solution-nationwide-shortage-computer-science-professors
Tech Industry Really Needs Professors and Teaching Talent, Dice, April 30, 2018 https://insights.dice.com/2018/04/30/tech-industry-really-needs-professors-teaching-talent/
Outcomes of Advertised Computer Science Faculty Searches for 2017, Computing Research News, https://cra.org/crn/2017/11/outcomes-advertised-computer-science-faculty-searches-2017/
Assessing and Responding to the Growth of Computer Science Undergraduate Enrollments, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine. 2017 https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/ResourcesForTheCSCapacityCrisis/files/NationalAcademiesReport-Prepublication.pdf
2017–2018 Taulbee Survey Computing Research Association https://cra.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2018_Taulbee_Survey.pdf
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