Perspectives: Let Engineers Go to College

Perspectives: Let Engineers Go to College

C. JUDSON KING

Let Engineers Go to College

The challenges that engineers will face in the 21st century will require them to broaden their outlooks, have more flexible career options, and work closely and effectively with people of quite different backgrounds. Yet engineering education focuses narrowly on technical skills rather than broadly on the full role that engineers must play in the world. Engineering education needs to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what engineers will do as their careers open up to management responsibility in business or to involvement in other areas. And if engineers are to have time for a greater variety of courses in their college years, the professional engineering credential will have to be a postgraduate degree, as it is in law, business, and medicine.

The environment for engineers and the nature of engineering careers in the United States are changing in fundamental ways. The issues with which engineers engage have become more and more multidimensional, interacting with public policy and public perceptions, business and legal complexities, and government policies and regulations, among other arenas. This is the natural result of technology becoming more and more pervasive in society and politics. Examples abound in areas such as energy, the environment, communications, national security, transportation, biotechnology, the service sector, food supply, and water resources. The engineer must now look outward and interact directly with non-engineers of many different sorts in many different ways.

Industry is increasingly global, with the result that the engineer must understand and deal with other countries and other cultures. Globalization and rapid advances in information technology are also rearranging the world employment market and functions for engineers. Many jobs that have traditionally been typical entry-level jobs for U.S. engineers are irrevocably going overseas, as we are reminded when we call help lines for assistance with computer software. Salary expectations for highly educated U.S. workers will steadily price them out of many jobs in a world that is so thoroughly connected by high-bandwidth communications. This trend will only accelerate.

Of course, many good jobs will remain in the United States, but skilled workers will find themselves changing employers and job functions more frequently than in the past. This trend results from amalgamation, restructuring, and downsizing of corporations; weakening incentives for employees to remain with an employer for career-long employment; and less job security, as well as the growing appeal of start-up companies and other entrepreneurial activities. These developments have a more powerful effect on engineering than on most other professions.

As a result of these changes, the interests of individual engineers and those of employers of engineers are diverging. The individual engineer aspires to the wherewithal for flexibility and movement, whereas employers seek those analytical and synthetic skills needed in the current job function. The society at large is moving in the direction of the individual engineer, seeing higher education as more of a private than a public benefit. This is reflected in higher tuition and fees for public higher education, diminished state support for public universities, and pressure on universities to make academic merit the sole criterion for admission. Whether this trend is good or bad is a subject for another forum, but the trend is real. To the extent that the individual has to pay the cost, the academic program should benefit the individual.

Traditional engineering education prepares the individual to fulfill a very specific role and offers little that would give the individual the flexibility to move into non-engineering areas or management. As a result, engineers are rare in Congress and other positions of public leadership. There have been relatively few among CEOs and other high-level decisionmakers.

The ability of engineers to move into other areas and to work effectively with non-engineers is limited by the narrowness and inward-looking nature of their education. Engineering is the undergraduate major that demands the fewest general education requirements. The rationale for this has been that the engineer’s need to know so much math, science, and engineering to be ready to work as a professional with only a bachelor’s degree leaves no time for other subjects.

When I received my undergraduate degree from Yale 50 years ago, I received a B.E. rather than the A.B. received by classmates in other majors. Whereas other diplomas were written in Latin, mine was in English. I was in the School of Engineering, rather than Yale College (a situation that subsequently changed with the incorporation of engineering into Yale College). The distinctions thereby drawn reflect long-standing controversies at liberal arts colleges as to whether engineering belongs there and, if so, in what form.

The image of engineering as a narrow discipline with an excess of required courses has made it difficult to attract students with wider outlooks, interests, and learning styles. Interestingly, graduate engineers have shown particular interest in the new master of liberal arts continuing-education degree programs, suggesting that in hindsight they perceive the narrowness of their education. The image of narrowness is thought by many to be a primary obstacle to increasing the number of women and minorities who become engineers. Yet the involvement of people of all sorts is certainly needed for the future of the engineering profession.

The solution to the excessive narrowness of engineering education is conceptually simple: The undergraduate curriculum should become more like a common liberal arts degree, and the specialized training needed to succeed as a professional engineer should be provided at the master’s level.

No comparable profession accepts a bachelor’s degree as adequate preparation for a career. The recognized professional degree, and hence the primary level of accreditation, is either the professional doctorate (as in medicine, dentistry, law, and pharmacy) or the master’s (as in business, public health, and architecture). These professions are predicated on a liberal arts bachelor’s. It is no longer realistic to expect to be able to build a sufficient base of mathematics and science, provide minimal general education, and create a practicing engineer within the confines of a four-year bachelor’s degree; yet that is what we still ostensibly do. We should instead establish the master’s as the recognized and accredited professional degree, and build from a broader liberal arts undergraduate degree. .

THE BEST PREPARATION FOR A PRODUCTIVE AND SATISFYING ENGINEERING CAREER IS A BROAD UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION FOLLOWED BY PROFESSIONAL TRAINING.

