Spring Cleaning For University Tech Offerings

Schools add business flavor to attract and retain students
A sluggish economy. Rising unemployment. The threat of terrorism. The same issues that affect the way companies do business are also having an impact on the academic institutions that produce fresh IT workers.

For many potential IT students and employees, the collapse of the dot-com economy, the reduced chance of getting rich quick, the massive layoffs, and other developments have opened up a few potholes in what was once a clear career path to success, status, and rewards. For colleges and universities, that means developing or enhancing technology and engineering programs to attract students, improve retention, and give graduates an edge in a tight job market.

Some universities and colleges report that enrollment in computer-science programs is decreasing. Those that are still growing say their programs aren't expanding as fast as in years past.

In the years leading up to the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, the engineering department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas repeatedly heard a loud and clear message from businesses that they wanted more entry-level engineers with knowledge of computers, says

Curt Eley, assistant dean for enrollment management and student development at Southern Methodist University

Southern Methodist added business-leadership courses to help retain IT students, Eley says
Curt Eley, assistant dean for enrollment management and student development. So SMU began beefing up its computer-science recruiting programs.

But getting students into engineering programs and keeping them there are different challenges, especially as the IT job market has shriveled in the past 18 months. The department recently noticed it was losing freshman and sophomore students to the university's business school because students sensed that a business degree would be more helpful to their careers, Eley says.

To retain students, the computer-science department added four business-leadership courses to its computer-science and engineering programs. It changed other parts of the curriculum and the instruction style. The changes caused retention to jump from 60% to 85% among first-year undergrads. "Now they don't feel so compelled to go to business courses," he says. "The program introduces them to business and helps them to be able to converse in business."

The computer-science department of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte reports a moderate increase in enrollment, but it also has to deal with retention issues. The department is working to get funding for a "buddy-system" learning program for its freshman. If funded, the program would let 48 incoming freshmen live, study, and socialize together as other academic departments have done. "We lose somewhere between 20% and 30% of our students after freshman year," says Richard Lejk, interim chair of the computer-science department. "University data shows that those students in the community program did much better." The department is also trying to get funding to hire full-time faculty who would teach and be advisers to the freshmen.

UNC Charlotte's curriculum has evolved to ensure that graduates have the skills and experience sought by businesses. Security courses are a top priority, especially since Sept. 11, and the school says enrollment is full for courses on encryption, cryptography, firewall configuration, and security policies.

At the University of Maryland, the computer-science department focuses on software and systems. But security also has been a priority, and the school added security courses before Sept. 11, says Gwen Kaye, the department's education program coordinator. "The field is dynamic, and we usually try to anticipate changes," she says.

Today, businesses want more than just engineers, SMU's Eley says. "The historical engineering and computer-science strategy is, 'let's get in as much technical stuff as we can in four years.' But we heard from the corporate world that it would be nice if students knew budgeting, project management, how to hire people, and how to manage a company on a global scale versus a local scale." So the department also added engineering management courses to make sure graduates have the technical skills to land their first jobs as well as the business, verbal, and written communications skills they need to get their first promotions.

Part of the problem causing the computer-science students to drop out of the programs is the job market. Graduating students are coming out of computer-science programs with fewer job offers and lower salaries than in years past. Salary offers for engineer graduates are $1,500 to $1,000 lower than they were a year ago, says Kevin Hewerdine, director of career services at the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, and prospective employees are no longer being offered the extravagant compensation packages seen in the late '90s. "The seniors coming out this year spent three years looking at [older] classmates with an average of four to five offers to choose from," he says.

That's no longer the case, and competing in a struggling economy is a lesson most students never thought they'd have to learn. "Ten years ago was the last down economy, and they were in junior high," Hewerdine says. But today's seniors realize that competition is stiffer, he says, and they're accepting job offers more quickly.

Computer-science graduates may not be as bad off as their peers in other fields of study, according to the spring 2002 issue of a quarterly report released earlier this month by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The report says employers have decreased their college hiring projections 20%, but some fields, such as computer science, engineering, and accounting, are in more demand than others such as business administration and liberal arts.

