The Next Fifty Years
the same pressures that they have in past expansionary times.
Consider, for example, the situation facing the PhD-granting
institutions covered by the annual Taulbee survey shown in
Since 2006, the number of undergraduate majors has nearly quadrupled while the number of tenure-line faculty has remained essentially flat. Recent years have shown some growth
in teaching-line faculty, but at nothing like the rate student
numbers have expanded.
Similar disparities between the number of students and the
number of faculty members preceded each of the historical
declines in CS degree production. Although the decline in the
early 2000s was triggered in part by the dot-com collapse and
a media-fueled fear of offshoring that had no basis in reality,
there is no similar economic explanation that fits the decline
in the early 1980s. Institutions lacked the capacity to serve the
growing number of students and were forced, as suggested in
Finding 2 from the National Academies report, to take “
institutional actions to limit or discourage participation in the major.”
As a longtime observer of this phenomenon who spent the
early 1980s chairing a computer science department at a liberal
arts college when it was simply impossible to find enough faculty, I believe that the following prediction is likely to characterize
the next fifty years of computer science education.
Until the nation can produce a much larger community of
computer science educators willing to forgo the economic
advantages of industry and universities can support computer science at a level more closely approximating its
growing importance, degree production in computer science and related fields will continue to endure boom-and-bust cycles that will leave many students without access to
this vital body of knowledge.
Fortunately, the future need not repeat the past if we can
learn from it. With a concerted effort on the part of universities,
industry, and government, it will be possible to avoid the capacity problems of the past and ensure that all students can pursue
their interest in our increasingly important field.
in the absence of institutional actions to limit or dis-
courage participation in the major.
FINDING 5: Computing is pervasive, and its penetration is deep and growing in virtually all sectors of the
economy, all academic disciplines, and all aspects of
modern life. The broad opportunities in computing,
both in the labor market and for enabling a host of
intellectual pursuits, will continue to be drivers of
increasing enrollments in undergraduate computer science, from both majors and non-majors. While
there will probably be fluctuations in the demand for
CS courses, demand is likely to continue to grow or
remain high over the long term.
THE FUTURE OF COMPUTER SCIENCE
Assuming that student demand for computing education continues to grow, it seems natural to conclude that university programs
in computer science will experience a similar rate of growth. Unfortunately, the evidence from history suggests that the expansion
of university-level computer science programs is by no means
assured. The importance of computing has grown steadily over
time, as have the economic advantages that accrue to people with
the necessary skills. Degree production, however, has been remarkably episodic, as shown in Figure 4, which graphs the production of U.S. bachelor’s degrees in computer science since 1975.
This graph shows two periods of rapid increase in degree
production followed by equally rapid declines. Since 2009, degree production has again followed a rapidly rising trajectory.
Any attempt to predict the future of computer science education must surely be able to anticipate what will come next on
this graph. Student interest and societal demand will both remain high. Do those observations suggest that we have seen an
end to this cyclical pattern?
As many economists have written over time, the four most
dangerous words in finance are “this time is different.” Computer science programs at universities and colleges face much
Figure 4: Historical data showing the number of bachelor’s degrees in
computer science. [ 5]
Figure 5: Relative growth rates of undergraduate majors and faculty
lines at the Taulbee institutions. [ 3]