How Stupid Can You Be?

Catherine Rampell at the New York Times today reports that “state colleges in Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Texas have eliminated entire engineering and computer science departments” due to budget cuts.

How are we doing in Washington state? Well, consider a few facts about the University of Washington’s computer science department:

  1. The department produces only 285 graduates at all levels per year.
  2. 35% go to Amazon, Microsoft or Google; 15% go to other big companies like Boeing; 15% go to graduate programs elsewhere, leaving only 30% for start-ups and small companies. There are more venture-backed companies in Seattle than there are local computer science students graduating each year. Redfin and many other startups here would be growing much faster if we could hire more engineers.
  3. The UW computer science department turns away 75% of qualified applicants.
  4. The state contribution to the department has declined 50% in three years.
  5. Any tuition increase requires legislative approval, so the department can only reduce the quality of instruction and limit student growth. It is doing both.
  6. Washington is 49th in bachelor’s degrees per capita.
  7. The only recent local issue that united the entire technology community, and nearly every Seattle venture capital firm, was the effort to kill an initiative that would have funded math & science education with a new tax. At the time, I talked to many of the initiative’s opponents and understood their concern about the nature of the tax, but got their promise that the Seattle’ technology leaders would find another way to fund math & science education. We haven’t.

The same story is playing out all over America. Public schools are struggling to fulfill their basic mission in the 21st-century economy; Codecademy and other private efforts are filling the gap, but not nearly enough.

We don’t want computer science, which used to be the avenue for radical social mobility, to become like playing the harpsichord: a skill only rich people can afford to master. States like ours, with no Stanford or Columbia or MIT nearby, need our public schools to turn out engineers that can compete with the best.

The technology community is incensed about SOPA and the need for immigration visas. Tom Friedman writes seemingly every week about ultra-high-speed internet access as the most important government initiative to speed innovation. Politicians talk about tax incentives to give small businesses the confidence to grow.

I agree on all points. I’ve always opposed SOPA, even when I thought the opposition was over-wrought.

I am in favor of immigration visas and, if we have the money, ultra-high-speed internet and tax incentives. But I just wish that websites would go black, boycotts would be organized, and Twitter avatars re-labeled over the most calamitous threat to America’s technology dominance, which is simply that we aren’t educating nearly enough people in technical disciplines. There aren’t many problems that money can solve, but this is one of them.


  • Curt Woodward

    The UW has in fact jacked up tuition to bridge the gap – the Legislature authorized tuition hikes as it cut direct state support, and also increased financial aid to help soothe the spike for some. Seattle times story here:

    In addition, the state gave universities the ability to set “differential tuition” in the future, which means higher tuition for more expensive majors (and/or ones that pay higher future salaries). UW is likely to be the first to take that plunge, likely in the next academic year. Here's a story I wrote on that at Xconomy:

    You're right on about the tax piece. Since the voters said no to taxes several times following the recession, the Legislature has in effect moved higher ed to a much stronger reliance on user fees – the state won't raise your general taxes, but if you want to send your kids to college, you'll pay more on the back end (tuition) instead of sending them the money up front to spread around.

    • GlennKelman

      Curt, this is an amazing comment, more informed and insightful than the original post. 
      And you're right that tuition has risen, but not enough to cover funding drops.

  • Curt Woodward

    Oh, I don't know if it's that amazing! But yes absolutely, you added the piece I forgot to spell out: Tuition has gone up – but not enough to cover the cuts. There have definitely been spending cuts. 

  • Alex Loddengaard

    I'm surprised only 50% of the graduates go to big companies.  While I was there I got the feeling that the large majority of CSE students were going to the big names.

    Even though UW is a top-10 CS program, there isn't as much of a startup urgency as there is down here by Stanford.  Part of this has to do with UW CSE focussing on an academic/theoretic education much more heavily than a practical one.  For example, you don't see iOS classes at UW, but you do see them at Stanford.

    Though I agree with everything you've said, I expect a lot could be gained in the startup community up there if UW CSE had a more practical twist to their curriculum, which would hopefully spark more interest in startups by shining more light on how exciting they are.

    • usnDisqus

      I think what's stopping UW CSE from offering more practical classes (like an iOS development class) is that it it's already struggling to ensure all of the core classes are available. Until there's more funding, UW students will have to either 1) learn practical material on their own, 2) learn through internships, or 3) participate in capstone classes.

  • Eric Kennedy

    It is sad that so many states (Washington included) have had to cut back or eliminate engineering programs at a time when employer demand and demographics both favor engineering graduates.  Being a computer science major is much less appealing with limited course options that are heavy on theory.  I know — I went to Yale and only reluctantly majored in CS after I realized I could never get into “flow” writing papers. 

    The UW's limited CS enrollment impacts students who want to switch to the CS track as sophomores (like I did), as they won't have the prerequisites and will probably need more than 4 years to finish all of the required courses even if they have the grades to get into CSE. 

    I hope they are able to increase the number of spots through some means, yet with the rejection of the income tax I think it will be a challenge just to preserve the spots CSE already has. 

    Luckily, for every CSE graduate that Amazon or Microsoft hires out of the UW, they recruit at least one more graduate from schools in other states.  That's why the number of people with bachelor's degrees has skyrocked in King County since 1990.