But even where there is a need for computer-science graduates, that no longer translates to higher salaries. Computer-science graduates are seeing a 3.6% decrease, to an average of $50,352, in their salary offers, according to the association. Software designers fare slightly better; the average salary for workers with those skills is $54,922. Comparatively, liberal-arts students who find jobs are averaging $28,667, down 5.6% from last year, when their average was $30,378.

National TechTeam, which does outsourcing and technology staff recruiting for companies in Michigan, has seen a major decline in job postings from large businesses. "Where we may have had 50 to 100 postings last year, we might be down to two or three," says Darren Hands, director of technical staffing and recruiting. In addition, only 2% of the job postings are for new college graduates, he says. So as the number of available jobs dwindles, the prospects become even worse for the emerging workforce.

In addition, most of those businesses have a pool of experienced talent at lower salaries to choose from these days, so there's little need to tap into fresh, inexperienced graduates. "Businesses want someone who knows what they are doing and can make an impact day one," Hands says. "It's an investment to hire someone with little or no experience, and right now, businesses don't have the money to do that."

College computer-science programs could make changes in their curricula to help students get experience. While many universities do a good job of keeping up with technology trends, Hands says, many aren't turning out graduates certified to develop key technologies, such as those from Microsoft and Cisco Systems. Such certification would make someone who lacks experience more valuable. In addition, universities aren't doing enough to get their tech students the internships that would give them some experience to compete in the marketplace, he says. "Big-name technical companies would have interns if a college would set it up," Hands says. "They need to be proactively strengthening relationships with these vendors. It's free help, and students have the development skills to do the grunt work."

Paul Wright, CIO of the University of Missouri's department of elementary and secondary education

IT's biggest challenge is its image, Wright says
Promoters of computer-science programs and technology education in general have more than just a weak job market to overcome: Being a computer "geek" isn't as cool as it used to be. In central Missouri, local businesses and universities have formed a coalition to help college students find jobs and internships and to enhance the image and reputation of technology workers. "Our biggest challenge is the whole image of what IT is," says Paul Wright, CIO of the University of Missouri's department of elementary and secondary education. "We'd have thought that kids would have a more positive idea of computers, but really it's the same as it was in the '60s." Wright is a leader of the Jefferson City Information Technology Coalition and a member of advisory boards for three local universities. "We have to try to figure out where [that image] is coming from and change that source," he says.

That need may be more urgent than in other regions. Although it's the capital of Missouri, Jefferson City is a small city that competes with Kansas City and St. Louis for recent IT graduates. Local universities are reporting either a leveling off or a slight decline in enrollment this year. The solution, Wright says, is getting kids interested in a technical career earlier. "We're going into local high schools, and the counselors and advisers aren't comfortable talking about IT and focus on business," Wright says. "We have to get those folks up to speed so they can help kids in the secondary schools."

The institute is looking for funding for programs that might change that, such as summer courses that would help high school counselors get a better understanding of technology careers and identify potential students. Once the students are enrolled, the universities work closely with local businesses such as Scholastic Books and Johnson Controls to ensure that they're graduating students with skills that match the businesses' needs. ".Net is the whole new thing, and Java, JavaScript, and C++ are in big demand," Wright says. That has led to several institutions reducing emphasis on Cobol, mainframe skills, and other older languages that aren't as needed.

Charlotte has dropped Cobol from the curriculum, and this fall the university will add Java in its place. "In spite of the demise of the dot-coms, we're still an Internet-based economy," says interim chair Lejk. "We're teaching Java as the foundation of the [computer-science] program. We feel if students can get the basic programming skills down, they can pick up Cobol on their own."

Even with the right skills, jobs aren't as plentiful as they used to be. When Wright posted a job opening four months ago, he received about 40 resumés; a current opening has attracted more than 90. Says Wright, "It's rough, probably like it is in most areas."