US computer science class of 2007 smallest this decade

But turnaround possible as new enrollments show signs of leveling off

Enrollments in computer science programs, which plunged after the dot.com bust, may have leveled off, according to new data from the Computing Research Association (CRA). The group follows year-after-year enrollment and graduate trends at 170 PhD-granting institutions across the US.

But this leveling is happening only after the number of bachelor degree graduates has, apparently, hit a trough. In the 2006-07 academic year, only 8,021 students graduated with computer science degrees from these schools -- the lowest number of graduates this decade.

By contrast, in 2003-04 -- the high point of this decade -- 14,185 students were awarded bachelors degrees in computer science, according to CRA data.

This sharp decline in graduates may be about to level off. In the fall of 2006, new computer science enrollments were at 7,840, and the CRA says new enrollments are now at 7,915 for the fall of 2007. The organization measures the numbers of students who have recently declared computer science as their major.

"It's too early to say if it's going to be a turnaround," said Jay Vegso, a CRA staff member who prepared the analysis and developed charts showing the trends, but he says the enrollment data over the last three years is showing a leveling off.

Interest in computer science soared during the late 1990s and in early 2000, but with the dot-com collapse and the increasing use of offshore outsourcing, it slumped back. Vegso said the enrollments in computer science may be affected by interest in IT programs that aren't part of a computer science program.

What lies ahead for those grads? The CRA doesn't look at how well computer science graduates are doing upon graduation, but the general enrollment trend is often cited as an argument for increasing the H-1B visa cap, which is used by skilled workers. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has cited declines in computer science enrollment as a reason for opening up the US to more skilled workers, and will likely make that argument when he appears March 12 before the US House Science and Technology Committee.

Vegso says students should be able to find job opportunities, based on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections showing IT jobs increasing by double digits.

The CRA, founded in 1972, is focused on research policy. Its board members include academic members from Indian University, Nortah Carolina State University, Dartmouth College, MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions, as well as corporate members including Microsoft, Intel, IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

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