More Colleges Students Are Jazzed About Computer Science. But What About Donors?

Demand for computer science courses has been surging on campuses across the U.S., with more students interested in enlisting in the latest tech boom. Unfortunately, though, schools often can't keep up. As Geek Wire reported last year, "College students want to become computer scientists, but in many cases there isn’t enough room or faculty to meet the demand."

In turn, this bottleneck means that companies raveneous for young techies aren't getting the human capital they need to grow as fast as they might. 

Now, if you're a regular reader of Inside Philanthropy, you're probably wondering how there could possibly be a shortage of campus capacity for computer science, since both private and corporate foundations have lately been lavishing STEM grants on colleges and universities, while individual donors have been making endless big gifts for scientific research. 

Come to think of it, though, not many of the grants and gifts we're tracking have expressly targeted bolstering computer science in higher educaton. The last big campus computer science gift we wrote about happened nearly two years ago, when Bill and Melinda Gates gave $30 million to the University of Texas at Austin to create a computer science center. Much of the funding we see that does go to computer science tends to go to K-12 or to various national initiatives, some involving girls and people of color. Hard cash to hire faculty and build new facilities on campus just isn't flowing as freely as you'd think. 


Some donors, though, are paying attention to the urgent need for new funding. Recently, we learned of a $6.5 million gift to establish the Chookaszian Family Program in Computer Science at Northwestern University. The donors, here, are Dennis Chookaszian and his wife, Karen. After graduating from Northwestern, Chookaszian went on to a long career at CNA Insurance Companies, where he once served as chairman and CEO.

The new Chookaszian Family Program will "support initiatives to grow and strengthen the computer science program at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and help provide courses to all interested undergraduate students."

Consistent with the booming enrollment numbers we've been describing, the number of computer science majors at Northwestern has more than tripled in the past five years, and students from across the university participate in computer science programs. Recently, Northwestern's many core computer science courses have been reinvented. One introductory course opened in the fall to more than 340 students and will be offered for additional quarters this year.

It sounds like the Chookaszians' gift came just in the nick of time to bolster immensely popular programming on campus. As a professor of computer science puts it, "The excitement and demand for computer science we see from our students are inspiring us to imagine new ways of teaching and learning, both in the classroom and beyond... this kind of incredible support will allow us to do even more to develop across campus."

As Northwestern students flock to the new Chookaszian Family Program in Computer Science, the couple also hopes that women will be a part of this influx. The couple is particularly interested in increasing the number of female computer science majors and Chookaszian says that they're "passionate about improving gender equality in the private sector top administration and board room, and this program will, in part, address that challenge.” Chalk this couple up as another funder pushing to improve gender equity in STEM.

The Chookaszians have funded Northwestern before, including a 2001 gift that created the Chookaszian Prize in Risk Management at Kellogg. Past philanthropy also includes the Chookaszian Computer Science Fund, which, indeed, this latest gift builds upon. This brings up a common theme we talk about often in the realm of higher education giving, about how current philanthropy sometimes refines or deepens an earlier effort. Chookaszian is also a life trustee at Northwestern, where his son and son-in-law also received degrees.

We're betting that other schools could do more to rally donors to give for computer science. This should be an easy case to make, since students are clamoring for such courses, industry is desperate for grads who can code, and just about everyone agrees that the U.S. needs to do more to bolster STEM to stay globally competitive.