Why Do You Really Study Computer Science?

Why Do You Really Study Computer Science?

The last thing Stanford needs is more computer science majors. In 2008–9, there were 695 undergraduates majoring in fields in the School of Engineering and 2,511 in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Last year, those numbers were 1,526 for engineering and 2,087 for humanities and sciences. The number of computer science majors has increased nearly fivefold, while enrollments in the humanities have dropped across the board.

One very compelling explanation for these changes is not the dynamism of the School of Engineering—though this is well attested—but rather economic in nature. It’s a well-known fact that studying computer science will earn the average student a six-figure starting salary straight out of college. I suspect that many (though certainly not all) students hold CS pedagogy in such high regard less because of its intrinsic merits and more because it’s a satisfactorily efficient means to a very desirable end.

An article in the Review last spring castigated humanities majors for teasing their CS friends about selling out. This came as something of a surprise to me: unless all your friends happen to have done SLE, it’s hard to imagine that this is a very common phenomenon at Stanford anymore. There are barely enough humanities majors left to do any teasing! The article defended computer science in several ways, but chiefly on the grounds that it serves as a ticket out of poverty for low-income students at Stanford.

While this is certainly true for some CS majors at Stanford, the argument has several flaws. For one thing, it seems to overlook major differences between the economic value of degrees from different universities. The Forbes article cited by Anna Mitchell, the author of the CS-shaming article, tracks graduates from a variety of universities, not just Stanford. Sure, most English majors earn less than most CS majors, but a Stanford English degree is not like an English degree from, say, CSU Long Beach.

Caroline Hoxby, a professor in Stanford’s economics department and a leading expert on the economics of higher education, says that majors don’t matter very much for students at top universities. She determined that the selectivity of one’s university was the single most important factor in future earnings. While CS at Stanford is probably an exception to this general trend, the fact that CS graduates rake it in straight out of Stanford doesn’t mean that humanities graduates don’t do very well for themselves, too. The median starting salary straight out of Stanford is about $70k, with only about 18% of graduates ending up in tech. Notwithstanding the whinging about cost of living in cities, this is by anyone’s standards an enviable salary to earn from a first job. Meanwhile, a salary survey circulated by email reported a median salary of $114,000 for CS and Electrical Engineering graduates last year.

Of course, for students from poor families who feel responsible for lifting not just themselves but multiple generations of their family out of poverty, this extra $44,000 in terms of starting salary becomes a serious consideration. But (taking a convenient if rough measure), only 4% of Stanford students come from the bottom quintile of the income distribution. The other 96%, it would seem, are in need of a better excuse. One would hope that families not in desperate need, despite whatever hopes that their children earn a good salary, would not pressure them to martyr themselves to any particular field of study that fails to engage and satisfy them, especially when the numbers show that a Stanford degree tends to lift all boats (albeit some higher than others).

Seen in this light, the challenge humanities majors allegedly offer to their CS peers—are you selling out? Why do you want to study this?—seems actually an important one for CS majors to consider. The disciplines encompassed by the humanities encourage a kind of self-interrogation that CS majors might do well to emulate. Those studying CS should ask themselves honestly whether they believe in some of the other arguments that the “CS shaming” article proposes. Does CS really help develop the mind? Is it conducive to exploration of other disciplines and an engagement with a liberal arts education while at Stanford? Does work in the technology industry really offer an opportunity to improve lives and better society? I’m personally skeptical on many of these points, especially on the last one, but this is not the place for an extended discussion of the societal benefits and ills precipitated by the tech industry. In any case, it’s not up to me but rather to each individual engineering major to decide for herself the answers to these questions.

In closing, I propose that we regard the well-known friction between Stanford’s students of the engineering disciplines (“techies”) and of the arts (“fuzzies”) as a phenomenon that does more good than ill. Humanities students tend to be slower than engineers to begin thinking through next steps in their career. Many engineers, conversely, seem less willing to interrogate their choice of major or career goals. When engineers challenge humanities students to do more to envision their place in the professional world, humanities students can respond with challenges to engineers to more intensely consider their sense of ethical and intellectual purpose. There is no reason for this exchange to come off as hostile when both parties stand to gain from it. And finally, the exchange is all the more reason why we need fewer, not more, CS majors: to keep a healthy balance between the arts and the applied disciplines at Stanford, so that all of us can push ourselves to think through our intellectual and professional lives more vigorously.

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