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Community colleges have computer science opportunity

Amazon announced last month that it would invest $3M in community colleges across Washington State to deliver computer science instruction. The programs will award bachelor’s degrees to students enrolled in the state’s technical and community colleges. Amazon hopes that the program will begin to address the state’s crippling shortage of technology workers.

Amazon will distribute $1M each to the state’s community college system and its technical colleges. An additional $1M will fund scholarships for STEM-capable students Amazon hopes to recruit from the state’s high schools.

According to the company, Washington State has about 24,000 unfilled software developer jobs, but the state’s universities awarded fewer than 2,000 CS degrees. Amazon has pledged to hire graduates of the resulting programs. More than a quarter-million students attend a community college or technical college in Washington State. Amazon is hoping to find hidden talent among their students.

One problem the tech giant may encounter is the drop-out rate at institutions that offer predominantly two-year programs. Researchers from the University of Florida recently found that the difficulty of math and science courses at the community college level claimed 1 out of 4 community college students before graduation. Community colleges have a very low completion rate, so improving the delivery of math and science programs could help retain students and support them until they can graduate.

Community colleges should prioritize computer science programs

University-level computer science degrees typically rely heavily on higher-level math and reasoning courses to help students develop problem-solving skills. A 25% attrition rate in math and science courses could partially explain why colleges and universities can’t seem to get ahead of the curve on math and science graduates.

Research on remedial math courses has shown that they’re typically not effective in improving students’ grasp of the materials. In fact, students get so discouraged by remedial work requirements that they’re more likely to drop out of school.

Nonetheless, for students who do complete an academic program, the rewards can be substantial. Even with a two-year degree, computer science graduates can earn six-figure salaries in some areas of specialization.

Right now, there are nearly 1.5M unfilled software developer jobs in the United States. More surprising is this statistic: employers created more than 400,000 software developer positions in December 2021. In 2019, US colleges and universities combined awarded about 48,000 computer science degrees. If employers sustained that rate of job creation, there would be about 75 jobs available for every one computer science graduate each year.

That sounds like a huge opportunity for community colleges to move people into viable employment situations for the foreseeable future. Washtenaw Community College could play a pivotal role in building programs that generate in-demand technology workers. WCC could reliably and cost-effectively supply Southeast Michigan employers with technology talent.

Instead, the WCC administration would rather build a hotel.

Photo Credit: Gifted Studies WKU , via Flickr