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21st Century Majors

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Computer science, education top the list. The Internet economy may crumble, but the bubble hasn't burst for computer science majors. In universities across the country, the rise in CS majors continued last year, reaching 3.7 percent of all incoming freshmen, twice as many as in 1993.

Computer science, education top the list. The Internet economy may crumble, but the bubble hasn't burst for computer science majors. In universities across the country, the rise in CS majors continued last year, reaching 3.7 percent of all incoming freshmen, twice as many as in 1993.

"With the explosion of the Internet, many students would want to have a career in the field," says Linda Sax, Director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA. CIRP annually conducts a survey of college freshman majors; in 2000, 404,000 students at 717 four-year colleges and universities were surveyed.



Education Up, Healthcare Down

Enrollment in business (15.2 percent) was up marginally, but still well off its peak of 24.2 percent of incoming freshmen in 1987. Health-related majors and professions have also seen declining numbers in recent years, from 14.5 percent in 1993 to 9.3 percent last year. "In the early 1990s, we saw a huge increase in the health-related fields," Sax reports. "I think what we're seeing now is the downside of that upward trend. Part of it also is overall concerns about HMOs. Maybe the medical fields aren't as lucrative as they used to be."

She does not know if the terrorist attacks of September 11 will affect incoming college students' intended majors or career goals.

Education is one field that has picked up the slack. Last year, 11.2 percent of incoming freshmen intended to major in education, continuing a modest upward trend. School systems around the country have warned of an impending teacher shortage of crisis proportions, and Sax thinks students have gotten the message. "Students want to do something to change society, and they see education as one way to do that," Sax adds. "Getting involved with students at the K-12 level may have a bigger impact than getting involved in protests, although students are still doing that, too."

More Than Programming

Computing continues to enjoy the most dramatic recent rise--and the field is not limited to would-be programmers. "Now students have a broader sense of many ways of getting into the computer field," says Sax. "A lot of students will ultimately get involved in the computer without majoring in computer science."

But as the CS numbers have risen, the gender gap in computing fields remains. According to the survey, male college freshmen last year were five times more likely than female freshmen to pursue careers in computer programming. And twice as many men as women said their computer skills are above average or within the top 10 percent.

Carnegie Mellon, home of one of the best computer science schools in the country, has tackled this gender gap head-on. According to Lenore Blum, women's advisor in the school of computer science (SCS), overall applications to the school have risen at a rate commensurate with the national trend, from 1,484 six years ago to 3,237 for enrollment this fall. Meanwhile, the proportion of women in the incoming classes has shot up, from 7 percent in 1995 to more than a third in the last three years.

Blum attributes the rise to a number of factors: higher awareness among high school CS teachers about the field's gender gap; efforts by the dean of SCS to admit students with a broader range of talents; numerous support systems for female students at the school; and higher acceptance and yield rates for female applicants. She also points out that SCS has seven departments other than programming, with a broad emphasis on all computing fields, and that women tend to enroll in higher proportions in the non-programming departments.

Tiffany Cheng is a junior at the SCS, part of the first class with a surge in female enrollment. "CMU has great support for women in computer science," Cheng says. "There are always resources available to us, and we have an outlet for our voices to be heard." There are many possible careers open to her: educator, researcher, lawyer, and HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) specialist.

Future Still Uncertain

Sax, who has worked on the freshman survey since 1990, does not know if the terrorist attacks of September 11 and their aftermath will affect incoming college students' intended majors or career goals. She points out that most previous trends have reflected gradual societal change. "It has less to do with a particular event," Sax said. However, this is a unique event in recent American history, as Sax acknowledges. "We don't know what will happen with this particular one," she said.

When asked if the attacks would change her plans, Cheng pauses. "Probably not," she says. "But if the country were to need my skills, I'd help out in any way that I could."

Carl Bialik is a senior at Yale University, where he has been known to write about just about anything for The Yale Herald.
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