Eric RobertsMarch 7, 2016
A History of Capacity Challenges in Computer Science
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
—George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, 1905

Since the 1970s, the number of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in computer science has fluctuated significantly. As shown in Figure 1, computer science degree production in the United States has experienced two episodes of rapid increase followed in each case by a precipitous collapse. The first peak occurred in 1986, the second in 2005, and we are once again on a steep upward trajectory, which began in 2009.1

BS Degrees (1975-2014)

It is important to keep in mind that the number of bachelor’s degrees produced in a year inevitably lags in comparison to enrollment data. As students reach their junior and senior years, switching fields becomes less likely. Thus, the peaks in degree production in 1986 and 2004 reflect changes in student enrollment patterns that occurred two to three years earlier.

If you look at the graph in Figure 1, the first conclusion that jumps to mind is that student interest in computer science is cyclical. That interpretation, however, is insufficient. Most importantly, it fails to recognize the fact that the downturns in the mid 1980s and the early 2000s happened for different reasons. The more recent downturn was clearly caused by the dot-com collapse. After the tech bubble burst in 2001, student interest in computer science waned throughout the United States, a downturn exacerbated by a popular mythology suggesting—entirely contrary to fact—that all jobs in technology were about to be shipped offshore to low-wage countries like India and China.

The earlier collapse in the mid 1980s was very different in its origins. The cause of that decline was the inability of universities to attract enough faculty to meet growing student demand. Beginning around 1984, most computer science departments were forced to limit course enrollments and to restrict admission to the computer science major. These actions led in turn to a steep decline in degree production a few years later.

In order to make any useful predictions about the likely outcome of the current expansion, it is essential to undertake a more detailed analysis of the reasons for the variations in degree production that computer science has experienced in the past. To understand the history from a national perspective, it makes sense to analyze the three peak periods independently, which gives rise to the following three questions: