Computer Science Dropout Rate: Why So High?

Here’s why computer science has such a high dropout rate:

There are countless reasons why people drop out of computer science, but a few themes emerge when you look at enough cases. 

Computer science is very hard, and a lot of people don’t enjoy it enough to endure the challenge. 

It is also fast-paced and taught differently from other subjects, making it less accessible.

So if you want to learn all about computer science’s dropout rate and why so, then this article is for you.

Keep reading!

Computer Science Dropout Rate: Why So High? (All the Info)

What Constitutes Dropping Out of Computer Science?

What’s really happening here? 

Is computer science (CS) some dark, evil corner of a university that is so scarring students to give up on college? 


But more often than that, students switch majors.

So, we’re going to talk a lot about dropping out and attrition rates. 

Let’s start by clarifying some of the statistics and definitions. 

For starters, dropping out is going to apply to anyone who doesn’t finish a computer science degree. 

There are a lot of situations that could lead to this. 

Some people drop out because of financial issues, family or personal problems, or because they can’t handle the coursework. 

Some people leave for a lack of interest. 

Really, there are countless reasons.

I am going to explore motivations to help explain the phenomenon, but aside from that, the specific reason for anyone dropping out isn’t what matters here. 

Instead, this is more of a look at computer science and how it creates challenges for students.

Let’s clarify by looking into drop-out rates (or attrition rates). 

The truth is that the data is very mixed. 

Some surveys show that the attrition rate for computer science is around 9%

That’s not devastatingly high. 

Others suggest that the drop-out rate gets as high as 80%

That’s pretty eye-opening. 

According to Computer Weekly, computer science undergraduates are more likely to drop out than any other major.

Really, it depends on the program. 

But, going program by program would keep us here all week. 

To keep things easier, I’m comfortable saying that computer science has a higher drop-out rate than a lot of other majors, so that’s what we’ll be exploring today.

Why Do So Many Students Leave Computer Science? (5 Reasons)

Alright. What’s the real catch?

Why do so many students drop out? 

There are a lot of answers. 

Thousands of students drop computer science every year, so there are thousands of reasons. 

But, we can refine that thinking and probably find a few trends that are true across the programs.

For instance, computer science is widely regarded as a hard major. 

If you don’t enjoy it, it’ll be tough to endure the challenges. 

So student motivations, how the courses are taught, expectations, and more all tie into the equation.

I’ll be taking you through what I found to be the most compelling both when I studied computer science and when I researched this topic.

#1 Challenging Content

If you polled random people on the street, there’s a good chance that you would see a general consensus. 

Computer programming is not easy. 

We hear about programming all the time and how important it is. 

But for most of us, it’s a job for someone else.

It would be unreasonable to say that computer science is too hard for most people. 

The truth is that it’s a teachable skill, and at least to some extent, most people can learn how to write code and do some programming.

But, completing a computer science degree is a lot of work, and when compared to other degree programs, it is usually listed as one of the hardest.

What makes computer science so challenging?

For starters, it’s a STEM degree. 

This means that the emphasis is on math, logic, critical thinking, and established processes of problem solving. 

While creativity certainly has a place in computer science, creativity alone won’t get you through the program. 

To a large extent, you have to learn and master the ways other people have approached computer science.

The other major challenge with computer science is the range of content. 

Now, most degree programs cover a wide range of topics, but computer science throws an extra wrinkle into the equation. 

You have to learn multiple programming languages.

So, even while you master different algorithmic and analytical approaches to coding and using machines to solve problems, you have to learn how to do these things using considerably different languages. 

The sheer volume of content is intense, and all of it is still built around those STEM principles of logic and critical thinking.

If you don’t find this kind of study and challenge naturally rewarding, it’s going to be very difficult to get through the degree program.

#2 Wrong Expectations

Another thing that leads many people to quit computer science is their expectations. 

The idea of writing computer programs or getting into programming doesn’t sound so bad. 

In fact, there’s a lot about it that appeals to many people. 

Who wouldn’t want the freedom to write code and make computers do whatever you want?

On top of that, there’s a lot of media attention on computer science. 

People are constantly explaining how important it is. 

You might hear about coding boot camps that allow people to get good at programming in a matter of months. 

There are kids writing programs these days.

Obviously, it’s all accessible, right?

Well, here’s the real issue. 

A computer science degree is about more than programming. 

Sure, programming and coding are huge components, but learning to code competently is not the same thing as getting a computer science degree.

Degree programs also get deep into program analytics. 

You need the skills to review programs and assess their efficiency. 

You learn about the history of computer science and how discoveries have revolutionized approaches to programming.

Computer science majors spend time learning about machine code and actually program stuff in 1s and 0s.

If you envision spending time on your computer hammering out code and making cool programs, you’re underestimating about half of what is involved in a CS degree. 

Long study sessions, lots and lots of hours, brutal tests, exhausting group projects . . . they’re all part of the deal.

Now, for plenty of students, that’s fine. 

