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All students who wish to major in computer science at the University of Michigan must now submit a major-specific application, according to a new policy from the University of Michigan’s Computer Science and Engineering Department.

Prior to the policy, which will go into effect during the fall 2023 admissions cycle, any undergraduate student at the University could declare a CS major given they had completed the prerequisite courses. The policy does not impact students who wish to enroll in the CS minor

The CSE Enrollment and Admission Team was created in 2021 and consisted of engineering faculty and staff members. The team proposed the new policy as a part of the College of Engineering’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Action Plan to design an admissions model that balances needs to control enrollment and increase diversity in the major. The Enrollment and Admissions Team is co-chaired by engineering professor Brian Noble and Donna Bender, Director of Strategic Initiatives. CSE chair Michael Wellman, said the changes were prompted by high student demand for computer science courses relative to classroom capacity.

For the past decade or more, maybe even 15 years, there’s been a steady and very steep growth in student demand for (the CSE) major,” Wellman said. “We have been working hard to grow our capacity to meet that demand. It’s been a struggle at times, and we finally realized that we are unable to stay ahead of this continuing explosive growth in demand.” 

Growth in enrollment amongst U-M undergraduates

Nationally, student demand for enrolling in computer science majors has tripled between 2006 and 2015. The University of Michigan’s computer science major has seen its enrollment nearly quadruple since 2010 for undergraduate students in both LSA and COE. Other universities, such as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have had similar issues meeting high demand for computer science courses among students, resulting in limited enrollment and restrictions for those students.

Wellman said his team sought out multiple solutions before they settled on the new restrictions.

“I think it's important to emphasize that this is really a last resort kind of action,” Wellman said. “As I mentioned, our faculty would very much prefer to serve anyone who's interested in computer science. We explore(d) because we are very late to this game. Many of our peer institutions already have had… restrictions on CS enrollments (for some time), and we reluctantly concluded that this was necessary for us as well.” 

In a Piazza post, Westley Weimer, CSE DEI Committee Chair, explained some of the considerations that lead to restricting enrollment. The Piazza post was public to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science 481 Piazza forum as a personal opinion of Weimer’s in response to the policy.

“There is very high demand for the service of ‘taking this CS class,’ and it is challenging for us to supply more of it (i.e., to offer more seats),” Weimer wrote. “I'm not going to claim CSE's decision-making process is perfect, but compared to some well-publicized ‘hasty’ actions CSE has taken, this one really did involve a huge amount of thought, deliberation and discussion."

Engineering junior Hassan Kadiri reflected on the struggles he faced due to high enrollment when he was taking EECS 280 and EECS 281.

“Based on what I remember, it was a lot of students because I remember when we were submitting different projects to the autograder, sometimes we would get flooded in with 200 (or) 300 students at a time trying to submit projects,” Kadiri said. “I took those classes my freshman year, so you can imagine that there's a lot more CS students now.”

Kadiri said he thinks the policy will have an impact on diversity in the CS major.

If you don't have CS experience, you're probably not going to major or have the chance to major in CS,” Kadiri said. “And even if you do, it's going to be a lot more competitive in nature. So I feel like this (policy) would impact (diversity) on that end, at least.”

Diversity in Computer Science 

On average, women are less likely to pursue computer science courses than men in high school and at the undergraduate level in the United States. While the enrollment for women is much lower than for men in the computer science program at the University, the enrollment for women has increased from 2020 to 2021. A CSE DEI report found that during the 2021 academic year, of students enrolled in the beginning of introductory computer science courses (EECS 183, EECS 101, ENGR 151), 59.76% were men and 39.45% were women. However, by the time the cohort reached the end of EECS 376 that year, it was reported that 67.89% of the enrolled students were men and 31.41% were women. 

Wellman addressed concerns about the impact the new admissions policy could have on diversity, saying the new enrollment policies will ensure students from various backgrounds have the opportunity to pursue computer science at the University. 

“It's no secret that the field of computer science currently faces significant challenges with diversity,” Wellman said. “Many are put off from considering computer science based on their earlier perceptions of the major and of the topic and their impression that succeeding in the major requires extensive prior experience. Our new enrollment policies are designed to ensure that there's an access for students from a range of experience backgrounds, and who come to computer science based on a variety of interests and motivations.”

Wellman said the policy will have a positive effect on the diversity of those who pursue a computer science degree.

“I think it will have a positive effect on diversity mainly because of this way that we're making room for those who merely discover CS,” Wellman said. “I also want to stress that we consider anybody who was accepted to engineering or LSA.”

LSA senior Mitchell Kuppersmith, an instructional aide for an upper level computer science course, described the similarities between the new policy and those at other universities and reflected on his opportunity to pursue computer science at the University. He said he initially thought there would be less accessibility for computer science education for students.

“Coming to Michigan was my only chance to really do computer science,” Kuppersmith said. “I … worry that other people who apply to these programs have to apply to a major. That immediately makes things more competitive and cuts off access to people who wouldn't have experience in this field. And even as somebody who has experience in this field, I just don't think that's a fair thing to do since it drastically reduces people's ability to explore different majors.” 

Kuppersmith said while the general reasoning from the computer science department to restrict the major was to serve computer science majors, but the restrictions will not limit enrollment in the most full courses.

“But if you look at the enrollment for computer science classes, the most crowded classes are the intro classes, and the intro classes aren't going to have any restrictions on who can take them,” Kuppersmith said. “These are the classes where the kind of people who are just getting into computer science are going to struggle the most, (so) I feel as though the restriction on the major’s really pointless because anybody who's trying to get in without experience is just going to like suffer from a lack of help there.” 

Kuppersmith said he hoped the policy would help promote a diverse set of computer-related majors. 

“I think that what we can really do better is invest a lot more resources into getting more tutors, especially with outreach, to underrepresented groups in computer science and these early computer science classes,” Kuppersmith said. 

Daily Staff Reporter Nirali Patel can be reached at nirpat@umich.edu