Work Shift Explainer
A new language for CS degrees
Melissa Jones was head of learning for General Assembly, the bootcamp pioneer, for almost three years.
She was bought in on the potential of skills-focused, alternative training to amplify a traditional degree. But a question kept pricking at her: Why weren’t more people rebuilding degrees instead of working around them?
Shopify’s Dev Degree was doing just that. And now, as director of technical programs for the Canada-based company, Jones is helping shape the six-year-old program. Dev Degree students take classes half the day at university partners, including Dominican University of California, and work on software engineering the other half. They do that full-time for four years.
“We’re pushing the envelope on what a computer science degree could look like,” Jones says.
The big idea: It’s an all-in version of work-based learning—an approach that’s gaining traction across four-year and two-year programs in computer science and other IT fields. And that’s just one way that forward-thinking degree programs are evolving to better meet the needs of the tech industry and of students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the field.
A growing number of two-year and four-year institutions are partnering with third-party providers, like CodePath and Break Through Tech, who offer bridge programs, tailored skills curricula, and employer connections. In some cases, companies themselves are playing that partner role, like Google with its Computer Science Summer Institute, which serves as a bridge into bachelor’s programs in the computer sciences.
Colleges also are working to layer more job-specific skills into the broader computer science curriculum, adding certificates and other microcredentials that can be earned before, during, or after a bachelor’s program. Those short credentials often do double duty as a way for workers in tech to upskill or for those with degrees in other fields to reskill and enter the industry. Institutions like Northeastern University and the University of Washington have created entirely new master’s degree programs in the computer and information sciences designed for professionals with bachelor’s in other fields.
The theory: A common thread through all these efforts is a focus on modernizing the computer science curriculum and ensuring that it not only develops broad technical skill and knowledge but familiarizes students with solving problems in teams and exposes them to skills that are the most in demand now. The idea is to educate for both the first job and the fifth job. This move in education is not unique to the computer sciences, but it is especially pronounced in the field given the speed of change in tech.
The other common thread is a focus on better connecting to—and even disrupting—the hiring process at tech firms and other companies with large software development, cyber, and IT functions. At Shopify, for example, new software engineering hires must come through the company’s highly selective internship program or have at least two to three years of work experience. And that’s not uncommon.
Dev Degree, though, gives students another path.
The why: All these innovations are focused on building a more robust pipeline into tech jobs and diversifying the industry—especially, though not exclusively, in high-end software engineering and data science roles. Dev Degree, for example, has about 85 students and what the program calls “an inferred gender ratio of 50 percent female.”
Many groups across the country are working to get more women, Black, and Latino students interested in computer science and to ensure that they get fundamentals in high school that prepare them to succeed in the field in college. But here, we focus on colleges and their partners. The challenges they are tackling are threefold:
- Many students who start in the computer sciences, especially women and those from underrepresented groups, don’t ultimately graduate in those fields.
- Of those who do earn computer science or related degrees, fewer than half actually go into tech roles.
- And a growing number of adults in tech or in other fields need opportunities to upskill to stay relevant or to reskill and switch careers.
At every step of the way, the focus isn’t just on growing numbers, but on changing the face of tech.
Work Shift Explains: Tech Pathways
This Work Shift Explainer is part of a series on evolving and growing pathways into good tech jobs. You can check out more of the series at the links below.
Part 1: The reboot in tech training. Many of the jobs in the new tech economy are still being filled like they were in the 1990s. But that’s starting to change—and here, we take a look at the new and growing pathways into good tech jobs.
Part 2: Apprenticeships grow into tech. Registered apprenticeship programs in tech have grown more than 41 percent in the past year. In this explainer, we take a deeper look at tech apprenticeships, with a focus on how they work, who pays for them, and who they benefit.
How it works
The basics: Degree programs are a tried-and-true path into tech, especially the top engineering and management-track jobs. Even as big tech, from Alphabet to Microsoft, has made headlines for “dropping” degree requirements, the majority of the companies’ job postings for software engineers and network administrators still require them.
