This blog post will discuss the narrow implications of the UCSD system for joining the CS major. I’ll look to write another post on the broader implications of this in the next few weeks

No, not those silly google twirly cap things!

I was in the CSE program at UCSD before changing majors to economics. My year had massive admittance. Classes got flooded. And as a result shortly thereafter caps were placed on the major, limiting admittance. Considering everybody and their mother wants to be in tech, it’s no surprise that it’s a highly impacted major. What is troubling, however, is that the number of people aiming to get into the major is having a negative impact on those in the major.

At UCSD, a solid school for the major, it’s quite difficult to get admitted directly into the major. A large number of people are now getting admitted into UCSD for other majors (Math-CS was a popular one, although now that major is getting increasingly impacted as well), and wanted to get into the main CS major.

The program that was implemented to allow for people to get slots in the CS major that were vacated/became available initially made sense. GPA limits were in the low to mid 3.x. A motivated student interested in getting into the major could certainly do it. However, as demand has increased this is growing increasingly difficult, if not impossible, as GPA minimums have risen to numbers like 3.9 and 4.0, meaning in some cases students cannot afford to get a single A- in a single class. In classes where a relatively small number of students hit this, it’s led to students withdrawing from classes, despite being in good shape to get an A-, or B+, neither of which grades are really that bad, and both of which show a reasonable mastery of the subject. As a result of this more and more students get piled up in these courses in an attempt to get the right professor and the right curve to meet the bar.

This clearly wasn’t sustainable: the unintended consequences were numerous. Students left for the Math-CS major, which itself became impacted. Some students more or less loitered around in an attempt to get the right professors to be able to switch into the major. Students who made mistakes on final exams had their hopes of getting into the major destroyed.

Cheating rates in lower division CS classes were extremely high. Learning became secondary to getting that 4.0 (well, I suppose it never really was prioritized, but hey, we can hope…)

As a result, a set of changes were made creating a lottery for those with a 3.3 GPA or above.

These changes do allow for people who on a holistic basis are more deserving to get into the major. That being said it’s still a crapshoot, even moreso than before The 3.3 GPA is quite different from the ‘organic’ 3.9 or 4.0 GPA previously required, meaning additional effort in classes has no additional benefit. Because the candidates are not reviewed holistically there isn’t a push to spend effort on other side projects or enriching activities that would help one in the major. I think this 3.3 GPA is way too low. In aiming to get rid of the push to withdraw with a W, and the crapshoot in terms of professors and grades, they’ve eliminated the amount of control a high achieving individual has over their entry.

This crapshoot is a bit less stressful in some ways (one A- won’t sink you), but significantly more in the regard that there will be huge amounts of uncertainty. Only 300 people applied to switch into the major, in part because I think may with lower GPAs knew they stood no chance. With the bar being set at 3.3, more will try, lowering the odds for the truly top students.

This all, however, overlooks the fact that many people applying through this process want to be CS majors, but weren’t admitted as such. Their end goal was always CS. And for these people, I’d tend to posit they simply shouldn’t be allowed to transfer. There are many schools which would allow them to study CS, if this is what they truly wished to study. Trying to game the system and gets in is somewhat unfair for those who might be studying in tangential fields, and realize that in fact they wished to place emphasis on CS. One can also cogently argue nobody should be allowed to switch, but that is a separate issue.

At present, I am not a CS grad from UCSD, and I’ve done reasonably well for myself in the tech space. The assertion a CS degree is necessary for success in the space is untrue. And in discussion with friends we have noticed the most truly successful engineers at large firms have the most diverse backgrounds, not through design, but simply in fact. Rare is it that we find somebody with an undergraduate CS degree setting the world on fire. Many of those trying to switch into the major are primarily swayed by 6 figure salaries. And as somebody who at one point was, and was deeply dissatisfied with their direction, no salary will give you purpose or beaning. That being said, for those who tie their self worth to placement in a program of study, these latest changes will have a variety of effects. Although the status quo was far from sustainable, and these changes were necessary, it does remove a certain amount of impact over their own destiny for a number of students.

But for many of them, going to a different school where they were admitted to CS was the true path to self-determination.