Why Facebook Invested $4.2M in Northeastern’s Align Computer Science Program

Why Facebook Invested $4.2M in Northeastern’s Align Computer Science Program

Align students from Seattle, Boston, and Silicon Valley campuses traveled to San Francisco in April to celebrate and attend the official announcement of Khoury College of Computer Sciences’ partnership with Facebook. The announcement was made at Northeastern’s San Francisco location and included a discussion among computer science leaders as to how this partnership will increase the diversity of students in computer science.

In the Spring of 2019, Facebook invested $4.2 million to help expand Northeastern University’s Align computer science program. The one-of-a-kind program has grown rapidly since its launch at Northeastern’s Seattle location five years ago. While there are many programs that offer scholarships and encourage women and minorities to pursue computer science, Northeastern’s Align program is a unique offering that both students and employers are attracted to. This is due to its design and the university’s bold goal of diversifying the tech industry.

The Align program provides a direct path to a Master’s in Computer Science for non-computer science degree holders and people without prior programming experience, meaning those who want to pursue a computer science degree don’t have to invest additional time and money to earn a second bachelor’s degree. Instead, Align students earn a master’s directly by taking advantage of rigorous academic bridge courses that prepare them for master’s-level coursework. Support from corporate and philanthropic partners help make the program affordable and accessible.

Students also gain real-world work experience through a co-op or internship at one of Northeastern’s many industry partners—including firms like Amazon, eBay, Google, Nordstrom, and Zillow. Their experiences and various backgrounds make Align graduates competitive candidates in the job market, especially to employers who value a diverse workforce.

Carla Brodley, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern University, set the goal of reaching an equal female-to-male enrollment ratio by 2021.

“[Computer science is] the fastest growing field in the country, and we shouldn’t have half the population sitting out of it economically,” Brodley told TechRepublic. “We need to create programs that make it so women want to try computer science. They tend to like it in the same proportion as men—they just don’t try it in the same proportion.”

In 2013, when the Seattle campus opened, a report by Change the Equation, a Washington DC-based coalition of business leaders promoting improved STEM education, showed that the overall number of U.S. students earning computing degrees had increased in recent years, but the gender gap had widened. Males were completing computer science degrees at increasing rates, while the number of degrees earned by females continued to slump. At the graduate level the gap was even wider. Of those earning a master’s degree in computer science, only 28 percent were female in 2012, according to Education Week.

However, of the students who began the Align program in Spring 2019, 52 percent were women and 19 percent of those from the United States were underrepresented minorities.

In 2017, Melinda Gates mentioned the Align program in her keynote speech at the annual Grace Hopper Celebration in which she discussed the need for diversity in tech and different initiatives individuals that promote diversity. She used Align as an example of how women can enter into technology later on in their careers and how universities like Northeastern are stepping up by innovating education.

In 2018, Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company created by Melinda Gates, provided funding to expand its Align program. The funding funds the first semester of study for women and underrepresented minority students—a critical step toward ensuring degree completion.

A primary obstacle to diversity in tech is that women and minorities traditionally have self-selected out of trying computer science as undergraduates. Providing first-semester scholarships removes the economic barrier for diverse students to try computer science.

“First semester scholarships are an incredibly effective way to recruit people who might not otherwise try computer science,” Brodley said.

This year’s $4.2M investment from Facebook was covered by Geekwire. It will fund eight credit hours of coursework for 200 students and also help to expand the program to other universities. Columbia University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will use best practices to create “pathways” into their computer science master’s programs for people from non-tech backgrounds.

Facebook and Northeastern plan to build a consortium of at least 15 U.S. colleges and universities within four years that focuses on increasing diversity in computer science.

This partnership signals the beginning of a shift in both the face of tech in the coming years as our graduates enter the workforce, and also a shift in tech education at universities across the nation—with Northeastern’s Seattle campus graduates from the first incoming class of Align in 2013 leading the way.
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