Is the most promising bachelor’s program hiding in plain sight?

by | Apr 26, 2022 | All Topics, Program Innovation

Is the most promising bachelor’s program hiding in plain sight?

Parsing through enrollment and market data in search of the next bachelor’s program to add to your academic portfolio can be tough in the current environment. But it’s an essential practice to continually update our understanding about what students want to study and which fields are most promising.

In a recent review of undergraduate programming, Eduventures identified just one field of study that saw positive enrollment upticks in 2019, 2020, and 2021 and was assessed as an “extremely efficient market” in our 2021 Bachelor’s Market Update report.  And the market is…

… computer and information sciences and services! Here’s why:

It has withstood the COVID enrollment downturn.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse’s fall 2021 enrollment estimates, bachelor’s degree-seeking enrollment fell by 4% between fall 2019 and fall 2021. Computer and information sciences and services, on the other hand, saw 7% undergraduate enrollment growth at four-year schools during this same time—growing in all three years. While most fields recorded decline, this market has been able to withstand COVID-19 enrollment pressures and is just one of four (out of 36) markets that saw growth in each year across this timeframe (also including psychology, natural resources and conservation, and architecture and related services).

Demand is outpacing supply.

As we have detailed before, the last decade simply saw a deluge of new bachelor’s programs, in many cases outpacing conferral growth in the very markets they entered. In our 2021 Bachelor’s Market Update report, Eduventures identified just nine markets (out of 36) that saw above average Absolute Efficiency in 2020 (conferrals per program) and Efficiency Over Time (conferral per program growth) between 2012-2020, thereby indicating demand is stronger than supply. Computer and information sciences and services? Not only was it one of these extremely efficient markets, but it saw the fastest efficiency over time growth of all bachelor’s markets (128%).

So, why the sustained momentum?

The labor market, for one. As Figure 1 shows, aligned occupations dominate in terms of growth and pay revealing that computer and mathematical occupations are the fastest growing and second-highest paid jobs in the market.

 

A Dominating Career Field
The Fastest Growing and Top Paying Occupational Fields Requiring a Bachelor’s, Top 5 Shown

Fastest Growing Occupations% Change (2022-2031)Highest Paying OccupationsMedian Hourly Earnings
Computer and Mathematical Occupations14%Management Occupations$51.96
Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations12%Computer and Mathematical Occupations$43.79
Community and Social Service Occupations11%Legal Occupations$40.86
Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations9%Architecture and Engineering Occupations$40.15
Management Occupations9%Business and Financial Operations Occupations$34.68

Figure 1.
Source: Eduventures analysis of Emsi data.

 

With stats like these, it’s no wonder why 18% of parents of college-bound high school students want their children to pursue a career in technology or computer science according to Eduventures’ 2022 Prospective Parent Survey (falling just behind engineering at 23%).

Of course, prospective student preference is another key reason for this market’s sustained success—it consistently ranks as a top four program field of interest among both traditional-aged and adult undergraduate prospective students. Computing bachelor’s degree conferral trends—a good proxy for student demand—more than doubled between 2012 and 2020, growing by 108%. This far outpaced the total bachelor’s conferral growth during this time (13%). Programs in this field averaged 36 conferrals in 2020—well above the overall bachelor’s market average of 27.

And while demand has been blistering, supply has remained flat—but not for a lack of new programs. While 471 new computer and information science and services bachelor’s programs were reported between 2012-2020, 469 programs in this market were sunset, many traced to ITT Tech and other controversial for-profit providers that closed. This program exodus nearly offset the program growth seen during this time.

While the data we’ve considered so far is relatively high-level, more granular data reveals that market health is indeed widespread rather than isolated to a few program clusters. Figure 2 shows the 2012-2020 bachelor’s conferral and program efficiency growth for the more specific markets that make up computer and information science and support services (each reporting at least 1,000 conferrals in 2020).

 

2012-2020 Bachelor’s Conferral and Efficiency GrowthFigure 2.

 

Only two of the 10 markets in Figure 2, each on the smaller side with just over 1,000 bachelor’s conferrals in 2020, reported conferral decline between 2012-2020. Just one reported an efficiency decline during this same time (computer systems analysis/analyst). All others reported often massive gains in both metrics.

While coding bootcamps and aligned alternative programming—along with the trend of loosening college degree requirements among employers—may yet cause friction over time, there is no denying just how credentialed the aligned workforce is. Consider that average bachelor’s attainment across the entire U.S. workforce in 2020 was 24%. But among database administrators, for example, this proportion was 45%. Similarly, 43% of information security analysts held a bachelor’s degree as did 54% of web developers—and all three experienced slight growth since 2016. Now, it’s highly unlikely that all workers in these occupations have bachelor’s degrees in the aligned fields, but this data indicates that these programs remain a critical pathway to these occupations.

Finally, the fact remains that we are still in a period with critical technology skills gaps. This was reinforced in January when Salesforce released its Global Digital Skills Index, a survey of 23,000 workers across 19 countries that concluded: “Despite 58% saying encryption & cybersecurity skills are particularly important, only 14% report ‘advanced’ knowledge of the subject.” With a potentially widening skills gap, perhaps both bachelor’s and alternative programming can coexist in the current environment.

The Bottom Line

We can confidently say that the computing field is the healthiest bachelor’s market today. While this may not come as a surprise to many, the fact that this field alone saw sustained undergraduate enrollment throughout COVID-19 and qualified as an “extremely efficient” market in our 2021 Bachelor’s Market Update provides an objective lens on its health.

This market has boomed before, but then crashed. After the dotcom bust in the early 2000s, student interest in computing bachelor’s degrees collapsed. Is there reason to think this market might be peaking again? Another crash seems unlikely. Computing is far more mature than two decades ago, not least in terms of economic integration and impact. But it should be noted that the 14% IT occupation growth forecast over the coming decade, while stellar compared to other occupations, is half the momentum the computing sector achieved over the past 10 years. A growth rate slowdown is consistent with a larger base, but also anticipates greater automation and outsourcing. There appears to be ample further growth potential in this bachelor’s market, but schools should be conscious of how the industry is evolving.

For schools without a bachelor’s program in this field (only 53% of four-year schools have a program compared to 64% of schools with a business-aligned bachelor’s program and 59% of schools with a health-aligned bachelor’s program), a regional market viability assessment may be prudent to understand local demand along with internal capacity. For schools already in this market, a review of current investment, reach, and program positioning can ensure they are reaching their full potential.

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Clint Raine

Eduventures Senior Analyst at Encoura
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