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University degree programs in AI are booming. Is it worth their cost?

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

These programs typically go beyond the foundations of computer science to topics such as machine learning, computer algorithms, data analysis, and advanced robotics. The University of Pennsylvania recently announced that its BSE program in artificial intelligence will begin in fall 2024. Carnegie Mellon introduced a program long before generation AI was a buzzword, in fall 2018, and MIT’s program began in fall 2022. Purdue University offers an undergraduate specialization in AI, while many colleges and universities offer AI courses within their computer science department, even if there is no specialization dedicated.

The rise of AI-specific degree programs comes as companies lack talent for this rapidly developing field. Half of the highest-paid tech skills are AI-specific, according to job site Indeed.com. Nonetheless, there is some degree of skepticism about the applicability of an AI-specific four-year degree, given how quickly the technology is evolving. But proponents say that as long as a program is infused with computer science and other fundamentals, a focus on AI could be a resume-building boon.

Here’s what students and their parents, as well as anyone considering returning to school for a new career, need to know about a four-year degree in AI:

STEM fundamentals remain essential

Students who 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 lays the foundation for a career in an AI-related field , declared Kerem Koca, general director. from BlueCloud, a cloud service provider. The technology itself evolves, but those fundamental foundations don’t, and they can prepare students for success even as the underlying technology evolves, he said.

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

Peak in AI degrees since 2011

There are a number of different AI-focused programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, and the number of offerings and degrees awarded have been increasing for over a decade now.

According to the Center for Security and Emerging Technologies at Georgetown University, AI degrees buck the general trend in education since 2011, with positive growth in degrees awarded versus negative growth in all fields of study. AI-related degrees, in particular, have grown even faster than STEM degrees as a general category at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Its review of government data and other sources on the higher education market called the growth in AI degrees “spectacular,” increasing 120 percent since 2011 at the bachelor’s and master’s levels.

Some students might also be interested in pursuing AI as an associate degree, which is offered by several schools, including Miami Dade College.

Relevance of education in a rapidly evolving technological market

Some students may wonder whether they really need a degree, given how quickly the market is changing and more employers have expressed a willingness to hire workers without a degree if they have the appropriate skills required by the job.

Importantly, recent research suggests that the practice of hiring people without degrees has failedHowever, and research from career site Ladders 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 for most people entering the workforce for the first time, said Celeste Grupman, chief executive of Dataquest, which provides universities with educational materials and related labs. to AI. “It’s always one of the first things an employer is going to look at. It’s not going to disqualify you, whereas not having one might.”

However, several providers, including Dataquest and Coursera, offer certificate programs that allow learners to quickly acquire skills. These programs may be suitable for students who lack the time and resources to complete a four-year program, or who already have a degree and are looking to hone their skills, Grupman said. An online platform allows students to quickly begin building projects and understanding how to successfully implement these tools for employment purposes.

AI versus computing

It is important for students to think critically about the curriculum of the program they are considering, how it differs from a standard computer science curriculum, the likely career trajectory of program graduates, and the economic outcomes diplomas. “As we see in product marketing, anyone can apply AI to an existing product. Students should ask themselves what aspects of AI they will learn,” Flynn said.

It is also important for students to think carefully about what they want. Are they looking for a program that allows them to be exposed to AI or practice using AI, or do they want a technical program that provides basic content and courses on AI technology ? They should also ask themselves whether they ultimately want relevant skills and knowledge that will allow them to enter the job market now or whether they want a broader degree that will form the basis for advancement down the road. longer term, 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 to life. The same thing is true. in AI,” said Nichol Bradford, director-in-residence in artificial intelligence and human intelligence at SHRM, an organization for human resources professionals.

How to have an advantage with employers

Some employers may view an AI-specific degree more favorably than just a computer science degree, said David Leighton, chief executive of WITI, an organization for tech-minded professionals. “I think that sets them apart.”

On the other hand, no one really knows at the moment what the value of such a diploma will be in a few years. “In 2000, if you had a degree in Internet, if such a thing existed, it would have been 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 an AI degree.”

Given the uncertainty, some professionals said students can’t go wrong with a traditional computer science degree or an AI-specific degree, as long as the fundamentals are covered. Those who take the first route, however, should consider taking courses related to AI and data science, which may be important for future employment. Otherwise, students may have to “fill the practical application gap themselves after graduation,” said Bryan Ackermann, head of AI strategy and transformation at the AI ​​consultancy. Korn Ferry management, in an email.

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