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:
- The department produces only 285 graduates at all levels per year.
- 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.
- The UW computer science department turns away 75% of qualified applicants.
- The state contribution to the department has declined 50% in three years.
- Any tuition increase requires legislative approval, so the department can only reduce the quality of instruction and limit student growth. It is doing both.
- Washington is 49th in bachelor’s degrees per capita.
- 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; Codeacademy 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.