Are Booming AI Degree Programs Worth the Investment in College Education?

Computer science isn’t a novel major at esteemed institutions, yet due to the soaring demand for AI positions, there’s an expanding array of colleges and universities presenting a specialized four-year “AI” degree.

These curricula typically transcend the basics of computer science, delving into realms like machine learning, computational algorithms, data analysis, and advanced robotics. Recently, the University of Pennsylvania disclosed that its B.S.E. in Artificial Intelligence program will commence in autumn 2024.

Carnegie Mellon pioneered its program well before the era of the “gen AI” buzz, launching it in the autumn of 2018, while MIT’s initiative took root in the autumn of 2022. Purdue University extends an undergraduate major in AI, and numerous institutions incorporate AI courses within their computer science departments, even without a dedicated major.

College Students
AI degree programs surge, offering specialized curricula at renowned institutions worldwide. (Credits: Unsplash)

The surge of AI-centric degree programs coincides with the scarcity of talent in this rapidly evolving domain. Indeed.com reports that half of the top-paying skills in the tech industry pertain to AI. Nonetheless, there exists a degree of skepticism regarding the relevance of a four-year AI-specific degree considering the swift pace of technological advancement.

Nevertheless, advocates argue that as long as a program is grounded in computer science and fundamental principles, a focus on AI could furnish a substantial boost to one’s resume.

Here’s what students and their parents, as well as anyone contemplating returning to school for a fresh career, should understand about a four-year AI degree:

STEM fundamentals remain crucial

According to Kerem Koca, CEO of BlueCloud, a cloud service provider, students aspiring to pursue an AI degree should seek programs that impart essential knowledge in areas such as computer science, statistics, mathematics, and engineering. These form the bedrock for a career in AI-related fields. Koca emphasizes that while technology evolves, these core principles remain constant and can equip students for success, even amidst technological shifts.

people throwing hats on air
STEM fundamentals remain crucial for AI success, emphasizing computer science, statistics, and mathematics.

Maria Flynn, President and CEO of Jobs for the Future, an organization dedicated to worker opportunity and education, underscores the importance of AI degrees and educational programs not solely focusing on specific skill acquisition. Instead, Flynn advocates for an emphasis on cultivating students’ ability to learn, fostering intellectual curiosity, and honing skills like leadership, communication, and critical thinking.

AI degree spike since 2011

Numerous programs focusing on AI are available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and there has been a notable surge in offerings and degree conferrals for over a decade.

As per the Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology, AI degrees have diverged from the overall educational trend since 2011, exhibiting positive growth in degree conferrals compared to the negative growth observed across all degree areas. Particularly noteworthy is the accelerated growth of AI-related degree awards, outpacing even STEM degrees across bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD levels. Their analysis of government data and other higher education sources depicts the expansion of AI degree conferrals as “dramatic,” experiencing a 120% increase since 2011 at both bachelor’s and master’s levels.

Some students may also contemplate pursuing AI as an associate’s degree, an option available at several institutions, including Miami Dade College.

Education relevance in the fast-changing tech market

Amidst the rapid evolution of the tech market, some students may question the necessity of obtaining a degree, considering the increasing willingness of employers to hire based on job-specific skills rather than formal education credentials.

However, it’s crucial to recognize that recent research indicates the efficacy of hiring individuals without degrees may be limited. Research from the Ladders career site indicates that a degree remains a prerequisite for the highest-paying positions, including roles such as software engineers.

Dataquest
Celeste Grumpman, Director of Operations at Dataquest (Credits: Medium)

According to Celeste Grupman, a provider of AI-related educational materials and labs to universities, a four-year degree still significantly enhances one’s prospects upon entering the job market for the first time. Grupman emphasizes that it remains one of the primary considerations for employers and lacking one may hinder job opportunities.

Nevertheless, various providers, including Dataquest and Coursera, offer certificate programs designed to swiftly develop skills. These programs could be suitable for students lacking the time or resources to commit to a four-year degree, or for individuals seeking to enhance their skill set post-degree. Online platforms enable students to promptly initiate projects and grasp the practical implementation of these tools for employment purposes.

AI vs. computer science

Students must approach the curriculum of the program they’re considering with critical thinking, discerning how it differs from a standard computer science curriculum, the probable career trajectory for program graduates, and the economic outcomes for graduates. “As we see in product marketing, anyone can slap ‘AI’ onto an existing product. Students should ask what aspects of AI they will be learning,” emphasizes Flynn.

a computer screen with a web page on it
AI-specific degrees gain favor with employers, potentially setting candidates apart in the job market.

Moreover, students should carefully reflect on their aspirations. Do they seek a program offering exposure to AI or hands-on experience with AI applications, or do they prefer a technical program providing foundational content and courses on AI technology? They should also weigh whether they aim for immediate market-relevant skills and knowledge or seek a broader degree serving as a foundation for long-term advancement, advises Flynn.

Nichol Bradford, artificial intelligence and human intelligence executive-in-residence with SHRM, an organization for human resources professionals, likens the decision to choose between a degree in hammers versus architecture. “If you’re an architect, you don’t want a degree in hammers. You want to understand hammers, you want to understand zoning, and you want to understand how to build a house that helps a family come alive. The same is true in AI.”

How to gain an edge with employers

According to David Leighton, CEO at WITI, an organization for technology-minded professionals, some employers may view an AI-specific degree more favorably compared to a traditional computer science degree, believing it sets candidates apart.

However, the future value of such a degree remains uncertain. “In the year 2000, if you had an internet degree, if there was such a thing, it would have looked great,” notes Koca. “Now, it wouldn’t be as applicable. But if you had it in 2002, you could have gotten a job anywhere. The same could be true for a degree in AI.”

Artificial intelligence
Uncertainty surrounds the future value of AI degrees, but fundamentals and practical skills are essential. (Credits: Unsplash)

Given this uncertainty, some professionals suggest that students can’t go wrong with either a traditional computer science degree or an AI-specific one, as long as the fundamentals are covered.

Those opting for the former should consider supplementing their education with classes in AI and data science, as these skills are increasingly important for future employment. Otherwise, students may need to bridge the practical application gap themselves post-graduation, advises Bryan Ackermann, head of AI strategy and transformation at Korn Ferry, a management consultancy.

Michael Manua
Michael Manua
Michael, a seasoned market news expert with 29 years of experience, offers unparalleled insights into financial markets. At 61, he has a track record of providing accurate, impactful analyses, making him a trusted voice in financial journalism.
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