- In fact, a recent analysis by the Burning Glass Institute found that about 79 percent of job postings for computer programmers nationally still required a bachelor’s or advanced degree in 2020. That was down from 83 percent in 2017.
- In fall 2021, the number of students majoring in the computer sciences grew 1.3 percent at four-year institutions and 2.9 percent at two-year ones, building on substantial growth in 2019 and 2020.
Who pays: As with all degree programs, computer science and other tech programs are funded through a combination of student tuition, federal financial aid, and institutional support.
- Increasingly, curriculum redesign, increased career and support services, and other innovations in this field are being funded by philanthropy and business, largely through nonprofit intermediaries.
Computer science degree programs prepare people for the full range of tech jobs, though some specialized roles may require advanced education. Two-year degrees typically are designed to transfer into bachelor’s programs, or for graduates to go straight into roles as computer support specialists, web developers, and programmers.
- A number of community colleges also have started embedding skills-specific certificates, like those from Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft, and industry certifications in their programs to prepare students for more specialized roles like UX designer, cybersecurity specialist, and entry-level cloud engineer.
Early-career graduates of two-year tech programs can expect to make about $35,000 a year, according to a major analysis of program-level data from the College Scorecard done by Third Way. But there’s variation across programs.
- For example, graduates of the applied associate in software development at Minneapolis Community and Technical College—one of the highest-paying tech associate degrees in the analysis—make a median of more than $60,000 annually just two years after graduating.
- Graduates of its associate in computer support and network administration, on the other hand, make a median of just under $47,000. And graduates of IT and computing programs at other colleges often make less.
Four-year degrees, generally, prepare graduates to be various forms of software engineers, network architects, cyberanalysts, and data scientists, along with management roles in tech. As in the two-year sector, bachelor’s programs are increasingly offering embedded certificates, certifications, and specializations that prepare graduates for more specific roles.
Graduates of bachelor’s programs can expect to make about $60,000 a year by two years after graduation, according to the Third Way analysis. That’s in line with salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and from the National Center for Education Statistics, which calculates that $80,000 a year is the median salary for young bachelor’s degree holders, age 25 to 34, who are working full-time in computing or related fields.
But there’s even wider variation in the bachelor’s payoff across program type and institution.
- The median wage for graduates of Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science program is more than $160,000 just two years after graduation.
- Meanwhile, graduates of some of the poorer-performing programs clearly struggle to find jobs in the field and two years out are earning as little as $20,000 a year, less than the typical earner with only a high school education.
There are significant concerns about who gets into those majors, how many graduate, and whether they actually make it into tech careers. At every step, there are major leaks and serious concerns about diversity and equity, especially in the country’s most elite programs.
The top-line numbers at four-year institutions:
- Institutions awarded 97,000 computer and information sciences bachelor’s in 2019–20, and Black graduates accounted for just 8 percent and Latinos only 11 percent. That’s well below both groups’ representation in the general population.
- Women earned just 21 percent of those bachelor’s degrees.
The top-line numbers at community colleges:
- Two-year institutions awarded 32,000 associate degrees in computer and information sciences in 2019–20, and Black graduates accounted for 13 percent and Latinos 16 percent. That’s in line with Black Americans’ representation in the general population, but several percentage points below for Latinos.
- Women earned just 21 percent of those associate degrees.
Data from individual institutions also are illustrative. A study based at California State University, Chico, shows how the overall pool gets winnowed. More than 400 students took the first course in the computer science track, indicating they were seriously interested in the field, between 2006 and 2009.
- But only 26 of those students ever earned a computer science degree at the university, while 15 earned a degree in computer information systems. More than half of the students ended up graduating in a different field, while a third didn’t graduate from the university at all.
A similar analysis of data from the University of Rhode Island found that attrition among computer computer science majors is much higher for women, Black, and Latino students.
Transition to work: And even when women and underrepresented students make it through, they are less likely to end up employed in the industry.
