IC's Cunningham Contributes to Best Paper Outlining Novel CS Program in California

Katie Cunningham 1

A cohort-based, three-year computer science bachelor’s degree program in California has resulted in steep increases in graduation rates of traditionally underrepresented students and could serve as a model for future programs that serve similar communities.

The program, called CSin3, is a collaborative effort between Hartnell College, a community college in California, and California State University, Monterey Bay, a four-year state university. It takes groups of students through an affordable three-year program that provides high levels of academic support and a clear bridge from one school to the next.

The program was highlighted in a paper co-authored by Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing Ph.D. student Katie Cunningham, which was presented at the SIGCSE Technical Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland. The paper, Upward Mobility for Underrepresented Students: A Model for Cohort-Based Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science, earned Best Paper in the New Curricula, Programs, Degrees, and Position Papers track at the conference.

In it, Cunningham and her fellow authors outline a program that provides a clear pathway for upward socio-economic mobility for students who are 90 percent from traditionally underrepresented groups, 80 percent first-generation college students, and 32 percent female. Students in CSin3 have a three-year graduation rate of 71 percent, compared to a 22 percent four-year graduation rate for traditional computer science students.

Further statistics show that more than half of all Latino and African-American undergraduates begin at community colleges, but only 14 percent of those degree-seeking community college students obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years. Those numbers are even worse when considering just computer science students or those in other STEM majors.

By implementing a cohort-based learning community that provides pre-defined course pathways and academic and administrative support, the program decreases the individual burden for students who, instead, are left to focus on academic success and preparation for their careers.

“I think what’s really interesting about this is that it introduces a new perspective about how to design a degree for underrepresented, low-income, first-generation college students,” said Cunningham, who joined CSin3 as an education coordinator in 2013 prior to coming to Georgia Tech to pursue her Ph.D. “In typical four-year colleges, students choose the courses they want, the times they want, how many courses they want to take, they can personalize their major.

“That works at places like Georgia Tech, but when you have first-generation college students, who are much more likely to go to schools that don’t have the same advising resources, those choices become overwhelming and even a burden.”

At the core of the program is a commitment from staff to take full responsibility for the institutional complexity, relieving students of the responsibility to account for course and credit requirements to qualify for progression to a state school. The typical transfer process has varying requirements depending on the target institution, while CSin3 is a partnership between two institutions that have provided a clear trajectory to graduation between the two.

“A lot of times the information you get about the requirements is wrong or incomplete, there isn’t really an agreement between institutions – some keep their own counsel and maybe don’t discuss those things as much as they should,” Cunningham said. “So, this program created a nice bridge for these students to walk across.”

Perhaps most importantly, according to co-creator and CSin3 director Sathya Narayanan, graduating students were being prepared for post-academic careers, with a job placement rate of 78 percent within two months of graduation.

The program creates a tightly-knit network of peers on campus, an environment not found in many community colleges. In most community college environments, it is the norm for students to leave campus right after class to begin their commute home. CSin3 is more akin to the environment seen at Georgia Tech, where students spend more time together, creating a social support network and an information-sharing network to pass along information about job skills often not taught in class. CSin3 also explicitly teaches these skills during enrichment sessions, and as more graduates have gotten jobs in tech, they are also passing that information along from cohort to cohort.

“We wanted to develop a program that didn’t just prepare them to take and pass exams and eventually graduate with a degree in computer science,” Narayanan said. “We wanted to provide a clear pathway to earning a competitive job upon completion of the program. We have seen that we can.”

For a cohort-model to work, former computer science professor at Hartnell College and CSin3 co-director Joe Welch said, it takes a few specific characteristics.

“The sheer presence of a cohort model isn’t what makes it a good thing,” he said. “There are factors that must be present for it to be successful: It takes trust between the two institutions, it takes some funding to be the lever that gets this wheel turning, and it takes some students who are willing to put in the effort. … We’re going to ask a lot of you, but when we’re done you’re going to have a degree in three years.”

The program has shown promising results in addressing the capacity, cost (the entire degree is only around $14,000), quality, and diversity challenges present in the technology industry, and the hope is that it could be repurposed in other similar environments.

“Now that we have seen this, we want to look at what are the properties that allowed us to do this, and can we build more of a system that will allow people to build this,” Narayanan said. “We want to use this experience to define a process that can be replicated elsewhere.”


David Mitchell

Communications Officer