The computer science department already has a two-before-three rule in place, where undergraduates can select a third computer science course to take each semester only after all students have had the opportunity to enroll in two courses. Priority for the limited seats in COMP 211 and 301 will go to students — first declared majors, then undeclared — who will be able to graduate on time with the two-before-three rule.
The priority queue for students is a transitional step toward a full-blown admissions process, which the department also plans to implement in the fall.
A committee with student input will design admissions criteria, and a panel will apply that process to review prospective applicants based on their previous performance in computer science courses.
Rocketing demand for the major combined with little net growth in faculty hiring have caused headaches for the department for years, Department Chairperson Kevin Jeffay said.
In the fall of 2010, 158 students had either declared or intended to declare computer science as their major. By the spring of 2020, that number had increased nearly tenfold, to 1,555.
But faculty hiring hasn’t kept up. The planned retirement of two senior, tenure-track professors who contribute 25 percent of the department’s teaching capacity in upper-level undergraduate courses could bring an already-taxed faculty to its knees.
Jeffay said that he believes the department will be able to accommodate everyone who has already declared the major, and a significant fraction of the current students who intend on declaring but haven’t done so formally.
“The students that will be affected are the students that didn’t know they wanted to declare the major," Jeffay said. "Starting with freshmen next year, some fraction who knew they wanted to do the major may not be able to do it."
The admissions process is still in development, but Jeffay did acknowledge that questions of diversity and equity are at the forefront of his and many other faculty members’ minds.
“We will implement a holistic admissions process, so grades certainly will be part of it, in the sense that you have to demonstrate that you're going to be able to succeed,” Jeffay said. “But it is not going to be simply, ‘What's your GPA?’ We will take a holistic look at each applicant and determine whether or not they're appropriate for the major. What the form of that will be is still under construction.”
Neil Pierre-Louis, a sophomore majoring in computer science and statistics, said that he hopes the admissions process won’t be based entirely on previous programming ability.
“As a minority student in computer science, I feel like there's barely enough of us already,” Pierre-Louis said. “It’s a tough process. When I took COMP 110, there were about 400 people in the class, and it was a bit overwhelming, especially for the teacher. But I feel like if they use some process where people have had an advantage in coding since they were in elementary or middle school, you’re excluding a lot of students.”
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Joshua Bakita, a computer science doctoral student, said he worries that students who have enrolled at UNC expecting to be able to major in computer science will be thrown for a loop.
“This will affect people who are coming in as freshmen this year who’ve already accepted UNC thinking they’re going to do computer science, who might learn once they get here that there’s only a, say, 60 percent chance that they’ll be able to," Bakita said.
Pierre-Louis said that he might have thought twice about enrolling at UNC if he’d known that there would be an admissions process for computer science.
“I was choosing between here, State and Duke,” Pierre-Louis said. “The classes are great here, but I’m not sure I’d be interested in any major other than computer science. I think it would definitely influence my decision if I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t get into the major.”
At the end of the day, Jeffay said, the department would have preferred to grow its faculty instead of cutting students, but due to a number of reasons, that hasn’t happened. Limiting the major as the technology field expands across the country is a shame, he said, but it was the department’s only option.
“Look at the feeding frenzy we have for our majors,” he said. “It was so competitive that companies wanted to recruit in the building. We had to create our own organization to manage that because we didn’t want companies wandering around the lobby, arm-twisting students.
"It’s ironic. Google is coming to Durham to hire a thousand folks, they’re holding a major career event in the department — and at the same time as this tremendous growth, we’re having to cut our program.”