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Culture

College freshmen less interested in tech

Percentage of incoming freshmen saying they'll major in computer science drops significantly.

Incoming college students seem to have developed an allergy to computer science during the past four years--with women particularly being uninterested in the field.

That's the gist of a new report from Computing Research Association (CRA), a group made up of academic departments, research centers and professional societies.

The study could fuel concerns that the United States may be losing its edge in the realm of information technology, especially when measured against emerging powers such as India and China. The dot-com bust and offshore outsourcing have been mentioned as factors to explain declining interest among Americans in computer science.


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Citing research from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, the report says the percentage of incoming undergraduates indicating they would major in computer science declined by more than 60 percent between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2004, and is now 70 percent lower than it was during its peak in the early 1980s.

Interest in computer science among women fell 80 percent between 1998 and 2004, and 93 percent since its peak in 1982, according to the report, which will appear in the May edition of Computing Research News.

Last fall, the number of incoming freshmen who felt they would probably major in computer science was just less than 1.5 percent of all enrolled freshmen, according to the report.

"Freshmen interest levels at any given point have been an accurate predictor of trends in the number of degrees granted four to five years later," the report said. "It therefore seems likely that there will be a sharp decline in the number of bachelor's degrees granted in CS (computer science) in the coming decade."

CRA said results from its own survey of computer science departments reinforce this argument. The group's survey found that the number of newly declared computer science majors has declined for the past four years and is now 39 percent lower than in the fall of 2000. Enrollments have declined 7 percent in each of the past two years, CRA said.

"With a fall in degree production looming, it is difficult to see how CS can match expected future demand for IT workers without raising women's participation at the undergraduate level," the group said.

The topic of the declining participation of women in IT is prominent among concerns about the future of high technology in the United States.

That decline is somewhat puzzling, in part because women have increased their share of jobs in related areas, such as natural sciences.

Interest in the issue has been spurred in part by a furor over remarks earlier this year by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers. At a conference in January, Summers suggested that innate differences between the genders could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers. He later apologized for the remarks.