Graduation season is always a time for reflection in higher education, and this year is no different for those of us who prepare students in one of the fastest growing fields in the country: Computer science.
With more than 60 students graduating this year from IUPUI with either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in computer science, we’re pleased we are making progress in meeting a critical need for trained computer scientists in central Indiana. Even so, it is a constant challenge to match the pace of the job creation in the field. It’s estimated there are three computer science jobs available for every one new graduate, a departure from the environment of underemployment many new college graduates are facing today. The “big picture” scenario of the industry clearly illustrates we have a much higher hill to climb before declaring success.
The good news for students who are considering a computer science degree is that the facts are in your favor. Jobs are plentiful and pay well compared to other fields. Every imaginable industry can use the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills of a trained computer scientist, and the field offers a great deal of marketability and job security for graduates. Consider these additional facts:
- The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median annual salaries for computer scientists at more than $97,000 and starting salaries for computer software engineers in Indianapolis with a bachelor’s degree at more than $50,000.
- Occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree in computer science are growing at more than 20% annually.
- Computer science jobs account for 70% of the annual job growth for all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
Despite these powerful and tangible benefits, the fact remains that universities across the country, not just the School of Science at IUPUI, still find it challenging to expand their computer science enrollment rosters. The field faces an identity crisis. The misguided image of computer scientists as introverts hunkered down in a dimly lit room for days at a time is no longer reality. Today’s computer scientists are professionals from all races and genders and represent an integral part of every industry looking to grow with the help of technology. Every computer scientist has the ability to impact a variety of fields, and the versatility of such a degree can open up immense possibilities. Computers are simply tools to help scientists think smarter and work more efficiently when solving complex problems. Until this distinction is made, most students are drawn to other majors that have a more clear social relevance and easily identifiable job description.
So why is there such a gap between the number of computer science students and the number of professional computer scientists?
Computer science has not been integrated well enough yet into middle and high school education requirements. K-12 students rarely have options to pursue computer science courses that will give them college credit while also allowing them to expand their knowledge and interest in the field. Not all students are expected to become biologists, but biology is a required course. The same emphasis should be applied to computer science courses, but not just those that focus on computer applications. We need to support students in efforts to create technology, not just learn how to use it. Just because students use technology everyday does not mean they understand it. Computer scientists are trained to understand the how and why of information technology, not just its functionality.
Until we approach the educational imperatives this field requires, we will continue to play catch up in the challenge to fill these jobs and to help our technology-dependent industries innovate and grow. As a result, central Indiana’s tech sector and other businesses are at a disadvantage they cannot afford.
Shiaofen Fang, Ph.D. is a professor and chair of the Department of Computer and Information Science at Indiana University Purdue University – Indianapolis (IUPUI).