They enjoy many aspects of computer science, and they complete the degree. 

But, expectations are definitely part of the equation when we’re trying to figure out why there’s such a high attrition rate.

#3 Inadequate Motivations

This is probably the biggest issue. 

You’ve just read that computer science is hard. 

It takes a lot of time and energy, and in a lot of ways, it won’t be like what a lot of students imagine. 

In short, you have to really, seriously want a computer science degree to finish the degree program.

An issue that a lot of recruiters have noticed is that students get into computer science for “the wrong reasons.”

Now, your motivation is really your own. 

You can study computer science for any reason at all.

That’s up to you.

But, computer science has prestige behind it. 

People are constantly saying that it’s a super lucrative field and one of the most important things to study for the next generation. 

Everything is run by computers, so everyone should learn more about computers.

All of those sentiments are true, and for most people, none of them are reason enough to put in the countless hours required to finish a CS degree. 

Many students go into computer science because their parents or teachers push them in that direction. 

Many more try it because it holds the promise of a high-paying job. 

Money is certainly a strong motivator for a lot of us.

In the end, those types of motivation just aren’t enough for most people. 

If you don’t enjoy computer science at all, you probably won’t finish the degree. 

Some people are stubborn enough to get through it, but the vast majority will come to realize the value of doing something that is personally rewarding, and the numbers suggest that computer science isn’t rewarding for a large number of students who start off in that major.

#4 Different Learning Methods

A unique challenge of computer science is that it isn’t taught quite like other topics. 

Even at the collegiate level, there are a few standard approaches to learning. 

Some topics are all about building a basis of knowledge. 

You’ll see this in language and history studies. 

Sure, you need to be able to analyze these ideas, but you have to have a large foundation of knowledge first.

Other studies are all about the process and systems. 

Math comes to mind. 

For the most part, math is taught as a bunch of systems. 

If you understand the rules well enough, you can solve the problems, and it all works.

A lot of sciences are hybrids of these concepts. 

You need a foundation of knowledge, but you can also learn the systems of the natural laws and scientific method, and with all of it, you can master the subject and even contribute to research.

It works.

Computer science is another animal. 

Sure, there are systems that work that you need to understand. 

And, since you’ll be working with different programming languages, there’s definitely a knowledge base that must be acquired.

But, computer science is one of the newest fields of study, and it changes faster than any other. 

The way we write programs today is dramatically different from how they were approached 20 years ago. 

Because of this, a lot of traditional teaching approaches run into severe limitations in computer science. 

On top of that, things you’ve learned from previous schooling and experience are less likely to prove helpful here. 

CS knowledge becomes outdated so fast that it adds a layer of challenge to the content.

But that’s not all.

Computer science degrees are still taught at traditional colleges. 

So, you’re seeing this weird combination of traditional schooling and non-traditional knowledge applications.

You can’t just cram for a test, master the material, and succeed. 

Computer science classes often have long-term projects that require many hours of input. 

At the same time, there are still final exams. 

You have to live up to the knowledge base and systematic approaches to learning, and all the while, you’ll be exposed to very new programming and analytical techniques.

It’s difficult to put into words, but a computer science degree is going to bend your mind in ways that other fields of study don’t. 

That doesn’t necessarily make it harder than other programs, but it’s certainly different, and that’s a turn-off to a lot of students.

#5 A Lack of Passion

You can distill everything else I’ve covered into this final point. 

It comes down to passion. 

There are only a handful of degree programs that are going to require as much time every week as computer science (and they also have high attrition rates). 

It’s tough to expect someone to spend hour upon hour, week after week on a topic that they don’t enjoy.

I’ve mentioned it before. 

If you want to succeed in computer science, you have to have a level of natural satisfaction and enjoyment from the work. 

If getting a program to compile doesn’t give you a sense of accomplishment, it’s going to be a problem. 

If a part of you doesn’t enjoy the challenge of exploring different ways to think like a computer, you’re going to struggle.

This is why motivation matters so much. 

The goal of making money, earning prestige, or gaining approval can only take you so far. 

You’re spending years in this program, and presumably after that, you’re going to spend decades working in the field. 

It’s just too much if you don’t also enjoy computer science.

There are plenty of people who do find this enjoyment. 

They tend to succeed and finish the degree. 

There are also plenty of people who don’t enjoy computer science. 

It’s not a good fit for anyone, and that’s just fine. 

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the world. 

Not everyone should be writing code for computers.

Even then, plenty of people can transition into coding and find satisfying careers without getting a CS degree. 

It’s a matter of finding your passion and steering into it. 

If computer science is right for you, you’ll likely realize that pretty early in the program. 

If it isn’t, then you’ll be part of the attrition rate, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

It just helps to understand why so many people leave the field.


  • Theresa McDonough

    Tech entrepreneur and founder of Tech Medic, who has become a prominent advocate for the Right to Repair movement. She has testified before the US Federal Trade Commission and been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, helping influence change within the tech industry.

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