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College AI degree programs are booming. Are they worth the cost?

Ute Grabowsky | Photothek | Getty Images

Computer science is not a new major at top schools, but with AI jobs in high-demand, there’s a growing list of colleges and universities offering a four-year “AI” degree specifically.

These programs generally move beyond the foundations of computer science to home in on topics such as machine learning, computing algorithms, data analytics and advanced robotics. The University of Pennsylvania recently announced that its B.S.E. in Artificial Intelligence program will begin in fall 2024. Carnegie Mellon introduced a program well before gen AI was a buzzword, in fall 2018, and MIT’s program began in fall 2022. Purdue University offers an AI undergraduate major, while many colleges and universities offer AI classes within their computer science department, even if there’s not a dedicated major.

The rise of AI-specific degree programs comes as companies are short on talent for this fast-developing field. Half of the highest-paid skills in technology are AI-specific, according to the employment website Indeed.com. Even so, there’s some degree of skepticism about the applicability of an AI-specific four-year degree given how quickly the technology is changing. But proponents say that as long as a program is steeped in computer science and other fundamentals, a focus on AI could provide a resume-building boon.

Here’s what students and their parents, as well as anyone thinking about going back to school for a new career, needs to know about a four-year AI degree:

STEM fundamentals remain critical

Students that want to pursue a degree in AI should look for a program that teaches fundamental information such as computer science concepts, statistics, mathematics and engineering, which lay the foundation for a career in an AI-related field, said Kerem Koca, chief executive of BlueCloud, a cloud service provider. The technology itself is changing, but these core underpinnings do not, and they can prepare students to be successful, even as underlying technology changes, he said.

“It’s important that AI degrees and other education training programs not only focus on specific skill development, but that the focus is on helping students learn how to learn, which includes developing an intellectual curiosity, and skills like leadership, communication and critical thinking,” said Maria Flynn, president and chief executive of Jobs for the Future, an organization that focuses on worker opportunity and education, in an email.

AI degree spike since 2011

There are a number of different programs that focus on AI at the undergraduate and graduate level, and there has been an increase in offerings and degrees being awarded for over a decade now.

According to the Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology, AI degrees have bucked the general trend in education since 2011, with positive degree conferral growth versus negative growth across all degree areas. AI-related degree awards, in particular, grew even faster than STEM degrees as a general category at bachelor’s master’s and PhD levels. Its review of government data and other sources on the higher education market described the growth of AI degree conferrals as “dramatic,” increasing 120% since 2011 at both bachelor’s and master’s levels.

Some students might also be interested in pursuing AI as an associate’s degree, which several schools, including Miami Dade College, offer.

Education relevance in fast-changing tech market

Some students may wonder if they even need a degree at all, given how fast the market is changing and the fact that more employers have expressed a willingness to hire workers without degrees if they have the appropriate, job-required skills.

It’s important to note that recent research suggests the practice of hiring people without degrees has fallen short, however, and research from the Ladders career site shows that a degree is still required for the highest paying jobs, a list that includes software engineers.

A four-year degree is still a big step up for most entering the job market for the first time, said Celeste Grupman, chief executive of Dataquest, which supplies AI-related educational materials and labs to universities. “It’s still one of the first things an employer is going to look at. It’s not going to get you disqualified, whereas not having one might.” 

Even so, several providers including Dataquest and Coursera, offer certificate programs for learners to build skills quickly. These programs may be appropriate for students who lack the time and resources to complete a four-year program, or already have a degree and are looking to upskill, Grupman said. An online platform allows students to quickly start building projects and understanding how to implement these tools successfully for employment purposes.

AI vs. computer science

It’s important for students to think critically about the curriculum for the program they are considering, how it’s different from a standard computer science curriculum, the likely career trajectory for graduates of the program and 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,” Flynn said.

It’s also important for students to carefully consider what they want. Are they looking for a program that provides exposure to AI or practice using AI, or do they want a technical program that provides foundational content and courses on AI technology? They should also consider whether they ultimately want relevant skills and knowledge that will get them into the labor market right now or whether they want a broader degree that will be a foundation for longer-term advancement, Flynn said.

“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,” said Nichol Bradford, artificial intelligence and human intelligence executive-in-residence with SHRM, an organization for human resources professionals.

How to gain an edge with employers

Some employers may look more favorably upon an AI-specific degree versus a plain-vanilla computer science degree, said David Leighton, chief executive at WITI, an organization for technology-minded professionals. “I think it sets them apart.” 

On the other hand, no one really knows right now what the value of such a degree will be in a few years. “In the year 2000, if you had an internet degree, if there was such a thing, it would have looked great,” Koca said. “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.” 

Given the uncertainty, some professionals said students can’t go wrong with a traditional computer science degree or an AI-specific one, provided the fundamentals are covered. Those who take the former route, however, should consider taking classes related to AI and data science, which can be important for future employment. Otherwise, students might need to “close the practical application gap themselves post-graduation,” said Bryan Ackermann, head of AI strategy and transformation at the management consultancy Korn Ferry, in an email.

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