- Only 34 percent of Black and Latino graduates with bachelor’s in the computer sciences, math, or related fields end up in computing occupations, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That compares to 42 percent of white graduates and 54 percent of Asian American ones. (This visualization really drives the point home.)
- Women have even higher attrition from the field. Only 31 percent of women with a bachelor’s in the computer sciences, math, and related fields end up in computing occupations.
simulations, microinternships and full internships, and other work experiences that are integrated with the academic experience.
Improving outcomes and career connections beyond the top 20 computer science programs.
Some organizations typically focused on K-12 education and getting more girls and underrepresented youth interested in tech are starting to expand to college programming. Girls Who Code, for example, runs a College Loops program to provide women in computer science with community and peer support while they’re in college.
Others are specifically designed to support students in college and to bolster the traditional computer science curriculum. A few examples:
- CodePath has designed a supplementary curriculum that embeds in computer science degree programs. It works with more than 70 colleges and universities, providing their students with semester-long courses in subjects like cybersecurity and professional iOS development. The focus is on real-world projects and technical excellence.
“We’re designing for the lead candidate, not the just-barely-getting-in-the-door candidate,” says Michael Ellison, CodePath’s founder and CEO. (For more on CodePath, see this article.)
- Break Through Tech, a nonprofit focused on getting more women into tech, works with universities in four major metro areas. It provides mentorship and other programming, including a two-week intensive “Guild” experience in which students explore tech and tackle a project with the support of professionals in the field. The organization also works with employers to develop and run three-week microinternships, or “sprinternships,” that give students work experience they need to compete for full summer internships.
The organization found that microinternships increased the odds of participants later landing full internships by tenfold, from 5 percent to more than 50 percent.
Beyond nonprofits, government programs, like the National Science Foundation’s CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program, provide scholarships and other support to recruit and train a broader range of students for the tech industry. Companies often fund scholars programs as well, and they’re increasingly getting more involved in the evolution of computer science programs.
“I’ve had so many conversations with companies and institutions that want to do work-based learning,” says Jones of Shopify, and she encourages them to think differently about the division between students and employees.
“What might a job look like that has people working part-time and learning part-time.”
- Dev Degree is one model, but it’s a big bite. Shopify’s investment is about $2.8 million a year, or $140,000-plus per participant over the course of four years. And it’s growing—with the program planning to expand from 85 to 115 students next year.
Two cohorts have graduated thus far, with about a 92 percent completion rate, according to the company. Nine out of 10 graduates find full-time engineering roles prior to graduation, and 100 percent within six months. Many, but not all, go on to work at Shopify.
Microcredentials and more
Beyond work-based learning, many colleges also are embedding targeted skills training in their degree programs. Others are using microcredentials and nontraditional master’s degrees to create new entry points into the tech field. They are:
- Rolling out certificates, certifications, and microcredentials that can be earned before, during, or shortly after a degree program to bolster specific, cutting-edge skills.
- Redesigning the master’s as an entry point for women and Black and Latino professionals with backgrounds in other fields.
Four-year universities, like Florida A&M University, the University of San Diego, and New York University, for example, are working with Pathstream to incorporate platform-specific training into their education programs. Students can get certificates for specific training many employers look for, such as data analytics with Tableau, Salesforce administration, or Facebook digital marketing.
- Queensborough Community College, for example, worked with AWS to design a cloud computing microcredential that it offers as a stand-alone and through its associate of applied science in internet and information technology.
Universities are also getting creative about postgraduate education in computer and information sciences, whether micro-master’s degrees or full programs. Both the University of Washington and Northeastern University are growing master’s programs designed for midcareer professionals who want to move into tech but don’t have a computer science background. They specifically target women and individuals from groups that are underrepresented in the industry.
Taken together, these new takes on the old degrees represent a move toward lifelong learning pathways—a perhaps essential development for a field that is constantly changing.
