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Computer science isn’t a new major at top schools, but because jobs in artificial intelligence are in high demand, there’s a growing list of colleges and universities that offer four-year AI degrees specifically.

These programs typically go beyond the basics of computer science and focus on topics such as machine learning, computational algorithms, data analytics, and advanced robotics. The University of Pennsylvania recently announced that its BSE program in artificial intelligence will begin in the fall of 2024. Carnegie Mellon introduced a program well before generational AI became a buzzword in the fall of 2018, and MIT’s program begins in the fall of 2022 .Purdue University offers a bachelor’s degree in AI major, while many colleges and universities offer AI courses within their computer science department, even if there is no specific major.

The rise of AI degree programs comes as companies are short on talent for this fast-growing field. Half of the highest-paying tech skills are AI-specific, according to employment website Indeed.com. However, there is some degree of skepticism about the applicability of an AI-specific four-year degree, given how rapidly the technology is changing. But supporters say that as long as a program is steeped in computer science and other fundamentals, a focus on AI can provide a resume-building benefit.

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

STEM fundamentals remain critical

Students looking to pursue a degree in AI should look for a program that teaches fundamental information such as computer science, statistics, math and engineering concepts that lay the foundation for a career in an AI-related field, said Kerem Koca, CEO of BlueCloud, a cloud service provider. The technology itself changes, but those basic foundations don’t, and they can prepare students to be successful even as the underlying technologies change, he said.

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

A leap in the rate of AI since 2011

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

According to Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies, AI degrees buck the general trend in education since 2011, with positive growth in degree attainment versus negative growth in all degree fields. Specifically, degrees related to artificial intelligence grew even faster than STEM degrees as an overall category at the undergraduate master’s and doctoral levels. His review of government data and other sources on the higher education market described growth in AI degrees awarded as “dramatic,” rising 120 percent since 2011 at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels.

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

Relevance of education in the rapidly changing technology market

Some students may wonder if they even need a degree, given how quickly the market is changing and the fact that more employers have expressed a willingness to hire workers without degrees if they have the right skills needed for the job.

It’s important to note that recent research shows that the practice of hiring people without degrees is falling short, however, 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 forward for most first-time job entrants, said Celeste Gruppman, CEO of Dataquest, which supplies AI-related educational materials and labs to universities. “It’s still one of the first things an employer will look at. It won’t disqualify you, while not having one can.”

However, several providers, including Dataquest and Coursera, offer certification programs for learners to build skills quickly. These programs may be suitable for students who don’t have the time and resources to complete a four-year program or already have a degree and want to improve their skills, Gruppman said. An online platform allows students to quickly start building projects and understand how to apply these tools successfully for employment purposes.

AI vs Computer Science

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

It is also important that students think carefully about 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 core content and courses in AI technology? They also need to consider whether they ultimately want relevant skills and knowledge that will get them into the job 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 hammer degree. You want to understand hammers, you want to understand zoning, and you want to understand how to build a house that helps a family survive. The same is true in artificial intelligence,” said Nicole Bradford, executive director of artificial intelligence and human intelligence at SHRM, an organization for human resources professionals.

How to gain an edge over employers

Some employers may look more favorably on an AI-specific degree than a simple computer science degree, said David Leighton, CEO of WITI, an organization for technology-minded professionals. “I think that sets them apart.”

On the other hand, no one knows right now what the value of such a degree will be in a few years. “In 2000, if you had an Internet degree, if there was such a thing, it would have looked great,” Kodja said. “It wouldn’t be as applicable now. But if you had it in 2002, you could get 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 or AI-specific degree, as long as the basics are covered. However, first-timers should consider taking courses related to AI and data science, which can be important for future employment. Otherwise, students may have to “fill the practical application gap themselves after graduation,” Brian Ackerman, head of AI strategy and transformation at management consultancy Korn Ferry, said in an email.