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Dietrich College must adjust to growing popularity of Statistics Department

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The number of undergraduate statistics majors at Carnegie Mellon University is rising fast. But this rapid growth, driven by the numerous opportunities for data scientists in the labor market, will soon force the department to make some tough decisions.

If the demand for the statistics major continues to increase, Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Science’s application pool will be flooded with huge numbers of talented aspiring statistics majors. It will become difficult for students interested in one of Dietrich’s less popular programs to compete with the masses of applicants to the prestigious and highly sought-after statistics major. The proportion of Dietrich College students studying statistics will continue to grow, chipping away at other programs in the college. Availability of courses might be saved by hiring lots of new statistics faculty (as the department seems to be doing), but the effects on other departments could be problematic.

Assuming that Dietrich College does not decide to greatly expand in size, it will likely respond by changing its admissions policy. It could do so covertly, making it slightly more difficult to get in as a statistics major without changing any official policies. However, doing so will encourage dishonesty in college applications and will fail to limit the number of statistics majors as long as students remain free to switch their major while in college.

This means that an official change in admissions practices is likely in order. One possibility would be to imitate the undergraduate information systems program by having applicants apply directly to the Department of Statistics and Data Science, or perhaps directly to the Statistics and Machine Learning track, which is where most of the growth seems to be occurring. The statistics program could then increase its admissions selectivity and maintain a reasonable size while leaving the rest of Dietrich College untouched.

The problem with this is that some high schoolers aren’t sure if they want to study statistics in college. Not everyone has the opportunity to take a statistics class in high school, and even among those who do, they might prefer to try out a few college classes in various subjects before deciding what their major will be. The department may lose some very talented statistics majors who aren’t quite ready to commit to studying the subject when they are seniors in high school. Another troubling consequence of this policy is that since high schools in low-income neighborhoods are less likely to offer statistics classes, the socioeconomic diversity among Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate statistics students could decrease.

Having students apply to the statistics major once they are already Carnegie Mellon students, as is currently the case for majors like human-computer interaction and computational finance, would solve several problems. Students wouldn’t need to commit to majoring in statistics while in high school. Like the information systems approach, the statistics program could maintain a reasonable size and the rest of Dietrich College would be unaffected. But this solution has a significant problem of its own. There are some people who know for sure that they would like to study statistics in high school, and those people may be hesitant to go to Carnegie Mellon if they are not guaranteed that they will be able to major in it here. Worse, some may choose to go to Carnegie Mellon intending to study statistics, not be admitted to the program, and then get stuck majoring in something they don’t like or have to transfer to a different university to be a statistics major.

The College of Engineering currently faces a similar problem to the one Dietrich College is likely to face in the near future. Electrical and computer engineering (ECE), like statistics, is an especially popular major and attracts lots of highly-qualified applicants. Rather than let this harm other engineering programs, this issue is handled by having two kinds of admissions offers, one that allows students to major in ECE if they want to and one that restricts them to one of the college’s other majors.

This policy has a lot of benefits and avoids many of the problems that the other approaches have. It allows the college to maintain strong numbers of students in other majors, does not force anyone to have to choose their major while in high school, and removes doubt about which majors will be available to students while at Carnegie Mellon. While no solution is perfect, it seems like choosing to mimic ECE admissions is the best choice for Dietrich College and the Department of Statistics and Data Science.