Degrees and subsequent jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have long been praised as lucrative and safe pathways for students looking to enroll at a college or university. However, there is one subset of this group that stands out in popularity and workforce prowess: computer and data science.
Out of the top 20 undergraduate four-year majors, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that computer and information (data) sciences is the only one that has seen consistent growth, with student interest surviving the wake of the pandemic. From fall 2021 to fall 2023, enrollment in computer and information sciences increased by 21.4% and 41%, respectively, at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While most institutions and their academic programs faltered during the worst of the pandemic, this STEM subset thrived, growing 6.2% from 2017 to 2022.
Student interest may be fueled by employers’ high demand for talent who possess degrees in this field. It makes sense, considering how higher education faces revitalized pressure from students—and the federal government—to ensure high-value degrees with strong returns on investment.
The employment growth rate for jobs in computer and mathematics is projected to be 15.2% in the next decade, 12 points higher than the national average, according to Education Dynamics, a higher education market research company. Within this category, the need for software developers is expected to grow by 25.7%, resulting in more than 400,000 job openings. Computer and information systems managers: 15.4% or 86,000 more jobs.
Employers are enticing job-seekers who possess the skills learned from these degrees with impressive salary options, too. For example, a data scientist earns a $100,323 median salary over the first 10 years. And although software engineers are looking at a 9% year-over-year average salary decline in San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and New York, the average minimum salary for that role is above $180,000, VentureBeat reports.
How schools are adapting to today’s data-driven environment
Colleges everywhere are beginning to implement stronger, more robust and highly specialized programs in information and data science. Driving this academic evolution is the need to address the needs of today’s workforce by nurturing students with a modern education.
“Data are everywhere. Every field has data in some way, shape or form. And the job market and the demand for people who know how to deal with data and make sense of data has just skyrocketed in the last 20 years,” said Jim Scott, associate professor of statistics at Colby College, the first liberal arts college in Maine to offer a degree in data science this fall.
At Middlebury College (Vt.), art history students are tasked with creating a search on the cost and origin of 17th-century textiles, for example, according to the school’s website. While Middlebury is maintaining its roots in a classical liberal arts education, it seeks to thread lessons in data science and literacy to all students, regardless of their major, making them a fundamental aspect of a Middlebury education.
“I think there was a sense then that those of us who went into the business [of liberal arts and sciences 20 or 30 years ago] felt that learning and relationship transformation was the best mode at the time,” President Laurie Patton said in a University Business interview. “And I certainly land there, but I and many other educators have changed their perspective to say, ‘If you are paying so much debt out of college that you can’t really find meaningful work, then that’s no good either.’”
Aside from liberal arts schools, the University of California, Berkeley, an R1 Carnegie classified state university, created its first college in more than 50 years this spring: the College of Computing, Data Science and Society.