California must build the capacity of its public universities to admit more computer science majors

Credit: Alison Yin/EdSourceCredit: Alison Yin/EdSourceTrish Boyd Williams and Sathya NarayananNovember 19, 2019As California’s K-12 system ramps up to expand and diversify student access to computer science, we are drawing attention to a critical pipeline concern.
Trish Boyd WilliamsCalifornia’s public higher education systems do not have the capacity now to adequately meet the existing surging student demand for Computer Science majors, a problem which will only escalate further as more K-12 students get access to computer science.
In the past 14 months alone:
The State Board of Education has adopted California’s first-ever K-12 computer science learning standards as well as a Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan.
The 10-campus University of California system took action in January 2019 to allow high school computer science courses to count for admissions eligibility under Area D Science of the A-G course requirements;
Governor Newsom included funding for a computer science coordinator position at the Department of Education in this year’s state budget.
Sathya NarayananEach of these aligned state policy levers will build K-12 momentum for bringing computer science into the curricula, which will have the effect — along with the attractiveness of computer science careers and salaries — of further increasing student interest in a computer science major in college.
But in 2017 the national Computing Research Association released Generation CS, a report documenting the surging demand by students for computer science majors in both public and private universities across the country.
Our initial look at data for California indicates this is true as well for all three of California’s public systems of higher education.
An in-depth analysis for the California State University system found that over the past decade, especially the past five to six years, there has been a dramatic surge in student interest in pursuing computer science at CSU.
From 2007-08 to 2018-19, the CSU system as a whole has seen a 229 percent increase (from 4,236 to 13,941) in the number of first-time freshman students applying for a computer science major and a 214 percent increase (from 1,673 to 5,268) from undergraduate transfer students.
During this same decade, the CSU system has seen its total applications for a computer science major, which includes duplicate applications submitted by students to multiple CSU campuses, increase from 8,931 in 2007-08 to 44,452 (397 percent) in 2018-19.
These astounding increases in the numbers of applications reflects an increase in numbers of students wanting a computer science major as well as an increase by students submitting duplicate applications to multiple campuses because of the increased competitiveness of admission to the major.
In the CSU system in 2018-19, roughly two thirds of students applying for a computer science major were granted admission to that major, leaving more than one-third of students admitted to CSU but denied the computer science major they wanted.
Adding to the computer science capacity strain, more students from other majors are taking computing courses past the introductory level and more students are minoring in computer science.
This has the effect of making it more difficult for students in a computer science major to get the courses they need when they need them. Also, this disproportionately impacts lower income students who may be less well-prepared, preventing them from getting into and succeeding in upper division computer science courses.
In response to inadequate capacity to respond to surging student demand, criteria for admission into a computer science major at the UC and CSU have necessarily become increasingly selective. Every UC campus, and 9 of the 23 CSU campuses, has now declared computer science departments as “impacted” — restricting their admissions.
As UC and CSU increase selectivity for admissions to a computer science major (which might include requiring higher test scores, higher grade point average, more rigorous high school math courses or prior programming experience), this may further disadvantage low-income students with less access to rigorous high school curricula and computer science-related extracurricular programs.
California’s public college and university computer science capacity challenges are big, growing and complex. State funding is a contributor: between 1976-77 and 2016-17, higher education funding for all three systems combined fell from 18 percent of the state’s total budget to 12 percent.
Departments also have the challenge of being able to recruit and retain Ph.D. faculty in computer science: more than 60 percent of computer scientists with Ph.Ds. or master’s degrees go into industry where the pay is significantly higher.
Computer science capacity challenges in California’s public colleges are a state workforce and economy concern. California currently has nearly 70,000 open computing jobs across the state.
Our workforce needs both more computing talent and more diverse talent in terms of ethnicity and gender — and our low-income students and those who are first in their families to attend college need access to these jobs and the social mobility opportunities they offer.
These challenges are also a state public education pipeline concern. State political and educational policy leaders, as well as public higher education institutional and campus leaders, need to ensure that all students with an interest in studying computer science in college have access to viable pathways to get such an education and be prepared to compete for opportunities in California’s growing tech economy irrespective of their geographical location or socioeconomic status.
Otherwise we run the risk of generating enthusiasm for computer science among our K-12 public school students without expanding the ability of our colleges to admit and graduate more computer science majors — which will only heighten the existing capacity crisis.
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Trish Boyd Williams is a former member and computer science lead of the California State Board of Education. Sathya Narayanan is a professor of computer science at California State University Monterey Bay and member of the state board’s computer science strategic implementation plan advisory panel.
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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