Computer science is considered to be one of the most prestigious degrees out there. High salaries, future-proofness, flexible working hours – what more can one wish for? However, the dropout rates for computer science students are sky high. Why is that?

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Key Takeaways:

  • Many students choose computer science with the belief that it automatically leads to high-paying jobs. This misconception often overshadows the reality that success in the tech industry requires a blend of advanced skills and continuous learning.
  • Computer science courses often have a significant emphasis on exams, which can create a high-pressure environment. This focus on exams can lead to a narrow concentration on short-term learning and memorization.
  • Students are often surprised by the extensive role of mathematics in computer science. This aspect can be more demanding than in some engineering programs, leading to mixed reactions among students.

Computer science, a field at the forefront of technological advancement and innovation, surprisingly faces a significant challenge: high dropout rates among students. Recent figures from the Higher Education Authority, as reported in the Irish Times, reveal a startling trend in computer science courses. The rate at which students discontinue their studies in this major is about double the average dropout rate seen in other college courses. Specifically, computer science shows a non-progression rate of 28%, a figure that starkly contrasts with the general expectation of success in this lucrative and in-demand field. This concerning statistic leads to a deeper exploration of the various factors that contribute to such a high dropout rate. So, no wonder one of the users on Quora was puzzled with the question:

“Why do so many students drop out from a computer science major?”

Computer Science Education and the Income Myth

Many students enter the field of computer science with a significant misconception: the belief that a degree in this area is a surefire ticket to a high-income career. Well, of course, the salaries of CS majors are usually higher than some of the other professions, but that’s not all. This belief is a driving force for numerous students selecting computer science as their major, often with financial gains as their primary motivation. The allure of lucrative job offers in the tech industry, bolstered by stories of high salaries and successful tech entrepreneurs, paints an overly optimistic picture. However, the reality is not as straightforward as it seems.

“A lot of students select a computer science major because they think they’re going to get a lot of money. They don’t think much about what is involved beyond that.”

While it’s true that the tech industry can offer substantial financial rewards, these are not guaranteed merely by obtaining a degree. The high-income positions often require a combination of advanced skills, experience, and sometimes, a bit of luck. What many students don’t initially realize is that a successful career in computer science demands continuous learning, adaptation to rapidly evolving technologies, and often, starting at more modest entry-level positions.

The Impact of Exam-Heavy Grading

This exam-centric system can lead to a stressful academic environment, where students may focus more on short-term memorization or specific problem-solving techniques geared towards exams, rather than a comprehensive understanding of the subject. Such a focus on exams can inadvertently discourage deeper learning and exploration, aspects that are crucial in a field as dynamic and innovative as computer science. Moreover, students who may excel in practical work or projects might find their abilities inadequately represented by their exam performance.

“A typical computer science final exam is worth around 40~50%. So even if your grades had been high from the workload throughout the semester, everything can go so wrong from one bad final.”

The impact of this grading system extends beyond grades; it influences the way students perceive and engage with the subject. The pressure to perform well in exams can diminish enthusiasm and inhibit creativity, both of which are essential for success and advancement in computer science.

Why Do So Many Students Drop Out of a Computer Science Major? Quora Users Weigh In
Source: Freepik.com

The Prevalent Role of Mathematics in the Degree

Many students venturing into computer science are often taken aback by the significant role mathematics plays in the discipline. Unlike the common perception that computer science revolves solely around programming and technology, math forms a foundational pillar in this field. In fact, the mathematical demands in computer science courses can be more intensive than those in some engineering programs. This unexpected (for some) emphasis on math, including areas like algorithms, logic, and discrete mathematics, often comes as a surprise to students, who may not have anticipated this aspect of the curriculum.

“[Students] also don’t realize that computer science is applied mathematics. Accordingly, the computer science program at my daughter’s college requires more math classes than the engineering program does (but fewer physics classes).”

The reaction among students to this math-centric approach varies. Some find it challenging yet rewarding, as it equips them with essential problem-solving skills crucial for programming and software development. Others, however, may feel overwhelmed, especially if their background in mathematics is not strong. This divergence in student experiences highlights the need for clearer communication about curriculum content to prospective computer science majors. 

It’s Just “Not Worth It”

Students enrolled in computer science often find themselves at a crossroads, analyzing the cost-benefit ratio of continuing with the major versus the option of switching majors or even dropping out. This decision-making process is influenced by several factors, including the challenges faced in the coursework, the initial expectations versus the actual experience of the major, and the perceived value of the degree in the job market.

“In fact, most of my senior friends, who are graduates, get frequent job offers from places that they never applied to (even for non-programming related jobs like banks or IT), because of their resumes/CVs on their Indeed/Monster profiles. I’m guessing a lot of people don’t think all of the stress and the requirements are worth it. Until they face some real economic hardships, but by then, it’s too late.”

For many, the decision hinges on whether the investment in time, effort, and resources is justified by the potential outcomes, such as career prospects and financial gains. Some students, faced with the rigorous demands of the program, especially in areas like mathematics and complex theoretical concepts, begin to question if their strengths and interests align better with a different field. Others reassess their goals and aspirations, considering alternative paths that might offer more fulfillment or better suit their capabilities. This introspective process is crucial, as it leads students to make informed choices about their academic and professional futures, ensuring that their educational journey aligns with their personal and career goals.

Conclusion

To tackle the high dropout rates in computer science, universities and educators need to adopt a more supportive approach. This could involve providing clearer insights into the demands of the major, especially the significant role of mathematics and the cumulative nature of the subject. Enhanced academic support, like tutoring and mentoring programs, can also play a key role in helping students overcome challenges. Additionally, integrating more practical, real-world applications of computer science could increase engagement and relevance for students. Prospective students, on their part, should proactively research and understand what a computer science major entails, preparing themselves for the rigorous academic journey ahead. This preparation and informed decision-making can greatly contribute to reducing dropout rates and fostering a more successful academic experience.

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