Is the cost of College AI degree programs worth it given their booming popularity?

  • Amid all the excitement surrounding artificial intelligence, more educational institutions are now establishing AI-specific programs.
  • The surge of AI-specific associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs emerges as businesses face a shortage in this talent and half of the top-paying skills in technology are AI-specific, as per Indeed.com.
  • However, data indicates that this is not a recent development, with AI degree grants seeing a sharp increase in the past decade, emphasizing the importance of a strong foundation in computer science, mathematics, and engineering fundamentals.

Ute Grabowsky | Photothek | Getty Images

At top schools, computer science has long been a popular major, but due to the high demand for AI roles, an increasing number of colleges and universities are now offering a four-year program specifically focused on AI.

These programs typically go beyond the basics of computer science to concentrate on areas like machine learning, computing algorithms, data analytics, and advanced robotics. The University of Pennsylvania recently revealed that it will launch a B.S.E. in Artificial Intelligence program in fall 2024. Carnegie Mellon initiated its program back in fall 2018, predating the buzz around gen AI, and MIT’s program kicked off in fall 2022. While Purdue University provides an undergraduate major in AI, many institutions offer AI courses within their computer science department, even without a dedicated major.

The growth of AI-specific degree programs coincides with a shortage of talent in this rapidly evolving field. According to the job website Indeed.com, half of the most lucrative skills in technology are AI-specific. Nonetheless, there is some doubt regarding the relevance of a four-year AI degree given the rapid pace of technological advancements. Advocates, however, argue that as long as a program is rooted in computer science and other basics, a focus on AI could enhance one’s resume.

Here’s what students, parents, and anyone considering returning to school for a career switch need to understand about a four-year AI degree:

Essential STEM foundations

Individuals interested in pursuing an AI degree should seek a program that imparts fundamental knowledge such as computer science principles, statistics, mathematics, and engineering, which serve as the groundwork for a career in an AI-related field, indicated Kerem Koca, CEO of BlueCloud, a cloud service provider. While the technology itself evolves, these core fundamentals remain constant and can equip students for success, even amidst technological changes, he mentioned.

“It’s vital that AI degrees and other educational programs not only emphasize specific skill development, but also focus on helping students learn how to learn, which includes fostering intellectual curiosity, as well as skills like leadership, communication, and critical thinking,” noted Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, an organization concentrating on worker opportunity and education, in an email.

Rise in AI degree awards since 2011

Various programs that center on AI at the undergraduate and graduate levels are available, and there has been a surge in offerings and degree conferrals for over a decade.

As per the Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology, AI degrees have shown growth trends since 2011, with positive growth in degree conferrals compared to negative growth across all degree fields. In particular, AI-related degree grants have surged even faster than STEM degrees in general at the bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD levels. Their analysis of government data and other higher education sources described the increase in AI degree conferrals as “dramatic,” with a 120% rise since 2011 at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels.

Some students might also have an interest in an associate’s degree focused on AI, provided by institutions like Miami Dade College.

Relevance of education in a fast-changing tech industry

Certain individuals may question the necessity of a degree, given the rapid changes in the market and the growing number of employers willing to hire non-degree holders if they possess the required skills for the job.

It’s worth noting that recent research suggests that the practice of hiring individuals without degrees has its limitations, and data from the job site Ladders indicates that a degree is still a requirement for the highest-paying jobs, such as software engineers.

For most individuals entering the job market for the first time, a four-year degree still holds significant value, according to Celeste Grupman, CEO of Dataquest, a provider of AI-related educational resources and labs to universities. “It’s still one of the primary factors employers look at. Not having one won’t disqualify you, but having one would give you an advantage.” 

Several providers, including Dataquest and Coursera, offer certificate programs for learners seeking to enhance their skills rapidly. These programs may suit students with time and financial constraints or those who already possess a degree and aim to upskill, noted Grupman. An online platform allows students to promptly engage in projects and learn how to apply these tools effectively for employment purposes.

AI versus computer science

Students should critically evaluate the curriculum of the program they are considering, how it differs from a standard computer science curriculum, the probable career paths for graduates, and economic prospects for degree holders. “As we see in product marketing, anyone can label an existing product as ‘AI.’ Students should inquire about the specific aspects of AI they will be studying,” suggested Flynn.

Students should also carefully consider their goals. Are they seeking a program that provides exposure to AI or practical experience in using AI, or do they desire a technical program that imparts foundational content and courses on AI technology? Furthermore, they should contemplate whether they aim to acquire relevant skills and knowledge for immediate entry into the job market or if they prefer a broader degree that lays a foundation for long-term progression, Flynn added.

“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 construct a home that brings a family to life. The same principle applies to AI,” stated Nichol Bradford, AI and human intelligence executive-in-residence with SHRM, a professional organization for HR executives.

Strategies to stand out with employers

Employers may view an AI-specific degree more favorably compared to a standard computer science degree, as per David Leighton, CEO at WITI, an organization for tech-oriented professionals. “I believe it sets them apart.” 

However, the true value of such a degree in a few years remains uncertain. “In the year 2000, if you held a degree in internet studies, if such a program existed, it would have been highly regarded,” Koca remarked. “Today, its relevance would be diminished. Yet if you earned it in 2002, you could have secured employment anywhere. The same might be said for an AI degree.” 

Given the unpredictability, some experts advise that students can’t go wrong with either a traditional computer science degree or an AI-specific one, provided that the essentials are covered. Those opting for the former route, however, should consider taking courses related to AI and data science for prospective employment. Otherwise, they may need to “bridge the practical application gap themselves post-graduation,” noted Bryan Ackermann, head of AI strategy and transformation at the consulting firm Korn Ferry, in an email.

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