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International students dominate MU's computer science graduate programs

Thursday, May 3, 2012 | 10:30 a.m. CDT; updated 9:59 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 3, 2012
Tiancheng Zhuang, a graduate student in computer science, helps senior Anthony Verslues with his advanced algorithm design work April 26 at Engineering Building West. Zhuang is a teaching assistant in the Computer Science Department. Zhuang is from Jiangsu Province, China.

COLUMBIA — Tiancheng Zhuang decided to study computer science in the U.S. because that’s where Microsoft, Google and Apple operate.

The first-year master's student picked MU because several of his friends who'd studied at the university told him it had a beautiful campus and a strong computer science program.

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Zhuang said he chose computer science because he thinks he'll be able to be competitive. He doesn't have the language base or knowledge of American culture he'd need to keep up in a field like business, so this career path offers him a better chance of landing in a top corporation.

Most of Zhuang's graduate school classmates come from India and China. MU's computer science faculty struggles to find even a handful of top-notch American recruits for its advanced degree programs each year, as many domestic students choose to pursue jobs after completing bachelor's degrees, said Dong Xu, chairman of MU's Computer Science Department.

Xu, who has been teaching computer science at MU since 2003, said the campus situation mirrors a global issue: As international students begin to dominate the computer science research field, America might have trouble remaining competitive. 

A weak pipeline

In MU's undergraduate computer science degree programs, about 90 percent of 312 students are domestic, according to Adrianna Wheeler, computer science undergraduate academic adviser. That percentage reverses, however, when looking at the master's and doctoral students.

In the master's program, nearly 75 percent of the 51 students are international, and among the 60 students in the doctoral  program, 73 percent are international, according to Jodie Lenser, graduate studies academic adviser for the computer science department.

Xu said the disparity in enrollment indicates a greater problem. There isn't a strong pipeline of domestic students for computer science or engineering degrees because K-12 education in America lags behind in math, he said. So even though 90 percent of undergraduate students are domestic, there still aren't as many students earning advanced degrees as there should be, he said. 

This is the issue President Barack Obama tried to correct with his "Educate to Innovate" campaign, which aims to groom American students to become worldwide leaders in math and science.

But still, other countries are working toward the same goal.

Reasons for the disparity

In Fareed Zakaria's 2011 book, "The Post-American World: Release 2.0," Zakaria discusses that America will take the backseat as other countries — such as India and China — rise to the top. 

As these countries attempt to become bigger players on the global scale, they're pushing schooling. China raised its funding for educational aid, allotting $2.7 billion in 2008 — up from $240 million in 2006, according to Zakaria's book. And, in 2012, China vowed to make educational spending count for 4 percent of its gross domestic product, according to xinhuanet.com.

On a smaller scale, this zeal for education might have something to do with the reason international students make up the majority of students pursuing advanced computer science degrees at MU.

Computer science professor Chi-Ren Shyu said that for some international students, having an advanced degree helps raise their social status in their home countries.

Second-year master's student Devlina Banerjee said that in India, a person must have a master's degree to get a job that pays well. She's on track to graduate with her degree in computer science in May, but she already has a master's degree in information technology.

Banerjee said it was important to her parents that she earn an advanced degree not just for money but also because having a master's degree meant she'd get to do more research.

"I think when you do research, that's when you actually understand how things are working," she said.

Similarly, Zhuang said his parents have encouraged him to earn more advanced degrees, which they think would lead to a better career for him in the future.

Americans don't always value research that way, Xu said. He thinks a faculty or research position is important because it requires extra training and skill.

"We do this job not just because of salary," Xu said. "But we see doing research has some prestige."

But often, American students prefer jobs to graduate education, he said. And right now, the job "market is just too good," he said.

There's a high demand for computer science employees, so students graduating from MU with undergraduate degrees can find lucrative jobs immediately, Xu said. Many graduates draw $50,000 to $70,000 salaries.

Differences in degrees

Although that $50,000-a-year job seems good right out of school, American students' prospects might be limited in the long run without added schooling, Shyu said. 

At the master's or doctoral level, the average salary upon graduation jumps to $70,000 and $75,000, respectively, Xu said. But the differences extend beyond money.

In the undergraduate program, students learn the basics of software engineering and writing code. It's not until the master's program, however, that students can specialize in an area, such as artificial intelligence or image processing.

Then, at the doctoral level, students focus on completing independent research. They also learn how to present their work and collaborate. There's a lot of value in a doctorate in computer science, Xu said, but it doesn't always translate into dollars.

Sustaining competitiveness

Ultimately, Xu thinks having primarily international students gain advanced degrees in computer science "will create a problem."

For starters, not having more American students pursue research could lead to a dearth of domestic computer science professors. Although universities benefit from a cultural environment, Xu said there needs to be a balance.

On a larger scale, the lack of Americans pursuing advanced computer science means the U.S. becomes less competitive. The country can't just count on international sources to provide computer science expertise, Xu said.

Plus, some international students who study in America leave to return to their home countries. China has begun to offer high salaries for computer science work so more students will choose to work there and create more competition.

"At the research level, if this nation really wants to sustain the competitiveness, I think we really need to get more domestic students," Xu said.

Not everyone sees the situation the same way, however. Zhuang said, yes, there are two paths in computer science: working for a company or working as a professor. But he's not sure which is better, and he's not sure which he'll choose.

In his opinion, both are equally important. Without research, there wouldn't be ideas for new technology. But the computer science field needs people who can implement those findings, too. 

"The final goal of computer science is to transform some theories into real-life technology that everybody can use," he said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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Comments

Ellis Smith May 4, 2012 | 8:04 a.m.

You can't expect domestic students to major in anything that's HARD, can you? Perish the thought!

(University of Missouri System even takes one of their campuses, where curricula are for the most part considered HARD, and caps its enrollment, although for very good reason because there's no place left to put all qualified students who wish to enroll.)

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