Colleges pushing computing profession

South Carolina students are leaving money on the table by avoiding studies in computing, one of the highest-paying and most in-demand degrees for new college graduates, USC’s computing department chairman says.

Enrollment in computing studies has been shrinking at the University of South Carolina, to 265 undergraduates in 2006 from 688 in 2000, a 61 percent decline.

Other South Carolina colleges have seen similar trends. Clemson University’s undergraduate enrollment in computing studies shrank by 42 percent, to 466 in 2006 from 796 in 2000.

Nationwide, newly declared computer science majors plummeted to 8,000 in the fall of 2006, from 16,000 in 2000, according to the Computing Research Association.

Meanwhile, demand for computer science graduates has been soaring nationwide.

The American Electronics Association says the U.S. technology industry added 150,000 jobs in 2006, in a field where a new college graduate with a degree in computing can earn $52,000 a year.

The USC College of Engineering and Computing is taking steps to turn that enrollment trend around. Those steps include a name change for the college (formerly the College of Engineering and Information Technology), and outreach programs to high school students.

Department chairman Duncan Buell said he’s fighting what Business Week magazine recently described as the myth of high-tech outsourcing. Buell hopes to see enrollment rebound to about 500.

Buell says there is $50 billion in salaries available in this country in computing. While many lower-level programming jobs have been exported to countries like India, he said demand for people with bachelor’s degrees who enter problem-solving careers has been growing in recent years.

“Start an information technology company and you can be profitable in six months if you are good,” Buell said.

Buell said young people have bought into the incorrect notion that all of America’s computer jobs are being outsourced to low-wage countries.

This summer, USC’s computing department will offer two one-week camps for high school students, one in games programming and one in media computing and animation.

Scholarship bonuses proposed by state House Speaker Bobby Harrell would add another recruitment tool for the computing department.

Under Harrell’s plan, LIFE scholars who study math, science, computing or engineering would receive an additional $2,500 per year, for a total of $7,500. Palmetto Fellows with technology majors would receive an additional $3,300 per year, for a total of $9,900. The grant would start in their sophomore year.

The House approved Harrell’s plan, but the Senate left it out of its version of the budget. The plan’s fate will be decided in negotiations between the chambers.

Buell also is preparing a critique of the high school guidance materials and curriculum in computer sciences, which he believes lack rigor and fail to prepare students for college-level computing studies.

Too often, Buell said, high school computing courses lack even basic programming instruction.

Two of Buell’s computing major students agree.

Elementary and middle schools need to beef up math and science education, said James White, an Irmo High School graduate who is a junior computing major at USC.

And Kenton Oliver, a graduate of T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson and a senior computing major, added: “My exposure to computer programming was very limited until I got to college.”

The two young men attended two of the state’s best high schools, yet both said they felt inadequately prepared for a college curriculum in computing.

“High school kids’ exposure to computing is how to use the Word software,” Oliver said.

Teri Siskind, deputy superintendent for curriculum assessment at the state Department of Education, said South Carolina high schools provide a broad range of information technology courses, including Advanced Placement computer science. Currently, she said, about 150 students statewide take the AP course, and 4,231 students are enrolled in information technology career clusters.

“I’m not sure what we can deduct from these numbers,” Siskind said. “Maybe this generation has just moved on to other interests.”

Siskind said that provisions of the Education and Economic Development Act, such as special guidance geared to career choices and individual education plans for students, are just beginning to be implemented.

“I think these efforts will pay off,” Siskind said. “This will help acquaint students with opportunities they may not have heard of before.”

Most of the new jobs being created for people with computing degrees are in information management. And while fewer in number, people who know scientific computing are in high demand, Buell said.

There are seven state colleges with accredited computing departments: USC, Clemson University, College of Charleston, Francis Marion University, Coastal Carolina University, Winthrop University and South Carolina State University.

At Winthrop, enrollment in computing majors was 105 students in 2002; last fall, enrollment had declined to 78, according to spokeswoman Julia Longshaw.

Stephen Dannelly, chairman of computer studies at Winthrop, said his department is starting a new degree program aimed at software designers oriented to the worldwide Web.

“The perception is that technology jobs are all going to India, and that’s just not correct,” Dannelly said. “We think demand for our degrees has stabilized, but it has not come roaring back by any means.”

At the College of Charleston, enrollment in computer science and computer information systems slumped to 77 last fall from 208 in 2002, said spokesman Mike Robertson.

Clemson has been ramping up its computing resources, recruiting new leadership for its Information Technology department and buying a new supercomputer that could put it in the top 200 of supercomputers worldwide.

Buell said that while USC may lag Clemson in computing power, it has something Clemson cannot provide: location in a metropolitan area with many job opportunities in computing. Many USC students work for computer services companies in the Midlands while attending school, he said.