Even the dark cloud of the current recession has some silver linings. One of them seems to be an unexpected up-tick in the number of college students majoring in engineering, an academic field that actually leads to production of useful things, such as bridges and medical devices, in contrast to, say, women’s studies, which produces mostly angry women. The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) recently released a report indicating that enrollment in undergraduate engineering rose 4.5 percent in 2008 over 2007, and enrollment in master’s-level programs grew by. 5.4 percent. The nearly 93,000 students enrolled in master’s engineering programs marked an all-time high.
That’s good news on several fronts. One of them, as Andrew Gillen of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Esther Duflo have noted in different forums, more young people choosing engineering as a career likely means fewer among the brightest of them choosing investment banking, a career that has taken severe hits in the collapse of the exotic instrument-based mortgage market and its related financial crisis
In an October 2008 post on the Vox economics website Duflo took note of the “Harvard and Beyond” survey, a 2006 report sponsored by the Harvard economics department on the career choices and earnings of Harvard graduates over the decades. The survey showed that, thanks to the outsize rewards available to bankers during the boom years of the mid-2000s, “in 2006 those who worked in finance earned almost 3 times more (195%) than other [Harvard graduates], after controlling for grades in college, standardized scores at entry, choice of major, year of graduation, etc.,” as Duflo wrote. She added, “What the crisis has made bluntly apparent is that all this intelligence is not employed in a particularly productive way.”
Besides likely channeling more smart young people out of oversubscribed finance and into careers that not only promise dependable incomes but contribute tangibly to the material betterment of life, the increased interest in engineering reverses a decades-long decline in interest among U.S. young people in engineering, along with the other three so-called “STEM” fields (the acronym for the quantitative-reasoning quartet that comprises science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Only a little more than a year ago, in February 2008, Greg Schuckman, a former lobbyist for the American Association of Engineering Societies, issued a report concluding that the number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in engineering had declined by nearly 3 percent over the past 20 years—a number that in itself might not seem alarming in itself except that “the number of students earning bachelors degrees overall in the United States has increased by more than 50 percent” over the same period, Schuckman wrote. An April story in the Christian Science Monitor observed that the United States continues to rank No. 22 on a per capita basis among the world’s top 25 engineer-producing countries.
The reason engineering has lagged behind other college majors in recent decades is perhaps unsurprising, Schuckman told me in a telephone interview: engineering, like the other STEM fields, is hard. “It’s a challenging discipline,” Schuckman explained. Furthermore, thanks to the long-term decline in standards in K-12 education, “many students aren’t adequately prepared to major in engineering when they get to college. It’s too bad because the highest paid college graduates are those with a B.S. degree in engineering.”
When times were still flush just two years ago, it likely made sense for undergraduates to pick an easy or arty humanities major and have more fun at college—because they could always go to law school or business school, where the real money was to be made after graduation. (Engineers with new bachelor’s degrees may do well compared with their non-engineering peers, but the salaries of engineers with master’s and doctoral degrees—those who do the most interesting work in their fields—are paltry compared with the pay in the Wall Street legal and financial worlds. So it made little economic sense for many to sweat out tough math courses throughout college when they could major in communications or art history. All that has quickly changed. As Business Week recently reported, 2009 graduates of M.B.A. programs face dicey hiring prospects in a shrunken job market and starting salaries that may fall below 2008 levels. As for law school, many firms that once paid new associates six-figure salaries starting the day after graduation are now telling this summer’s crop of new hires not to show up.
So it’s not surprising that there’s renewed new student interest in engineering, where the pay may be more modest but the intellectual rewards are commensurate and the job outlook much rosier (worldwide, engineers remain near the top of lists of sought-after employees, according to a Manpower survey released in May). One interesting aspect of the turnaround is that undergraduates at elite universities were once among those most likely to turn up their noses as the idea of majoring in engineering. On the AASE survey, the only Ivy League institution ranking among the top 20 in terms of numbers of engineering graduates was Cornell. (At the graduate level, Stanford, MIT and other elite schools are among the top degree-granters.) That Ivy League indifference may be vanishing. At Dartmouth, for example (according to the Christian Science Monitor), enrollment in introductory engineering courses during the 2008-2009 academic year was up 30 percent over the university’s five-year average.