The bachelor’s curriculum should provide enough variety that a graduate would also be well prepared for careers other than engineering. The graduate who does decide to continue engineering studies will have the foundation to play a number of roles open to engineers. As much as anyone else, engineers need to understand society and the human condition in order to function well in working with others and to enjoy a culturally enriching life. Another benefit is that a student will develop thinking and writing skills in a variety of contexts, not just engineering. During the undergraduate years, the student should also be able to spend time studying abroad to gain direct involvement in the culture, tradition, and values of one or more other countries. Future engineers will benefit from exposure to a variety of outlooks and ways of thinking.

A recent National Academy of Engineering report, Educating the Engineer of 2020 (National Academies Press, 2005), recognizes the desirability of additional education and recommends a pre-engineering degree or BA in engineering, followed by an MS that produces a professional or “master engineer,” stating that “industry and professional societies should recognize and reward the distinction between an entry-level engineer and an engineer who masters an engineering discipline’s ‘body of knowledge’ through further formal education or self-study followed by examination.” Accreditation would exist at both levels. Lengthening the educational span is surely a step in the right direction. However, the report implies that an undergraduate engineering degree is the recommended, or even required, path toward the graduate professional degree. That does not provide enough breadth and flexibility for undergraduates. Graduate engineering programs should be open to students with a wide range of undergraduate backgrounds in order to include the widest possible mix of backgrounds and interests in the engineering profession.

Graduate programs in law, business, and medicine are open to students with a wide range of undergraduate training. However, in some cases, graduate-level professional education does rely on certain courses or categories of courses being taken at the undergraduate level. An example is medicine, which itself is a close relative of, if not a form of, engineering. Medical schools are in general agreement that an entrant to medical school should have completed courses in a certain collection of subjects, but they do not encourage a particular major or group of majors at the baccalaureate level. Instead, they encourage diverse majors and often even take variety among backgrounds into account as a desirable criterion in composing an entering class. The same practice would be beneficial for engineering.

The professional master’s degree should logically be a two-year program, with a strong emphasis on a particular engineering discipline. But even the graduate curriculum should allow enough flexibility for experiential project work and for some students also to gain a deeper knowledge of science or to take some courses, or even a minor, in areas such as economics, public policy, law, or business.

The change to the master’s as the professional degree need not imply that engineering faculty would largely withdraw from undergraduate education. There will be a continuing need for early courses that exemplify the nature of engineering. Beyond that, engineering courses can themselves be part of the general education program of a university. A notable new initiative along those lines is that of the Center for Innovation in Engineering Education at Princeton University to create courses that make it possible for 90% of Princeton undergraduates to take at least one engineering course. Developing more engineering courses aimed at all undergraduates would help greatly in creating more technologically literate U.S. leaders.

Going further, there can also be an engineering or technology liberal arts degree that can draw students with much wider interests and career plans. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and Lafayette already have such programs. These engineering AB degrees do not require the full math, science, and engineering requirements that are part of current accredited engineering programs and are not intended to be pre-engineering degrees. Graduates of these AB programs can proceed to medical, business, or law school, or they can take any of the highly varied career paths pursued by liberal arts majors, with the added value of having had substantial direct exposure to engineering. They can find rewarding fields where technical awareness is useful. Analogous liberal arts programs can be found in other fields such as biomedical sciences, legal studies, and business.

A substantial number of engineering graduates begin their education in community college. Making the master’s the professional degree would make it easier for those who attend community college to follow or move to the engineering track. This effect would probably have the additional benefit of increasing the ethnic and gender diversity of the engineering profession.

Change will not be easy. The current bachelor’s degree is well entrenched as the entry point for the profession. Additional education will increase expenses for students and universities. Most companies have been more than willing to hire bachelor’s graduates in engineering. Some value the lower salary that goes with a BS engineering degree— another example of the interests of individual engineers diverging from those of employers. Many students are pleased that a four-year engineering degree provides the near-term benefit of a good starting salary. The restructuring proposed here benefits engineering graduates over the long term by giving them more flexibility and the wherewithal eventually to earn even higher salaries and to enjoy more rewarding careers.

Students who might be put off by the need for more time in school should keep in mind that because the engineering curriculum has become so packed, the typical engineering student requires close to five years to earn a degree. The proposed new structure should make it much easier to complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. Depending on the budgeting policies of the institution, much or all of the institutional cost may be offset by engineering departments receiving higher funding per student because of the shift toward graduate-level education.

Other professions provide evidence that change can happen. Medical education steadily lengthened, became more uniform, and made the bachelor’s degree and pre-medical education prerequisites during the first half of the 20th century, largely because of an evolving consensus among medical schools. A similar, but less ordered, transition occurred for law. Pharmacy was originally accredited at the bachelor’s level but has recently converted to the doctor of pharmacy as the entry-level degree for the profession.

This change in the educational requirements for engineers will become common practice only if it is adopted by the accrediting organization, ABET, which in turn will respond to its constituents. Members of the National Academy of Engineering, engineering school faculty and administrators, and leading employers must develop sufficient consensus that the engineering education system needs to change to keep pace with changes in engineering and the world. Other professions have demonstrated that it can be done. Engineers are supposed to be the can-do people. This is an opportunity to prove it.


C. Judson King (), a chemical engineer, is director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the Berkeley campus and the former provost and senior vice president for academic affairs of the University of California system.