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Who are the new computer whizzes?

If you think the face of the current computer science student is a young geeky guy with a pocket protector, guess again. Try a 35 year-old African American or Hispanic woman who already has a full-time job, but sees  IT skills as a key to advancement. NBC News Sandra Lilley reports.  
/ Source: NBC News

Pop quiz: Which schools produced the most degrees in computer science in 2001?  MIT? Carnegie Mellon? Georgia Tech?

If you guessed any of these, you’re wrong: try Strayer University and DeVry Institute of Technology.

And what kind of student is most likely to take up computer science at Strayer or DeVry?

If you guessed a young geeky guy with a pocket saver, guess again: try a 35-year-old African American or Hispanic woman who already has a full-time job at a company where information technology (IT) skills are a key to advancement. 

She’s the one taking the night courses at one of the for-profit institutions like Strayer or DeVry that have a wide variety of locations, and offer courses in the early morning and evening, as well as on-line courses.         

“We were so blown away by this,” remarked Dr. Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and one of the authors of the report, “Preparing Women and Minorities for the IT Workforce: The Role of Nontraditional Educational Pathways.” 

Overall, less applications
The researchers came up with an interesting — yet disturbing — conclusion. While adults, many of them women and minorities, are realizing they have to go out and obtain degrees in computer science to advance or just keep up at the workplace, the “traditional” young students in four-year colleges are increasingly deciding not to major in computer science.  

In fact, as the technology-dependent United States struggles to stay ahead of the Bangalores of the world, the Higher Education Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles found significantly fewer students at the college level — 60 percent fewer — wanted to study computer science in 2004 as opposed to the year 2000. 

And what is even more alarming are the low numbers of young women pursuing computer science at the college level — current numbers are the same as in the 1970’s. Yet in terms of demographics, women comprise more than half of the current college population.        

Not just for geeks
Part of the problem, Malcom says, is that “we’ve backed ourselves into thinking that computer science is a ‘geek’ culture, and this is preventing us from tapping into the level of diversity we have in our population and our schools.” 

When the report’s authors interviewed young college students, most thought computer science was all about writing code in a lonely cubicle. And many young women and minorities were intimidated since they had never done “programming” before. 

However, their research indicated that once young people were exposed to computer science courses, their perceptions overwhelmingly changed.

“Many of [the students] were now interested in designing games, going into graphics for industries such as the movies, designing automobiles, doing architectural design work … they just didn’t know there were so many interesting careers in computer science,” said Eleanor Babco, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology and one of the report’s co-authors.

Experts such as Malcom and Babco think some colleges should “take a page” off the for-profit, client-based institutions such as Strayer and DeVry, and make computer science more accessible, practical and less intimidating, to get more 18 year-olds to major in computer science.

“In reaching out to adult learners, we had to figure out what their needs were … if we talk about a ‘widget’ in our class, the adult learner will say ‘that’s great, but how can I use it at the office?’” said Jim McCoy, Vice President of Campus Operations at Strayer University, which has locations primarily around the Virginia-Maryland-DC area, to explain how they tailor their curriculum to the needs their students.

Demographic shift
Although young women and minorities have shied away from studying computer science at traditional colleges, it is a different story once they reach the workplace and enroll in the for-profit schools.

At Strayer, over half the student body is comprised of women and minorities, and according to McCoy, the number of Latino students has been rising significantly. 

In fact, according to new data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the two universities that produced the most minority computer science degrees in 2004 were DeVry (California campus) and Strayer University.

But not all the for-profit schools that cater to adults have the accreditation of Strayer and DeVry. More importantly, some employers interviewed for the report admitted they did not see a degree from a for-profit school in the same way as one from a four-year college.  

Therefore, the authors of the IT report urged companies and professional societies to create voluntary standards that would provide prospective students with information about the “quality, structure and reputation of programs” to help them make the right choices, whether it be at a for-profit or non-profit university. 

Make a national priority
At the same time, the authors urged traditional four-year colleges to increase the numbers of their IT students, especially women and minorities, by designing more flexible schedules and remote-learning that accommodates those who cannot attend school full-time.   

In addition, since an increase in IT workers is a “national need,” the authors of the study recommended more public and private grants to allow more Americans to study the subject —even on a part-time schedule.

At the moment, the Advancement of Science report stated that many grants and funding mechanisms flowed to the “traditional” schools. Currently, Strayer’s McCoy said that about half of their predominantly adult students accessed government loans, and some were eligible for Pell Grants or some forms of scholarships. 

With the pace of technology keeps increasing and young Americans not exactly flocking to earn computer science degrees, perhaps high school guidance counselors, as well as college counselors, should urge students to forego old assumptions about computer science and realize that programming experience and pocket savers are not needed.

Students shouldn’t wait until they are 35 and in an office cubicle to realize that they should have taken those computer classes in college. After all, who doesn’t think the IT folks in their office are the most valuable of the bunch?