Why enrollment is surging in online master’s degree programs in computer science

BY Rich GrisetMarch 21, 2023, 1:33 PM
General view of the campus of the University of Louisville, as seen in September 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

In the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, many online master’s degree programs in computer science saw a surge in interest, with some schools more-than doubling enrollment. A longer-running rise in the popularity of this advanced degree got another boost thanks to the convenience of online school, coupled with a fast-growing number of high-paying roles.

At Rice University, enrollment in the school’s online master’s in computer science doubled between the 2019-2020 and the 2020-2021 school years, while the University of Louisville saw a 116% jump in enrollment during that same timeframe, and Vanderbilt University saw enrollment skyrocket seven-fold.

“It’s certainly on an upward trajectory,” says Jules White, associate dean for strategic learning programs and associate professor of computer science at Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, of interest in these degrees. The university ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s ranking of computer science master’s programs. “I certainly haven’t seen contractions. I haven’t heard of any programs shutting down. I’ve only heard of them starting.”

While the pandemic was a significant factor in the surge, experts say it’s not the only reason for increased enrollment. Even before COVID-19 reared its spike protein barbs, master’s degrees in computer science were already on an upward trend. In fact, the number of computer and information science graduate degrees conferred between the 2009-2010 and 2019-2020 academic years rose 187%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

What’s causing this rise in enrollment, and what does the future hold for graduate programs in this field? Here’s what experts told us.

Why get a master’s in computer science

As our world has grown increasingly digital, so has the need for people who understand computer science. This field of study involves developing and testing computers and computational systems. Computer science is a broad field with many applications and professionals are well-versed in a wide range of skills, including creating algorithms and theories that make up software, designing and developing software, and making that software interact with hardware.

Between 2021 and 2031, the number of jobs for computer and information technology professionals is projected to grow 15%, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; median salaries usually start well into the six figures. And those people who pursue a master’s degree in this field usually see a salary bump of about $30,000.

While the tech sector has made recent headlines for laying off tens of thousands of workers, many of those workers quickly found new jobs.

That’s because computer science has a wide array of applications in all sorts of job sectors, says Mehmed Kantardzic, a professor and director of graduate programs in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering. “It is a much more interdisciplinary field, and people are recognizing that more and more,” he says. “Interest is becoming larger.”

Behind the current surge in enrollment

There’s no denying the impact of the pandemic on the latest surge in interest computer science master’s programs.

The pandemic fundamentally changed people’s relationship with being online. With many people working, learning, and communicating online like never before, White says it demonstrated that potential students didn’t have to be physically present to pursue a degree.

“In many ways, that unlocked the idea for people,” White says. “My hypothesis is that people started to realize, ‘Hey, this is a possibility for me. I’ve always wanted to go back and get a degree.’”

Additionally, White credits the Great Resignation—a term for the ongoing trend of people quitting their jobs en masse because of job dissatisfaction and other factors—for spurring more interest in computer science.

“A lot of people said ‘This is what I really want long term. I want to position myself so I can grow and have more freedom in my career path by getting an advanced degree,’” White says.

Kantardzic echoes White, adding that part of the appeal of online graduate programs is they allow for so much flexibility. People attending an online master’s program may be working full-time, part-time, or have family duties they are juggling while in school. Additionally, many computer science jobs allow for remote work.

As for the surge at Vanderbilt, where enrollment jumped from 14 students to 105 in a single school year, White says the school only launched its master’s of computer science program in fall 2019 and has been growing ever since. He credits part of the surge to the increase in the program’s notoriety and marketing campaigns.

Demographically, White says “a significant portion” of the program’s students live on the West Coast, far away from the Nashville, Tennessee-based school. Vanderbilt’s classes are aligned for evenings on central time, he says these students attend near the end of their traditional work day. With people working remotely, White adds that it’s easy for these students to take a break from their jobs and attend class online.

Thanks to the growing interest in computer science, Louisville has developed graduate certificate programs in cybersecurity and data science.

What the future holds for computer science

Going forward, White only sees increased interest in the field of computer science, especially with the rise of technology like the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot ChatGPT. A recent survey found that 90% of business leaders said experience with ChatGPT is a beneficial skill for job seekers.

“I predict a huge explosion in enrollment over the next five years due to these tools and technologies,” White says. “The new AI models, like ChatGPT, are going to, over the next few years, completely disrupt a number of industries. These models, when you have people who really understand how to use these tools, can make people 10 to 100 times more productive.”

Computer science programs are going to teach students how to use these tools effectively, and many people already working in the field will have to return to school to earn a master’s degree or certification in this new technology, White says.

Likewise, Kantardzic also sees a bright future for computer science workers.

“Interest in the domain of computer science still will be relatively high,” he says. “They have potential jobs in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, robotics, web applications, software applications.”

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.