Survey says: U.S. engineering education is pretty good

Students, recent graduates content with decision to pursue an engineering education, according to a study from Design News magazine.


Design News conducted a study in January 2008 to better understand opinions about the quality and value of the education colleges and universities provide to prospective engineers. The study specifically investigated how students and engineers perceive their education as preparation for a job in the engineering field. To best assess these topics, Design News surveyed two groups: students who are currently enrolled in engineering programs at colleges and universities across the United States and engineers who graduated with an engineering degree within the last few years. To view Design News' engineering education forum, click here.

Satisfaction with engineering programs

Both students, as well as recent grads, are content with their decision to pursue an education in engineering. Nearly nine out of 10 current students and almost three out of four recent grads claim their education is or was what they expected. Interestingly, now that the grads have had the opportunity to look back on their education, a higher percentage (27% versus 13% of students) said they were unsure what to expect when they enrolled.

Some of these former students claim their school did not adequately explain to students what they will learn or which engineering classes they would be taking. These engineers believe they ended up with too many core classes. They further claim classes that are necessary are not always offered. Yet, even with these issues, many of these former students admitted they did, in fact, learn quite a lot and were provided with the foundation to secure a good job as an engineer.

Current students, on the other hand, find their classes to be rewarding and enjoyable but are more difficult than they initially thought.

While both groups are highly satisfied with their school, graduates seem more satisfied with the college or university they attended. Fully, 85 percent of the engineers are likely to recommend their school to others. By comparison, current students are not as unanimous in their opinion as 71% indicated they are pleased with the school they are attending.

Both students and graduates agreed the education really depends on the school, the program and the professors.

Profile of respondents

In total, 85 students currently enrolled in an engineering program were studied. Two out of three are now undergraduates and expect to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in engineering; the other one-third are presently enrolled in graduate school programs. Concentrations are predominantly in computer engineering (26 percent) and chemical engineering (19% while some are studying environmental or civil (13%), mechanical (12%) or electrical engineering (11%). More than half (56%) expect to enter the job market in engineering upon graduation while nearly one out of four (22%) will move on to grad school. Some remain undecided (12%) about their futures while only a small percentage (4%) are turned off to engineering and will shift career paths. These students are, on average, 23 years old and are equally distributed across the United States.

To balance perspectives on the study’s objectives, Design News was equally interested in learning about the college experiences from those who completed the process and migrated to the workforce. This would provide key insights into how well-prepared students are in finding and performing a job as an engineer.

For this study, 62 employed engineers were surveyed. The majority of these engineers graduated with a bachelor’s degree although some have further obtained their graduate degree. These individuals represent a range of engineering disciplines, mostly mechanical (27%) or computer (18%) engineering. Others have careers in electrical (16%) or environmental or civil (13%) engineering. These engineers are new to the labor force. Four out of 10 have been in the workforce for less than three years; the average age of these respondents is 26.

Why engineering?

Those who entered the engineering profession said they did so because of their great interest in the field and for the challenges engineering presents. Many see engineering as an opportunity to maintain their interests and apply their skills in math and science or as a chance to build things or work with computers. Others believe it is an opportunity to “make a difference” in the world. Engineering is viewed as an option to work in a field that is well-paying and will always be in demand. A few are simply following in the footsteps of a parent.

Nearly all are content with their chosen field. Fully, 95% assert they would recommend the engineering profession to others.

Ready for the real world

While current students said they feel they are being well-prepared for their future, engineers already laboring in the workforce are not as convinced they were totally fit to enter the job market. Engineering graduates believe while they were set in some areas, they were not as ready in others.

Most graduates claim their education paid dividends as they were taught problem-solving methods and afforded hands-on opportunities that are now proving beneficial with real-world applications.

However, some engineering curriculum was seen to have shortcomings. Some of the classes are considered too theoretical and not as thorough with those problem-solving insights that are ultimately required in business. Now with engineering experience under their belts, these former students recommend programs should place greater emphasis on problem-solving techniques. A few also complained the university they attended utilized outdated technologies.

Their education in engineering, however, was valuable as it helped develop business-critical competencies such as understanding methodologies for learning and adopting new ideas, becoming more detail-oriented, building communication skills and realizing how to work as part of a team.

Among those who went on to graduate school, they, too, were confident their undergraduate studies sufficiently prepared them for graduate level engineering programs.

On their engineering professors

Overall ratings for engineering professors are solid. Roughly 90% of all respondents rated their teachers excellent, very good or good; only one out of 10 feels their professors are not up to par.

Engineers were, in general, also approving of their professors. These former students said they are able to apply what they learned from their professors and praised them for their knowledge, passion, willingness to help and for having a solid grasp of the material. However, they were also more cynical than the students and felt they did experience teachers who, while smart and knowledgeable about the research, were ineffective as educators and didn’t adequately convey their knowledge. Some also claimed they had professors who had difficulties with the English language.

Current students said their teachers are genuinely dedicated to “teaching” and they make themselves available to students outside the classroom. Many are considered personable, as well as being good communicators of information.

Students and former students were mixed on the extent to which engineering professors’ focus on their own agendas. Some noted professors appear interested in the “spotlight” while a few also leverage the school’s resources for their fellowships and own career advancements. However, some students consider their instructors’ focus on research as an opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience.

Teacher’s assistants

Most current students said their professors typically don’t use teacher’s aides. Among the assistants who are teaching, these students feel they are capable educators. Conversely, when thinking back, more former students recall some of their instructors relied on teachers’ aides who were not as competent. In some instances, language was even a learning barrier.

Benefits of engineering education

Current students and engineers perceive numerous benefits from an education in engineering. The training and hands-on experiences they acquire are instructive, as well as applicable.

Graduating with a degree in engineering allows these individuals to do something and work in a field they enjoy. Their education enables those aspiring to become an engineer to be knowledgeable in engineering and effectively positions job-seekers to pursue sought-after, well-paying jobs. As a result of their engineering education, students obtain problem-solving techniques, a team-oriented approach and communication skills ... all lessons that are readily adaptable into other aspects of life.

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