Last week, University of Michigan students started backpacking courses for the spring, summer and fall 2021 terms and eagerly checked their registration appointment times on Wolverine Access. Usually, students have a fair idea of what to expect based on past semesters, but this semester has been a little different. The University recently announced (via an email) a change in how they will assign these appointments: Credit obtained via AP or IB (International Baccalaureate) coursework is no longer a factor in determining one’s registration time slot. While it was an overdue change to level the playing field, the sudden announcement divided opinions on campus.
While students now know when they can begin registering for courses, the true impact of the change on course availability remains unknown. For students studying computer science, the uncertainty is problematic. CS is a rare major in that it is offered both by the College of Engineering and LSA. It is also one of the most popular and fastest-growing majors — for example, EECS 280, a required course to declare the major, has about 1,200 students enrolled in winter 2021.
This is no surprise given employers’ high demand for CS graduates and the high starting salaries of those positions. However, CS departments across the nation are struggling to keep up with demand. CS at the University has a few required upper-level electives in high demand but with huge waitlists due to limited space.
Here’s where the new change complicates matters: Junior and senior CS majors with AP/IB credits no longer know if they’ll be able to get into their planned courses at all. This has reignited another discussion on the overcrowding problem within the major — and for good reason.
Whenever overcrowding gets brought up, a few suggestions are made, like capping the number of students in the major (by direct admissions or a competitive admissions process, similar to the Ross School of Business) or increasing the prerequisite requirements (by increasing the required grade point average cutoff). The University of California-Berkeley has a 3.3 GPA requirement across its prerequisite courses, which includes all attempts, as opposed to our 2.5 GPA requirement that only considers final attempts, meaning you can take the class as many times as you need to satisfy the grade requirements. Additionally, the University of Washington has a Direct to Major admissions process for CS and advises students who aren’t admitted directly to consider attending another university if they are set on pursuing CS. Both are notable examples of these suggestions in action.
The University of Michigan’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department takes a different approach — one based on a commitment to keep the major accessible. Some might argue that this stance is not pragmatic enough. After all, there is a nationwide shortage of CS professors, with departments short-staffed at numerous universities. The small percentage of people opting to get a Ph.D. in CS and the competition for experts from the industry contribute to this problem. In this context, is it feasible for the University to continue like this?
Actually, yes. Dr. Westley Weimer, a professor in the EECS department, provided an in-depth analysis of the waitlist issue. The case of “over-enrollment” where there aren’t enough seats for everyone to graduate on time is the main worry with an open major. The University’s CS program finds itself in a place with “enough seats in electives for people to graduate.” There is a caveat of having long waitlists at the start of the semester (a consequence of no limits on waitlisting courses) and the possibility of not getting your first preference all the time. Currently, everyone who majors in CS can graduate in four years. The University can continue like this for now, but this begs another question: Should we continue like this?
Berkeley and UW chose their measures to reduce enrollment into the major and ensure they can keep up with the demand. That approach skews the accessibility of the major heavily in favor of students with CS experience during high school. High school coursework can cover parts of the prerequisites, giving certain students a head start, and direct admission into the major would inherently favor those luckier few.
For a field notoriously lacking in diversity, such a move would aggravate the problem. A capped major would also deprive the world of many exceptional computer scientists. Think I’m exaggerating? University alum Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and creator of the vi program, says in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” that he initially planned on majoring in biology or math. He was enamored with CS in his freshman year, changed majors and then went on to change the world.
Any limit imposed on the major — direct or indirect — is imperfect. Given the choice between imperfect systems, one that prioritizes access is perhaps the best. It is certainly the least disruptive.
Consequently, our focus should shift toward improving the current system. Be it an increase in faculty — which the department was pursuing before the pandemic-imposed hire freeze — or exploring remote/hybrid course options, many measures can be taken to improve the student experience. Until then, students can rest easy that despite the registration policy change, they will be able to graduate on time.
Siddharth Parmar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.