UW CSE to admit more students into competitive majors

Last year, CSE turned away about three-quarters of those who applied to the majors. The last time CSE expanded its enrollment was 1999. New legislation has directed the UW to spend an additional $3.8 million on all engineering enrollments for the coming year. This will equal roughly 180 additional engineering degrees per year and the total number of new majors per year will be about 425. Photo by Lauren Becherer

UW computer-science hopefuls can expect increased chances for admission in coming years, according to department officials.

Two weeks ago, the Washington state Legislature passed next year’s budget with no cuts to higher education. As part of this legislation, Olympia instructed the UW to increase spending on engineering enrollment by $3.8 million. This will amount to an additional 190 engineering degrees offered per year, with roughly 80 of those allotted to Computer Science & Engineering (CSE). These will be spread across the bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. programs.

Hank Levy, UW CSE department chair, explained the significance of these statistics.

“There’s really extreme demand from our students,” he said. “We have not been able to expand our program since 1999. Think about how much has changed in tech since then. So this is enormous.”

Over the past year, the College of Engineering has experienced budget cuts of about 16 percent, while the College of Arts and Sciences was cut 5 percent. As a result, the computer science department turns away more than three-quarters of undergraduates who apply to the program. The College of Engineering, as a whole, turns away about half of all applicants.

However, the changes to these admissions practices will not come all at once. Levy expects they will happen over the next couple of years as the department hires new faculty, advisers, and technical support.

“It will take time to roll out,” he said. “We’re very excited to accommodate more students and we want to do that as quickly as we can.”

In addition to growing the computer-science major, Levy is looking to develop more courses for students outside the department.

“It’s increasingly important for everyone to know something about computing,” he said. “Lots of students need exposure to it, not just computer-science students. By doing both, I think we can make a big impact.”

The $3.8 million now allotted to the college of engineering must come out of the existing appropriated funds, said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in computer science & engineering who serves as a liaison between the computer-science department and local government. Lazowska lobbied for the additional money for the College of Engineering. “This [money] would not mean additional UW students,” he said. “UW would not grow. It would be a shift in enrollments, adding capacity in engineering fields.”

This shift could mean a decrease in capacity for the university overall, Lazowska said, because engineering degrees tend to be more expensive for the UW to facilitate.

“You can’t just shift degrees one-for-one from a less expensive field to a more expensive field,” he explained. “This is a tough pill to swallow, because Washington is in the bottom third of the states nationally in its ability to grant bachelor’s degrees.”

Interim Dean Robert Stacey said this shift could have a modest effect on the College of Arts & Sciences and that, overall, it would benefit the students who wanted to study engineering but were forced into other colleges of the UW.

“My perspective is that this is good for students,” he said. “We have so many students that the net effects on us will not be very large. Our focus is that we want as many students as possible to get their top choice.”

Full details about the enrollment shift are currently undecided, but the university must submit a specific plan to the Legislature by the end of June.

Despite the lack of new funds for the university as a whole, Lazowska and the rest of the CSE faculty are excited about their increased ability to respond to student demand, however small.

“Honestly, it breaks our hearts to have to turn away extraordinarily strong students due to lack of capacity,” Lazowska said. “Kids who grow up in Washington state and perform well in school ought to be able to get a UW CSE education and become first-class participants in the region’s innovation economy.”

Lazowska’s colleague Marty Stepp echoed these sentiments.

“The place we are hurting is after CSE 143, when a lot of students are really into computer science and they want to apply to the major, but we have to turn them away,” he said. “That’s painful. Especially for the students who have grades that are good, or are what we have told them would be good enough.”

Stepp also said the increased funding will allow the department to take more risks in the admission process — instead of only taking the exceptional candidates, they can also admit the students who might not have perfect grades but show a lot of potential or have an interesting background. By admitting these candidates, Stepp looks forward to increased diversity in the department and in the computer-science field.

“I think this is a big win and it’s great the state has recognized this as a high-growth area,” he said. “Our building is really excited about it.”

Sophomore Kartik Rishi is one of the many students impacted by the department’s stagnant growth. Rishi applied to the major twice and was rejected both times, forcing him to consider other options.

“Right now, I’m applying for Informatics,” he said. “If I don’t get in, then I will either have to explore other options or leave for another university that can meet my needs as a student.”

Rishi said he had turned down an admission offer from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology computer-science program to go to the UW and felt his current situation was a reflection of issues beyond campus.

“We have to understand as a society what our priorities are for higher education,” he said. “That may not be more business or political-science students — it may be more computer-science students.”

The sophomore said he will apply to the department again but was skeptical about how much impact the recent legislation would have.

“Demand [for computer scientists] in the Seattle job market is incredible,” he said. “So to know that the department is increasing enrollment is great news. Hopefully UW will continue to give funding to engineering, but we have to understand that still, not everyone will get in.”

Reach reporter Maddie Davis at news@dailyuw.com.

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