Why More Colleges Are Offering Data Science Programs

Zackary Bennett
·6 min read

Maddy Matura took an early interest in biology at Denison University in Ohio and over time discovered she had an affinity for a specific scientific approach to understanding human life: digging deep into data. The Chicago native ended up majoring in data analytics because she saw how valuable number-crunching has become in just about every field.

Hospitals are using in-depth statistics to do predictive modeling of disease outcomes and to identify opportunities to intervene early and head off trouble, for example. Education officials analyze test results and grade trends to improve student performance. Credit card companies and financial institutions ferret out risks and fraud.

There are "a lot of cool applications in health care, especially in global health," says Matura, who had the opportunity to gain exposure to hospitals and health systems in Europe while studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. The 2020 graduate is planning to put her data analytics degree to immediate use as a business consultant at Deloitte in New York City.

The basic notion of data science is to analyze information to improve performance or productivity, and the applications are "just endless," says Phil Bourne, a data science and biomedical engineering professor and dean of the new school of data science at the University of Virginia. UVA founded its data science school in 2019, and while the school currently enrolls only students pursuing master's degrees, Bourne says the admissions office's most frequently asked question from aspiring undergrads is when they will be able to take classes there.

An undergraduate minor has been approved and is on track to launch in 2021, with a bachelor's degree program to be offered soon after. UVA's master's curriculum includes classes like Data Mining, Machine Learning and Ethics of Big Data, with a nod to "creating a culture of responsible data science," Bourne says.

Ohio State University, the University of San Francisco, New York University and Drexel University in Pennsylvania are among schools with undergraduate programs in data science or analytics. Such programs typically involve a hearty dose of math, statistics and computer science or programming, with opportunities to apply those foundations to fields like health, business or the social sciences.

[READ: How to Learn Data Science: A U.S. News Guide.]

At Willamette University in Oregon, data science is offered as an undergraduate minor and major, and this fall the university will launch a 3+1 undergraduate and master's joint degree in the field that can be completed in four years. School officials expect that the major will become one of the larger ones at the liberal arts college in a few years.

The inclusion of data science is a striking sign of how the liberal arts are being renovated for the 21st century, says Kelley Strawn, faculty associate dean for curriculum and undergraduate program coordinator for data science at Willamette. "We want to be relevant."

The university's program is cross-disciplinary, relying on instructors from management, sociology, psychology, physics and biology in addition to the more traditional data-related areas like mathematics, economics and computer science. At Denison, students can take classes like Demography of Africa , in the fields of anthropology and sociology; Logic, in the philosophy field; and Analyzing Politics, in the political science field, to count toward the data analytics major.

"Pairing data science with just about anything else, I believe, is going to be a really, really successful and common strategy for students," Strawn says.

[READ: How Colleges Are Ramping Up Technology Training.]

In the Willamette Valley region of the Pacific Northwest, Strawn notes, the wine industry is booming and "a data scientist who is well-trained could go to work for a winery and help them understand patterns, soil nutrition degradation and how they could use that information."

Willamette's program has no graduates yet, but recent management school grads have gone on to work as data analysts at Intel and for the Seattle Seahawks football team.

The data mapping and tracking that have emerged from the coronavirus pandemic demonstrate the clear and vital applications in public health and health care.

For years, many universities have been digging into the uses of data analytics in medicine, in some cases collaborating with their affiliated medical schools, hospitals or industry partners. Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina houses the Duke Forge, a center where data science students can get hands-on experience working on health data projects.

"There's a ton of potential there to be generated in health care," says Erich S. Huang, director of the Forge and chief data officer for quality at the Duke University Health System.

For example, Duke undergrads might analyze data to investigate potential bias affecting seniors on Medicare, or work with clinicians in the Duke health system on applying state-of-the-art machine-learning tools to improve diagnosing and delivery of care. One undergrad student working with Huang used tools like Google Maps satellite data to estimate the prevalence of chronic diseases in specific communities.

[READ: Study Big Data Through Online Learning.]

Jobs in data science and advanced analytics were projected to grow by 28% over the last five years, with advertised average salaries of $80,200 -- more than $8,700 higher than the figure for other bachelor's- and graduate-level jobs -- according to a 2017 report from IBM, the Business-Higher Education Forum and Burning Glass Technologies, a job market analytics firm.

And the field of computer and information research scientists alone is expected to grow "much faster than average," by 16% between 2018 and 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"There are literally hundreds of thousands of open jobs in this space that go unfilled," says Ana Echeverri, AI skills growth and strategy lead at IBM. Many new undergraduate and master's programs have been created, she says, as schools recognize the demand and aim to graduate individuals armed with analytical skills.

IBM partnered with the University of Pennsylvania and the Linux Foundation to create an open-source project to help universities worldwide build data science programs from scratch faster.

Amanda Konet, a 2020 graduate of Ohio State from Broadview Heights, Ohio, majored in data analytics with a minor in women's, gender and sexuality studies.

"Working with nonprofits is a really big passion of mine," says Konet, who plans to pursue a master's degree in data science and perhaps a doctorate in a social science discipline. Her undergraduate minor helped expose her to the social applications of data, she says, and has inspired her to look into how she might apply analytics to help nonprofits, such as using data science to do better targeted -- and more effective -- outreach to donors.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2021" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.