January 2023
Macalester robotics and artificial intelligence course
Students work in teams in a course on robotics and artificial intelligence at Macalester College, another institution where many computer science degree earners graduate.

Student interest in computer science and related information technology majors has grown at Minnesota Private Colleges, mirroring national trends. With 17 member institutions having the offerings, the numbers graduating with the major over 10 years has more than doubled.

Consider Carleton College, where computer science courses have been offered since the 1970s and a computer science major has been offered since 1987. Today, it’s the most popular major among members of the college’s junior class, and twice as popular as the next most sought-after major.

Jeff Ondich
Jeff Ondich, Carleton professor of computer science

“Very high enrollment in our computer science classes is good, but we want to continue to provide a broad-based liberal arts education to our students,” says Jeff Ondich, professor of computer science. “It also raises challenges around the allocation of resources and workload issues.”

There are clear reasons why computer science majors are increasingly popular, Ondich noted. For today’s 18-year-olds, computers have been part of their lives for as long as they can remember, as sources of entertainment and an integral part of their social lives. Students also see the effect computers have on the world, and they’ve seen foreign governments use computers to try to influence our national elections in 2020.

This is also a politically trying time and a time of financial anxiety for many. According to Ondich, many students feel more pressure to pursue a major that will help them secure good paying jobs immediately after graduation. Computer science definitely has met that need, recent layoffs notwithstanding. Starting salary for a 22-year-old with a computer science degree at Amazon, for example, has been $120,000.

Pursuing this major also offers rich opportunities for students while they’re on campus, connecting this field with others.

“We have a whole team in our department that’s super enthusiastic about seeing how computer science intersects with the liberal arts curriculum. Designing software that everyone can access is powerful, and we have people working with artists and historians, analyzing data science and 3D models of ruins,” adds Ondich. “There are different models of how the world works and this provides another lens.”

One-on-one and small group interaction with professors is a powerful strength that small, private colleges provide, Ondich said. First years and sophomores at these colleges can also get onto research teams earlier in their college careers, gaining valuable experience and having a lot of fun while building a community with faculty and staff.

“For all of the worries surrounding technology, we believe the sky’s the limit,” says Ondich. “If you can imagine it, you can build it. There are lots of opportunities in computer science.”

Concordia University, St. Paul

Heather Wegworth
Heather Wegworth, Concordia St. Paul department chair for computer and information science

Computer science degrees have been offered at Concordia University for about 10 years and it started as an online program. All introductory courses are now taught in person while upper-level courses are still taught online. Within the next year or two Concordia officials hope to teach all these courses in-person on campus.

Interest in computer science degrees has grown since the introductory courses are offered on campus and students can interact directly with their professors. Also, many students are interested in science degrees as they see that’s the way the world is going, said Heather Wegworth, department chair for computer and information science.

“Computer science is an art and a science, so it fits very well in a liberal arts college. You need the creative piece to be very good at computer science, including logic, problem solving, critical thinking, and how to ask the right questions,” Wegworth said. “It’s important to be well rounded and not just have all technical skills, to have a creative mind in order to understand people and produce the right code.”

It’s important for private colleges to offer computer science majors as more and more students will need these skills in an increasingly technological world, Wegworth said. She sees a shift in skills needed to do jobs, including basic computer science skills to take the next steps into technology jobs if students so choose.

According to Wegworth, among the challenges facing smaller private colleges offering computer science degrees is the fact that many students may think they need to go to a large university, not realizing they can get more individualized help from professors at a smaller school. Also, smaller marketing budgets to promote their computer science programs work against smaller private colleges.

“We really care about our students and their success. We want to make sure students have the skills to succeed, and as educators we look to see what’s coming, whether it’s artificial intelligence, cloud computing or machine intelligence, so they gain the knowledge they need and can run with it,” adds Wegworth. “Our faculty provides value by working in the field and they’re constantly learning new things – not just theory – but real, applicable skills so students have a really rich experience and can get good jobs.”

By Tom Brandes

 

St. Thomas computer science class
Students in a computer science class at the University of St. Thomas, which awards a significant number of computer science degrees each year.

The most recent total for the number of computer science degrees and other information technology majors awarded by Minnesota Private Colleges was for 2021, looking at IPEDS data; the total that year was 364.

While 17 private colleges and universities offer computer science and other information technology majors, four institutions awarded 40 or more broader computer science degrees in 2021. They were Carleton College; Concordia University, St. Paul; Macalester College; and the University of St. Thomas.