After experiencing unprecedented enrollment over the past several years, the computer science department at the University of North Carolina has been stretched to the limit, says department chair Kevin Jeffay. The tipping point happened in November, when staffing and budget constraints prevented the department from offering even half of the seats demanded by students.
December 15, 2014
UNC Struggles to Keep Up With Unprecedented Comp Sci Demand
A computer science class shortage was averted for now, but UNC is under pressure to keep up with demand.
While the issue has since been resolved, growing stress on the department’s limited resources will remain a challenge for at least the near future.
Interest in computer science is not a trend unique to UNC. Across the country, college students are realizing the value of the skills the degree offers. As a result, enrollment in computer science courses has skyrocketed over the past several years.
Jeffay says there are many reasons for this trend. Skills learned in computer science are applicable to a number of fields. Students also want to build apps and websites, they want to contribute in the workforce of the future and they want jobs with high starting salaries. He says there is a “huge feeding frenzy for grads” as tech recruiters set up shop in Sitterson Hall to talk directly to students.
National stats show a need for the skillsets too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of computer science jobs will grow by 22 percent by 2020. Talented students are flocking to computer science classes and companies are flocking to computer science departments to hire them.
Mike Reed, who runs the Google office in Chapel Hill and works closely with the computer science department, had not heard of the controversy at UNC until he was contacted for this story. Reed has hired several UNC graduates and called the computer science department a “powerhouse for computer graphics.”
“I guess it’s a good problem to have,” Reed said of student demand, “but frustrating none the less.”
While startups and tech giants like Google and Microsoft are more than happy to take advantage of this wealth of tech talent, university administrators at UNC and elsewhere have struggled to keep pace. Tedious hiring practices and tight budgets make it difficult to quickly hire faculty, forcing many schools to compensate by increasing class sizes, restricting access and hiring more adjuncts and teaching assistants. If the university can’t keep up, it may not be able to meet the talent needs of regional and national employers.
The UNC dilemma
Here’s how it all played out at UNC. In a Nov. 3 email to computer science students, Director of Undergraduate Studies Diane Pozefsky announced that registration to certain classes would be limited to majors due to financial strains and inability to staff courses with teaching assistants. Then on Nov. 7, The Daily Tar Heel reported that the department was drastically reducing course offerings, mainly the large introductory courses in which majors and non-majors tend to enroll. When registration opened, classes were quickly filled by juniors and seniors, leaving many underclassmen out of luck.
According to Jeffay, the inability to hire enough TAs was not the result of budget cuts; in fact the department’s budget actually increased this year to account for the growth. The problem is that demand for computer science classes has grown so drastically that the department hasn’t been able to plan for it, Jeffay says.
The computer science department was originally staffed to handle around 200 undergraduate students. There are now around 650 undergrads enrolled in computer science courses this year and enrollment in those classes increased by 30 percent from Fall 2013 to Fall 2014. Jeffay, who has spent 20 years in the computer science department, calls the growth “uncharted territory.” He isn’t aware of another department growing so rapidly in such a short amount of time.
“We have no idea where this is going. We know the major has been growing but the assumption is that it’s going to level off at some point,” he says. “We thought last spring that we had hit that—that we were going to hit some stable point—and we didn’t. It grew another 30 percent. It’s very difficult to plan.”
After the overwhelming demand, Jeffay quickly went to work to get more funds from the College of Arts and Sciences. While he couldn’t provide exact numbers, he says that his goal is to meet student demand and he is close to accomplishing that.
In another email on Dec. 5, Pozefsky told students, “We have expanded all classes as much as we are able,” and “We should be in normal operations now.”
The November 7 Daily Tar Heel article reported that “Introduction to Scientific Programming,” a class that is required for three majors, was not being offered at all. As of December 10, the class was listed on the registration site at full capacity, with 100 students enrolled and zero on the waiting list.
Computer Science 101, another popular class, originally offered 30 seats and now has 120, with seats still available. Fall 2015 staffing and budgeting will be addressed in coming months.
Though Jeffay is concerned that his faculty and staff might be stretched thin, he’s also excited that so many different types of students are interested in computer science.
“The average person studying computer science today is very different than the average person studying computer science 10 years ago, and to me that’s a very positive statement,” he says.
It is clear that demand for tech talent from companies and computer science education from students is growing around the nation. It remains to be seen if universities are ready to meet it.