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AAAS workshop explores how "non-traditional" schools draw students into computer science
Efforts to draw more U.S. students into the computer science and information technology fieldsespecially women and students from under-represented minoritieswill have to closely consider programs offered by booming forprofit schools, experts said at a recent AAAS conference.
While schools like MIT and or Carnegie Mellon University have prestigious reputations, they didn't even register among the top schools in producing bachelor's degrees in computer science in 2001. Instead, the top producers that year were "non-traditional" schools such as Strayer University and DeVry Institute of Technology, according to findings presented at a workshop on 21 July at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C.
A key to the success of those schools seems to be their willingness to meet the needs of non-traditional studentsstudents likely to be older, with children, already working and going to school part-time, sometimes after a long layoff.
"These findings have important implications for policymakers as the U.S. tries to build a strong workforce in computer science and information technology. At the same time, they leave many questions unanswered," said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy for AAAS.
The preliminary findings were circulated to those who attended the workshop last week in a draft report prepared by AAAS and the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. The research project was initiated in 1999 after data showed "startling" graduation trends in computer sciences and information technology, said Lara Campbell, senior program associate in the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program.
In the years of the dot-com boom, the number of bachelor's degrees issued nationwide in computer science plunged from nearly 40,000 in 1987 to a low of less than 25,000 per year from 1992 through 1996. The number of bachelor's degrees issued to women fell by some 50 percent, said Eleanor Babco, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, while the degrees issued to under-represented minorities grew only slightly in the decade from 1985 to 1995.
Clearly, the market has changed since thenthe boom has gone bust. The extreme labor shortage expected at the height of the boom has not materialized. With higher unemployment among information technology workers, experts say, it's less likely that someone could get a job in the field without a degree. And in fact, more students are seeking degrees.
Still, said Babco, "there are lessons for today, absolutely."
Both she and Teich pointed to the issue of financial aidand the impact it has on bringing students into the field. For example, she said, the data show that three out of four students at non-traditional schools get financial aid, as opposed to about 60 percent of students at traditional schools.
Campbell cited the fundamentally different approach to learning taken by traditional and non-traditional schools. Strayer, DeVry and others give students an education that's strong on practical skills, with classes at a variety of hours on campuses all over the nation. DeVry and Strayer far outpaced other schools in the number of degrees granted to women in 2001, while Strayer was the clear leader in degrees granted to African Americans that year, the AAAS/CPST draft study shows.
But, Campbell said, there may be a downside to the popularity of the non-traditional schools. While students seek the skills that are believed to be most valued in the workplace, interviews with employers show they're more interested in students with broad skillsnot just technical training, but some command of business and communication. And those are skills they're more likely to get at a traditional school.
Interviews with faculty members and employees showed that students and employees from non-traditional schools were viewed very positively. They were seen as "more committed, more mature, more experienced, more enthusiastic, more experienced, better prepared and more skilled," Babco said. "And yet, most of the interviewed employers indicated they recruited few of these non-traditional students."
Campbell also reported that, in interviews with employers in the Washington D.C. area, the AAAS/CPST researchers found that commitment to workplace diversity was at best lukewarm. "There's clearly not as much awareness as we'd like about what under-represented groups are and what you can do to recruit them into your workforce," she said.
"If you're a woman or an under-represented minority who has non-traditional training, it's harder for you to get into the workforce," she explained. "The [dot-com] bust hit them first, before it hit everyone else. Women and minorities seemed more likely to be laid off first."
At the same time, though, Campbell said many women and students of color feel that this is a time of unprecedented opportunity for those who are well prepared for the job market.
One model for the future may be Norfolk State University, Virginia's largest public historically black university. Nearly 93 percent of students enrolled in the school's Computer Science program in the fall of 2003 were African-American and 76 percent of those enrolled were considered non-traditional students, said Sandra DeLoatch, dean of the School of Science and Technology.
The four-year bachelor's program includes extensive academic advising and opportunities for peer tutoring, plus ambitious programs for faculty development, DeLoatch said at the workshop. And that may help explain why students in the program have won numerous awards in regional and national competitions.
Edward W. Lempinen
28 July 2004