Recognizing the gaps between program offerings and job market needs is a delicate dance for traditional higher education. Schools that bet early on high-potential programs usually stand a better chance of thriving in those markets. Those that wait until markets become saturated with providers—including an increasing number of non-traditional options—often don’t fare as well. Still, jumping on the bandwagon of a proven and growing program area can be tempting.

With high pay and rapid growth, computer science offers a prime example of a field at this tipping point, grappling with a variety of strategies for preparing the workforce. For example:

  • The Obama Administration kicked off 2016 with a push for Computer Science for All. It believes that students should learn computer science in order to be creators, not just consumers, and hopes to attract more women and minorities to the field.
  • ACT | The App Association recently released an interactive map highlighting the widespread availability of software jobs throughout the U.S. and the need for more computer science education in high schools. It calls for more software gurus throughout the United States and advocates for teaching students of all ages how to code.
  • Earlier this year, we highlighted 42, the free-of-charge coding style university that aims to prepare the next generation of information technology talent. The original Paris campus enrolls 2,500 students and the new Silicon Valley campus plans to enroll up to 10,000 in five years.
  • Coding bootcamps, known for in-person, accelerated coding curriculums, have sprung up rapidly throughout the U.S. and Canada. According to Course Report, bootcamp providers grew from 67 to 91 in the past year, with a projected 17,966 graduates in 2016.

Examples like these beg the question, how much influence do universities have in shaping the future of technology in society? As bootcamps boom, what is the value of a computer science degree? Despite the pressure that many institutions feel to invest in new degrees, bootcamp-style programming, or to go online, we advise caution amidst the hype. A clear strategy should precede a leap into this market.

The Computer Science Market

According to Emsi, computer science-related jobs make up at least 3.4% of all openings in the U.S. job market. While that’s proportionate to the current number of computer science occupations relative to all occupations (3.5%), computer science-related careers are projected to grow more than twice as fast as the national average of 12% over the next decade: 31% for web developers, 25% for software developers, and 23% for information security analysts.

How well, then, is traditional higher education meeting the need for this rapidly growing field? Surprisingly, the growth of providers in computer and information science degrees has been sluggish (2% from 2010-2014), while student demand for these degrees has rebounded. After hitting bottom in 2010, these degrees have grown an average of 10% annually (see Figure 1). Still, it seems higher education will need to produce more graduates with computer science skills to fill the projected job market growth in this field.

Computer Science-RelatedDegree Completions, All levels
Figure 1. Data Source: Economic Modeling Specialists International (Emsi)

Meanwhile, the need for graduates with technology skills is expanding across all industries. Many computer scientists work in software development, computer systems support, network administration, and web development, and these roles are being sought after by a growing range of employers and industries. Most notably, the medical field has attracted an increasing number of computer scientists. The top employers posting for jobs related to this field include the federal government, Adobe, and (Emsi, 2016).

A new generation of digital natives recognizes this trend. According to our 2016 Prospective Student Survey of over 18,000 high school students, 5% plan to study computer and information science in college. Interestingly, only two of the top 10 career fields these students are considering are traditionally technology-centric—another sign that many more jobs in the future will require technology skills.

1. Technology/computer scientist 26%
2. Digital media/film and video production 8%
3. Engineer 7%
4. Entrepreneur 3%
5. Visual artist 3%
6. Designer 3%
7. Clergy/religious order 3%
8. College professor 2%
9. Management/business 2%
10. Performing artist 2%

Figure 2. Source: 2016 Prospective Student Survey, Eduventures.

Responding to a hot program area

While all of this may sound like a license to enter the market, we advise caution. To start, it’s important to remember that the data we’ve presented here is national and a minority of schools can truly compete at the national level. As with any program area, regional differences are critical to consider. Your region could be saturated with providers or the demand could simply be lower.

Additionally, while computer and information science degrees have rebounded, schools must still assess which program areas within this larger field to pursue. It is important to understand regional job market needs and the skills employers want. It is also important for institutions to consider the ideal program type and best-fit delivery mode based on university resources and learner preferences. As competitors to traditional higher education fill in the gaps, the structure of programs, partnerships, and marketing techniques may need to shift to compete effectively.

Before diving in to this program area—or any other—we recommend that institutions pause to consider the following strategic steps:

  1. Evaluate your current offerings. Does offering a computer science or coding certificate make sense at your institution? Do you have the faculty resources? Do you already offer something similar? Does your curriculum need updating?
  2. Conduct a regional scan. Understand what your competitors are offering: which degrees, at what cost, with what types of partners, and with how much marketing? Additionally, explore your regional job market needs. As ACT | The App Association has shown, software and computer science positions are available throughout the U.S., not just in Silicon Valley. Given the complexity of this market, however, it’s important to identify the skills and positions needed in your region.
  3. Consider non-degree/non-credit options. Recognize the needs of employers who want students with coding skills. Institutions can respond in a variety of ways beyond launching a new degree program or degree level. These might include:
    • Developing courses in coding for non-computer science majors. The College Board launched AP Computer Science Principles, a new course designed to appeal to a wider audience of students.
    • Collaborating with a corporate partner to offer relevant certifications for the workforce. George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering offers professional development options through TechAdvance and Virtual Academy for students seeking industry certifications such as those from Cisco, Microsoft, or Oracle.
  4. Examine current enrollment trends. Many organizations offer funding and scholarships to encourage underrepresented groups to pursue a field that is predominantly white and male (e.g., General Assembly’s scholarship program designed to encourage women and other underrepresented groups to seek coding jobs).

For more insight on best practices in program development and launch, inquire about our Academic Program Assessment tool.