Computer Science Pauses Entry for New Majors

As of this semester, the 10 most popular majors at Boston College are economics, finance, biology, political science, communication, psychology, nursing, applied psychology and human development, computer science, and English, according to the Office of Student Services. Academic departments have made efforts to to maintain class sizes and offer sufficient sections of required courses as the largest departments continue to grow. This is especially pressing for the computer science department, which has temporarily paused entry of new majors due to the a lack of staff.

Sixty-nine percent of undergraduate students are enrolled in one of these 10 majors. Nearly one in four undergraduate students are double majors.

Unlike other majors on the list, this year marks computer science’s first appearance in the top 10. The major has seen an increase of nearly 800 percent over the past 10 years, growing from just 53 students in 2008 to 420 today.

Sergio Alvarez, chair of the computer science department, cites a surge in interest for both introductory courses and the growing applicability of programming and computer-based skills.

“On one hand, I believe that there is a perception that a background in computer science can be helpful in landing a job,” Alvarez said in an email last September. “On the other hand, I believe that there is a growing recognition of the fundamental fact that CS is about more than just programming and technology. The gist of the matter is that faculty and students across campus are realizing the power of CS techniques, and they want to get in on these developments.”

The department has struggled to address this drastic increase in student demand, especially as it loses faculty to retirement, Alvarez said. There is currently an imbalance between the number of majors and the number of computer science faculty, which has lead to ballooning class sizes.

“Our department would need over twice the current number of tenure-track faculty in order to match the median ratio of [tenure-track] faculty to majors among CS departments at private universities in the U.S.,” he said.

The department welcomed one new tenure-track faculty member, as well as one full-time faculty member this year. The department will be searching for additional faculty for the 2019-20 academic year, according to Alvarez.

“For the moment, we are focusing much of our energy on meeting existing demand for undergraduate CS courses by hiring additional faculty,” Alvarez said. “We aspire to a future in which our faculty and staff resources will allow us to not only meet this need, but to do so while maintaining adequate class sizes, and ensuring sufficient student access to faculty and to participation in research projects.”

The department is addressing these short-term concerns against the backdrop of the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society. The new center, which is a long-term, $300 million investment in the sciences, will bring 22 new faculty and new courses in applied sciences, data science, and global public health. It is projected to be completed in 2021, leaving it out of reach as a solution to the current understaffing the department faces.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are experiencing high growth overall. In 2007, 14 percent of BC undergraduates were STEM majors. By 2018, they made up 24 percent of the undergraduate student body, according to Student Services—their ranks boosted last fall when BC moved the economics major into the STEM family.

“This classification reflects the department’s increasing focus on rigorous elective courses that provide majors with solid analytical skills in data analysis and econometric research,” Christopher Baum, the chair of the BC economics major, said in an email.

Economics has been the most popular undergraduate major at BC every academic year since 2013. The number of undergraduates majoring in economics spiked from 643 students in 2008 to 1,227 students in 2018, according to Student Services.

To accommodate the rapidly growing number of students pursuing economics, the department now has 39 full-time faculty, according to Baum. In addition, the department has expanded the number of sections for classes required by the major.

Political science has remained one of the top five most popular majors for the past six academic years and has grown from 672 undergraduate majors to 873 since 2008.

The department has already hired two senior faculty members, and this year it is searching for two new full-time tenure track faculty, according to Susan Shell, the chair of the department. The department is also seeking alternative solutions to the problem in the meantime, such as offering post-doctoral fellowships to graduate students.

Scott Baker contributed reporting to this article.

Correction (1/23/19, 4:27 p.m.): Clarified the time at which Sergio Alvarez submitted comments on the state of the computer science major.

Featured Graphic by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor