When the Georgia Institute of Technology announced it would launch a Master of Science in Analytics program this summer, planners expected to start with a class of 250 students. But the program drew 1,200 highly qualified applicants, so organizers bumped the starting headcount to 300 and say they’ll likely expand further next year.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology kicked off a master's degree program in analytics two years ago and a bachelor's degree last year. The school has had to hire nine new Ph.D. faculty and 30 part-timers to handle the demand.
Yes, it’s a trend. Around the nation, colleges are ramping up data analytics degrees and certifications, and students are queuing up to sign on. At the same time, groups like the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine are rallying to create standardized approaches to teaching data analytics in higher ed.
The surge in such programs reflects widespread confidence that data analytics jobs are on the rise. Employment firm Robert Half placed data scientist and data engineer prominently on its list of top 10 tech jobs for 2017.
“We want to offer programs that are relevant and credible to industry,” said Myles Vogel, national director of the College of IT at Western Governors University, which recently launched a Bachelor of Science in Data Management/Data Analytics. “We talked to Microsoft and Salesforce and Oracle, and we know what they are hiring for. When we talked to our advisory boards, this was something they felt strongly about.”
Eric Darr, president of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, heard about the need from multiple major health insurers. “They have access to mountains of data, but they don’t have the skills in the workforce to do the data analytics,” he said.
The Pennsylvania university built its master’s program around specific analytics skills. There’s data mining, “things like being able to put together disparate databases, cleansing the data, formatting the data that may be named differently or may have duplicates,” he said. Other courses touch on data security, predictive analytics and reporting. They focus as well on techniques for analyzing vast volumes of unstructured data, including the text, graphics and other elements that constitute websites.
Darr’s program typifies the emerging data analytics curriculum in that it spans a wide breadth of subject matter. In fact, such programs tend to sprawl not just across the computer science department, but also across the entire university.
The Georgia Tech program, for instance, is an effort between the College of Engineering, the College of Computing and the Scheller College of Business. “Analytics is an interdisciplinary field,” said Joel Sokol, an associate professor and director of the Master of Science in Analytics program. “You really need all three of those pieces to get the full picture of analytics and also to integrate the different world views and the different types of techniques. It’s not something where you can come in and just take a few courses.”
While this may hold true at the master’s level, it is possible for students to dip a toe and pick up just a certification, if all they are looking to do is enhance their existing career skills.
The Indiana University Kelley School of Business recently teamed with Microsoft to offer a certificate in cloud-based analytics. The program has drawn from a range of industries. “These are people from marketing groups who want to generate sales. They are from finance groups looking to manage better using data in the cloud. They are manufacturing people looking to improve their supply chain,” said Richard Magjuka, faculty chair for executive degree programs.
While the certificate may help IT professionals beef up their skills, not everyone seeking a data analytics degree comes from the computer science world.
The University of Texas at Dallas recently unveiled a master’s program in social data analytics, targeting social science professionals, government workers, nonprofit leaders and others “who have spent their lives trying to avoid doing math,” said Simon Fass, program director of social data analytics and research.
They may not like math, but they see the value in information. “They have mountains of data. If they could access this data, they could be more sensitive and more effective, but they are basically trained in things like counseling and sociology, so they have terrible trouble just looking at something like an Excel spreadsheet,” he said. “If we can help those people get over their fear of numbers, they could do so much more.”
Given the boom in such programs, and the relatively recent rise of analytics as a profession, some schools face a challenge in staffing these new degrees. While they can draw to some extent upon the skills of existing computer science faculty, hiring can be a challenge.
Darr got creative, hiring on a Ph.D. biologist with stellar math skills. “He moved into data mining in order to analyze large biologic problems, and now he is one of the cornerstones of the analytics faculty,” he said. Such creative measures are increasingly necessary. “When I hire, I am competing against the top universities in the world and every single industry.”