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'Admissions maximalists' — computer science department makes final switch to application

Sitterson Hall, pictured here on Monday, Jan. 30,2023, houses the Computer Science department that recently transitioned to an admission system.

Sophomore Bruna Ricciardi had just switched her major to computer science in spring 2022 when the department officially moved to an admissions system.

“It was kind of like a tease a few years before — they were like, ‘Yeah, we're going to move it to admissions next year,’” she said. “And then they delayed it, and then they delayed it, and so it ended up falling on me. And that might be a selfish way to look at it, but I was like, really?”

This semester will mark the department’s first standard admissions cycle when the application opens on Feb. 15. It’s tough to tell how competitive it will be, said Kris Jordan, a professor in the computer science department and now the director of its admissions program. 

“At the end of the day, we think we have 300 seats that we can support and admit,” he said. “And so that's the numerator, whatever the denominator is.”

How we got here

With demand for the major increasing exponentially over the past decade, the number of computer science students in the department quickly outpaced its teaching capacity. In spring 2022, there were more than 1800 declared computer science majors at UNC, compared with around 250 in 2012. 

“No matter how aggressive you are in hiring, you cannot outhire the pace of interest in computer science,” Ketan Mayer-Patel, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, said. “It’s just impossible.” 

In 2018, an external review of the department noted enrollment issues and recommended implementing an admissions process. Kevin Jeffay, a professor in the department who served as chairperson until last fall, said the faculty tried to avoid it. 

But, when two professors who were responsible for 25 percent of the department’s upper-level class seats retired in 2021, the move became inevitable.

“We basically held out as long as humanly possible,” Jeffay said. “What the department always wanted was for the department to grow. And for a whole variety of reasons, that just didn't happen.”

The department tried to announce the move to admissions in spring 2021, but students panicked, Mayer-Patel said. The College of Arts and Sciences forced a pause of the plans, delaying the change yet another year.

“We would have been in a much better place and not delayed anybody, if we had had the ability to implement it in the same way we did last year, frankly,” Jordan said. “It was the same plan, it was the same outcome. But it was delayed by a year, and during that year, there was a significant backup of students waiting to get into the next course they needed.” 

If growth had continued without an admissions process, Jordan said, it would have pushed back the time frame of students taking introductory computer science classes to the point where most of them wouldn’t have been able to complete their degrees. 

According to projections, for example, next year’s incoming class would not have been able to take COMP 210 until — at the earliest — the fall of their junior year. Even then, only a fraction of interested students would have been able to get into the class that semester, and everyone else would be out of luck for completing the major in four years. 

The admissions timeline

The first two rounds of admission cycles, in the spring and fall of 2022, were, in some ways, a formality. 

The spring 2022 cycle was for rising juniors, to ensure that they would be on track to complete the major on time, Mayer-Patel said. The fall 2022 cycle was primarily for sophomores enrolled in COMP 210, the first class of the major.  

Mayer-Patel said that the department accepted all students in these admissions cycles that were “minimally qualified” — primarily meaning that they’d received a C or better in prerequisite courses like COMP 110 and were capable of finishing their degree in time. 

Students applying that first semester, in spring 2022, were not necessarily aware of that, though. 

Junior Jonathan Weaver switched into computer science right before they made the official announcement about admissions. He said he spent a lot of time stressing over registration that semester because of the limited time he had left to complete a new major.

“My immediate thought was, ‘If I don't get in, what am I going to do now?’” he said.   

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In spring 2022, the department ultimately admitted all 72 rising juniors who would be able to complete the degree. The following semester, they admitted all 308 sophomores who met the minimum admissions criteria. 

“The fact that it's an admissions process, meaning there's some chance that people may not be admitted, gives a perception of wanting to turn people away,” Jordan said. “But I think of us in the computer science department as admissions maximalists. Our goal has been, since I've been here, to serve as many CS majors as we believe we can graduate in four years.”

Admissions moving forward

First-year Jonathan Nwokeji, who plans to apply to the major this semester, said he didn’t realize that UNC had moved to computer science admissions when he paid his deposit. But, he said it would not have changed his mind about coming to the University. 

“There's a couple other schools that I was applying to where you have to apply for computer science,” he said. “So, I had that problem with other universities that I was considering.” 

Among comparable universities across the nation, UNC was one of the only ones without an admissions process for computer science, whether through admission to the university itself or to a specific program once there, Jeffay said. 

Jordan said that UNC’s application process will be holistic, much like admissions into UNC. And, he emphasized that prior programming experience is not required.

“Myself, coming from a rural county in North Carolina when I came to UNC, my high school didn't have any programming classes,” he said. “And that's still true, sadly, of many of the high schools that our students are coming from. And so we very much wanted there to be pathways for everyone at Carolina who had demonstrated potential to succeed.” 

Ricciardi — who switched to the department right before the move to admissions — said the application process was disorganized and chaotic but ultimately beneficial for the future of the department. 

“I do think it was, unfortunately, a necessary thing that the comp department needed to do,” she said. “The quality of the education was just inevitably going to go down. And as a future programmer, I don't want to go out into the job world, and not have the readiness that I could have had.” 

The application to apply to the program will open on Feb. 15.