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The Looming Capacity Crisis in Computer Science Education

Stanford University Professor Eric Roberts says the number of open faculty positions in computer science exceeds the number of candidates by a factor of five.

Not long ago, computer science was considered a specialized field for a niche industry. Today, things have changed. As technology continues to grow, it has become more necessary for employees to hone computer skills in nearly all industries. This growing demand has experts like Professor Eric Roberts warning of a looming “capacity crisis” in higher education.

With more than 30 years of experience leading computer science in higher education, Professor Roberts most recently served as a faculty member at Stanford University and associate chair and director of undergraduate studies for computer science. Today he is the Charles Simonyi professor emeritus of computer science and a Bass University fellow in undergraduate education. He has also received many accolades for his research and work in computer science, most recently earning the SIGCSE Award for Lifetime Service to the Computer Science Education Community. As a leading expert in computer science education, he will be speaking at the annual SIGCSE Technical Symposium to present his insights on the field’s most critical challenges and opportunities that we should be paying attention to.

Ask Professor Roberts, and he’s clear: The most critical challenge facing computer science education today is a “capacity crisis.” In other words, there simply are not enough faculty to keep up with the rise in students. In fact, a report he authored notes, “Unlike the situation in conventional academic disciplines, the number of open faculty positions in computer science exceeds the number of candidates by about a factor of five.”

That growing number of computer science students can be linked with increased job opportunities that require or benefit from computer science training. “One of the issues is that there are no computer science faculty to hire,” Roberts says. “Almost every university is trying to hire.” He goes on to point out that most computer science students transition directly from graduate school to an industry job, as opposed to a teaching position, because of the stark contrast in employment incentives and opportunities.

Beyond simply falling short of demand, Roberts asserts that this limited supply in computer science teachers will also likely influence diversity of educators who are practicing in the higher education field. For example, Professor Roberts notes that at Stanford University, 2 percent of the faculty (computer science educators) are teaching 20 percent of the majors. “I believe that despite the enormous demand of computer science, the number of computer science graduates will fall in the next 20 years as restrictions will go up.”

While the capacity crisis poses a significant challenge to the field, Professor Roberts also notes that there are opportunities to make change. Since computer science educators are in extremely high demand, they now have the opportunity to leverage that power when it comes to decision-making. “New teachers have enormous power because of labor scarcity. Their jobs are secure because if there’s anyone else to replace them, universities would have done that,” he says. “People who are teaching have to make their needs known. They need to raise these issues of diversity and leverage their power.”