WASHINGTON—Computer skills are in high demand among employers in a wide range of industries, not just tech-related fields, yet despite growing interest in the subject, a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) finds that too few U.S. students are taking quality computer science classes at the high school and university levels. ITIF, a leading tech policy think tank, makes the case for public action to support and maintain the groundswell of interest in computer science and capture the economic and social benefits that will come from fostering a more highly skilled workforce.
“Despite the growing use of computers and software in every facet of our economy, computer science education is just beginning to gain traction in American school systems. It should be an urgent priority to make much greater progress,” said Adams Nager, an ITIF economic policy analyst and the report’s lead author. “Computer science is the most important STEM field for the modern economy, but it is not even represented in the acronym, and it is the discipline that the fewest high school students study. It is encouraging that the number of high school students taking AP computer science has more than doubled in recent years, from about 20,000 in 2010 to almost 50,000 in 2015. But that figure pales in comparison to the number of students taking AP calculus—and in California, there are still more kids taking ceramics.”
“We need to shift perceptions of computer science,” Nager said. “We should stop treating it as a fringe, elective offering, or just a skills-based course, and start viewing it as a core science on par with more traditional subjects like biology, chemistry, and physics. Universities also need to expand their course offerings to accommodate growing demand for computer skills among both students and employers in all sectors of the economy.”
Co-authored by ITIF President Robert D. Atkinson, the report explains that computer science education is still considered secondary to the standard high school science track of biology, chemistry, and physics—which was first established in the 1890s. Among the findings:
- Only half of states count computer science as a math or science credit rather than an elective, and the majority (29 states) do not have computer science teacher certification programs.
- The computer science Advanced Placement exam represents only 1.1 percent of all AP exams offered, has the largest gender disparity of any AP exam, and underrepresents minority students. In fact, only 22 percent of students taking AP computer science are female, less than 10 percent are Hispanic, and less than 4 percent are black.
- High school students take five times more AP biology exams than AP computer science exams; they take nine times more AP calculus exams; and they take 20 times more AP English exams.
At the university level, the United States boasts strong computer science programs, but universities still aren’t keeping up with demand. Nager and Atkinson cite two main causes for this: First, computer science, like most STEM-concentrated degrees, costs more for schools to provide than majors in the liberal arts or social sciences. Second, universities and colleges often face resistance from within when they try to change departments’ size and number of course offerings to reflect students’ demand for a particular major, especially if such efforts are not met with a growing student body for the university.
Universities, particularly state schools that have faced funding cuts, have few incentives to take on these additional costs by encouraging or enabling more students to take courses. Schools also lack incentives to improve diversity in their computer science departments, as the number and share of women in computer science majors has dramatically declined from a decade ago.
The report points to several tactics universities use to deal with their inability to meet growing demand for computer science courses, including restricting the size of the major, discouraging non-majors from taking courses, and charging a premium for computer science classes.
Nager and Atkinson say the outlook for computer science education is improving, however. Spearheaded by nonprofit initiatives, the importance of coding and computer science has led to concerted efforts to increase the number of students taking computer science courses, provide teachers with resources, and generate interest in the field. Additionally, many states and local governments are recognizing the importance of computer science to both students and employers, and are working to put computer science in all K-12 schools.
The authors offer a series of recommendations for federal and state policymakers to leverage this momentum:
- Reform curricula for existing technology classes to focus on core concepts of computer science in primary and secondary schools;
- Allow computer science to count as either a math or science requirement in high school;
- Teach computer science in all high schools;
- Increase the number of qualified computer science teachers by providing resources to train and recruit;
- Establish more STEM-intensive public charter high schools; and
- Create incentives for universities to expand their offerings in computer science and prioritize retaining students interested in majoring, minoring, or taking courses in the field.
“Graduates with skills in computer science are an incredibly valuable resource for the U.S. economy,” said Atkinson. “It is not enough to rely on the ‘market’ to determine the number of workers with computer science skills, if for no other reason than because key educational institutions do not adequately respond to market signals. It is incumbent on states and the federal government to require or incentivize educational institutions to further develop their ability to train a broader group of students in computer science. Expanding computer science education should be considered an essential component of U.S. innovation and economic growth policy.”