Computer science program enrollment surges

by Delaney Walsh

Media Credit: Samuel Klein | Contributing Photo Editor

Correction appended

Graduate enrollment in the computer science department has escalated 48 percent over the last four years, leveraging perfect job placement rates and the field's rising profile.

The groundswell expanded the department from 284 to 420 students since 2009, popping up degree programs in cybersecurity, revitalizing international recruitment efforts and hiring 10 new professors.

The rise in enrollment is the sharpest of any of GW's graduate degree offerings besides the statistics program, a notable feat as graduate enrollment has grown by 6 percent over the last four years.

The program has also become much more selective over the same period, lowering its master's level acceptance rate from 80 percent to 50 percent. Abdou Youssef, chair of the computer science department, said the department plans to increase its selectivity by 10 percent more.

He attributed the growth to solid job possibilities for students, evidenced by software development nabbing this year's Forbes magazine top jobs ranking. He said the job placement rate for the program, which also caters to mid-career professionals, is 100 percent overall.

Media Credit: Nick Rice | Graphic Assistant

Celebrity-like tech tycoons have also bolstered the field's image, he said, with "considerable media coverage of computer science, computer products, computer companies and computer personalities such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg."

Adina Lav, director of graduate admissions for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said the school has broadened admissions recruiting internationally, which has helped boost applications.

She said pinning down the exact number of international students in the program was "a bit of a moving target," but that 80 percent of its graduate population studied on student or exchange visitor visas in fall 2011.

The school's graduate enrollment overall is about 33 percent international, the largest proportion of any school at GW.

As a result, the department has added 20 courses and is hiring another professor this year. It also exceeded enrollment expectations for its new master's in cybersecurity program.

The quick growth is necessary if GW is to play catch-up as it builds its science and engineering base. The computer science graduate program is ranked No. 79 by U.S. News & World Report, which last put its list together in 2010.

The program has been able to handle the heavy enrollment with considerable investments in the field, Youssef said. The University poured over $8 million into startup costs for new science and engineering professors two years ago, according to GW's operating budget.

Complementing the construction of the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall, which will open in 2015, a hiring binge has targeted young faculty from top Ph.D. programs and experienced professors from other programs. Youssef declined to reveal a specific investment made into the computer science department.

"The University focus on science and engineering is getting noticed. This helps us recruit more students and faculty, and positions us to make significant leaps in education and research when the new Science and Engineering Hall opens," Youssef said.

Assistant professor of computer science Claire Monteleoni was hired in spring 2011 along with four other professors. She said GW's computer science department is becoming more selective as applications boom, and class sizes remain small due to the new hires.

Monteleoni specializes in and teaches machine learning, a new field that finds patterns in data like customers' online purchase histories to recommend targeted products. She said new, complex fields like this are also encouraging students to get graduate degrees.

"If they're super entrepreneurial and they can manage to start a company in their dorm room, more power to them, but maybe the rank and file of students want to get some formal training," she said.

Two years ago, Lav's admissions office created a staff position to target specific undergraduate schools for recruitment. The office focuses on grabbing traditional students who are enrolled in undergraduate programs at schools known for top engineering programs like Harvey Mudd College and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Lav said.

Many students are considering GW that may not have done so in the past, she said.

Maya Larson enrolled in the program, funded by the scholarship for service program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. In exchange for a two-year full scholarship to study computer security at GW, students like Larson receive jobs as security experts in government agencies.

The flourishing job market is what first attracted her to a second degree in computer science after working as an economist and statistician for several years.

"There are so many employers coming in, the career department is great, and the faculty have a lot of connections," she said.

This post was updated April 30, 2013 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that assistant professor of computer science Claire Monteleoni contrasted GW's attempt to lower student-faculty ratio with other universities, Columbia and University of California at San Diego. She did not make that comparison.

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