Bringing it all together: Degrees evolve in Seattle
Name a city or region today, and it’s got a sizable tech market. But it’s useful to go to ground zero when it comes to showing how the traditional higher education system is evolving—or still needs to change—to meet those needs.
So, let’s zoom to Seattle. The University of Washington’s computer science and engineering programs sit at the pinnacle by just about any measure. They are consistently among the top-ranked computer science programs in the United States, and they send more graduates to top tech companies than any other institution. UW graduates about 650 undergraduates a year in computer science and information sciences, according to federal data.
The university’s typical computer science graduate is making six figures within two years of graduating.
Washington’s computer science department has worked with CodePath to better support underrepresented students, one of a few big-name universities to do so. And it was a leading institution in the BRAID initiative to get more women into and through computer science.
The real movement, though, is adjacent to its core programs. Continuum College at the University of Washington hopes to create the future of continuing education: a 60-year curriculum built on short-term credentials. And in Seattle, that means thinking a lot about how to support and grow careers in tech, says Rovy Branon, vice provost for Continuum College.
Last year, Continuum’s tech programs enrolled more than 600 learners, up more than 20 percent since 2019.
The usual suspects—Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft—all pull from Continuum, but there’s a wide swath of employers looking to hire tech workers. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach to what education and training employees need, even at a single employer.
“It’s interesting when you talk to an employer,” Branon says, “because they’re going to give you a different answer depending on where an employee is and how long they’ve been with that company.”
Companies, he says, keep telling the college that regular upskilling and reskilling have become more of a norm. And both employers and workers are looking for education that can stack together from certificates to degrees.
Entry points into tech were diversifying even before the pandemic, Branon says, and the opportunities like those offered at Continuum allow for even more nontraditional paths.
Beyond Continuum, the University of Washington has been a proponent of new pathways. It threw its support behind legislation to authorize community and technical colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in community science. The bill passed, and Amazon subsequently put up $3 million to help start a bachelor’s in computer science in the Seattle Colleges district and at community colleges elsewhere in the state. The new bachelor’s is expected to launch at North Seattle College this coming fall, and the hope is that it will attract a more diverse set of learners than existing four-year programs do.
Mentors in Tech works with North Seattle College for just that reason. It’s a relatively new Seattle-based nonprofit focused on career connections and mentoring. Kevin Wang founded the organization after leaving Microsoft, where he started and ran its TEALS program to get computer science into more high schools.
Running TEALS underscored that the challenge wasn’t just getting students prepared for college, but getting them through college and into jobs. Visiting high schools, Wang says, “You’d hear, ‘So-and-so got into UCLA or CMU or UT Austin in comp sci.’ But they don’t tell us what happens to the other 25 kids in the class.”
Many of those students were going on to study computer science, but not at the brand-name, PhD-granting institutions where most big companies recruit. And a lot of those colleges, he learned, had no idea how tech actually does hiring.
So Mentors in Tech now works with colleges like North Seattle, Green River College, and Washington State University to fill in those gaps with mentoring, recruiting services, and a project-based capstone curriculum. “We try to match what the bigger elite schools offer students,” Wang says.
Back at the University of Washington, Hala Annabi is thinking about how to expand access to elite education—at the master’s level—in order to diversify tech. Annabi is the program chair for the Information School’s master of science in information management, which is designed to accommodate students without a bachelor’s in computer science.
It had 330 students in 2021, including 90 in a newly launched online option. The program provides on-ramp technical courses, and it does not require prerequisites in math or technical experience. Instead, the program thinks holistically about a student’s application.
That’s critical, Annabi says, if you want to open up access—and ultimately career opportunities—to populations that have traditionally been left out or marginalized in tech. Once they’re admitted, students work with advisers to develop a personalized road map, and they’re given opportunities to focus on projects that directly relate to their career goals.
One student, for example, is a nurse focused on health IT. She’s working to better understand data systems and tools so she can improve patient outcomes and better support the nurses she manages.
“We think of the whole life cycle of the student and try to address it at every point,” Annabi says. “There are no silver bullets. It’s a whole system change.”