The number of computer science majors at UNC has increased fivefold since 2010. In fall 2010, the department had 158 undergraduate students. Now, it has 812.
Since fall 2014 alone, computer science major enrollment has increased by more than 250.
As student enrollment skyrockets, the department faces unprecedented difficulties as it tries to accommodate the growing demand for course offerings, especially for introductory-level courses.
Department Chairperson Kevin Jeffay said the faculty size has been roughly constant since 2002, despite the increase in computer science majors.
“All the faculty are fully teaching. In fact, we actually have distinguished professors teaching extra classes. That’s how bad things are,” Jeffay said. “And we still don’t have enough faculty to cover all of our classes.”
He said “Introduction to Scientific Programming,” which serves as a requirement for majors like math and mathematical decision sciences, is supposed to be offered every semester. But it is not offered this fall because the department does not have enough faculty.
“I think that the situation is all right for upper-level students, but I know that it has been really hard for entry-level or underclassmen to get into the intro courses, specifically (Computer Science) 110 and 116,” junior computer science major Nancy Gao said.
Gao said since some introductory classes are either required or are elective classes for other science or math majors, students are having a hard time.
Sophomore computer science major Illirik Smirnov said he thinks the lack of faculty limits the department’s ability to offer more sections.
“I think the one major issue would definitely be funding, because the department doesn’t really have the access to instructor capacity to be able to have more high-quality sections,” Smirnov said.
The size of computer science classes, junior computer science major Marina Kashgarian said, also limits students’ abilities to interact with professors.
Kashgarian said the smallest computer science class she has taken had 60 students and usually her classes have 200 students. She said she cannot establish personal relationships with her computer science professors like she can in other departments.
“With my computer science classes, I don’t know any of my professors — which is unfortunate,” she said.
Jeffay said the department budget currently is about half a million dollars. He said it was almost unchanged for more than 10 years until a moderate 15 percent increase in 2014.
“The problem really is that the budget lacks growth, so things grow, and we have to scramble to get more money,” Jeffay said. “Eventually you get more, but meanwhile you’ve got even more growth.”
He said the budget increase cannot accommodate the rising student enrollment.
“Yes, you give me money last year, but look, I have 200 more majors,” Jeffay said. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
Gary Bishop, the department’s associate chairperson for academic affairs, said the department has difficulties hiring graduate students as teaching assistants because oftentimes they have better opportunities to do research and summer internships.
Bishop said the limited budget affects every area of the department, from lower-level classes to the graduate program.
“Back in the day, we used to have teaching assistants for graduate courses,” he said. “We don’t anymore.”
Smirnov, the sophomore computer science major, said he thinks there are not enough teaching assistants for major requirement courses, and some of his classes have more than 40 students per recitation.
“The lack of TA availability in courses that have required recitation sections, where for (Computer Science) 401 you could have recitations with 40 to 45 students in them ... is not altogether conducive towards actually providing one-on-one instructions,” Smirnov said.
Smirnov said teaching assistants are important for large, introductory-level courses.
“Especially with the larger sections of comp sci courses where, coming in at the very intro level, students may have somewhat limited understandings and would need a large amount of personal instructions,” he said.
A call for rescue
The department is offering fewer upper-level and graduate courses so it can accommodate lower-level courses, Jeffay said.
“We are offering fewer junior, senior courses and fewer graduate courses, with the hope that, you know, the college will come to our rescue and ... let us hire additional faculty so that we will be able to offer more,” he said.
The lack of upper-level course offerings forces some students to take courses elsewhere. Smirnov said he is going to study abroad to take upper-level classes not available at UNC.
“I am going to study abroad next semester because there are some course offerings that are available, for example in the National University of Singapore, that are not available here,” he said.
Jeffay said the department needs to hire new faculty members to teach additional sections. Hiring adjunct professors is not a viable option, he said, because people with programming skills can earn six-figure salaries outside the world of academia.
“Why would anybody in their right mind leave their high-paying software engineering jobs to come and teach for pennies?” he said.
A trending field
Bishop said students pursue computer science degrees because they understand technology is changing the world.
“Musicians, artists, journalists — yeah, everybody’s job is being changed by computers,” he said.
Jeffay said the booming technology job market is awaiting computer science graduates.
“Every company you’ve ever heard of comes here and recruits CS majors, because everybody needs computing professionals in their business,” he said.
Gao, the junior computer science major, said students want to learn programming skills because there are so many opportunities for employment in the technology industry.
“I think this is following the trend that employment in the tech industry is really hot right now,” she said. “A couple years ago, you could have said it was finance, but these days, it’s technology.”
Jeffay said he does not know how long the increasing demand for computer science courses will continue.
“Who knows? I knew it was going to grow, and a lot of us in the field knew it was going to grow, but nobody knows where it’s going to stop.”