It's a longstanding debate: Does it make sense for would-be engineers to spend more than four years in college?
Unlike the other so-called learned professions--law, medicine, accounting, architecture and pharmacy--engineers need only a four-year bachelor's degree to enter the work force.
The National Society of Professional Engineers favors expanding undergraduate education beyond four years. Multiple studies back up that position, said Arthur Schwartz, NSPE deputy executive director and general counsel. He cited a 2005 National Academy of Engineering report that concluded: "It is evident that the exploding body of science and engineering knowledge cannot be accommodated within the context of the traditional, four-year baccalaureate degree."
Although the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, an umbrella organization for state licensing boards, has published a "model law" requiring 30 additional credits, that doesn't mean change is imminent. That law is prospective. Even if passed today, it's unlikely that it would go into effect until 2015 at the earliest, Schwartz said.
While other professions have upped their educational requirements, engineering hasn't in 100 years. The U.S. standing in international professional leadership is at stake, he said. "We don't want the engineering profession to degrade and for engineers to become technicians," Schwartz said.
Schools have sought to include all that engineers need to know within the existing framework of undergraduate education. That means increased communication skills and understanding of the global marketplace, not to mention more exposure to the ever-expanding body of technical knowledge.
"Engineering colleges are struggling . . . to cram more and more information into a four-year degree," said Gerald Jakubowski, president of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Ind.).
The typical undergrad course load is 15 credit hours a semester, leading to a degree after 120 hours. By contrast, engineering schools often require 128, 140 or even 145 hours. State legislatures want a standard of 128 hours, according to Jakubowski.
A required additional year of study is one way around the dilemma. "We're heading in that direction, that eventually an engineering degree will be a five-year degree," he said. But there are obvious problems, notably time and money. Students already accrue massive debt, Jakubowski said. Rose-Hulman's tuition is $30,000 annually. A five-year degree would push the tab to $150,000.
"The only way it's going to work is for all engineering colleges to make that jump [to five years] at that same time," Jakubowski said.
Some engineering schools are taking steps to broaden the spectrum of student skills with nontraditional programs. Lehigh Univer- sity, in Bethlehem, Pa., works to cultivate engineers who balance breadth and depth, said David Wu, dean of Lehigh's Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.
Companies have to justify hiring a U.S. engineer at four to five times the salary their foreign counterpart might make, Wu said. "There's a significant differential in terms of the compensation, so they need to see someone who could play a much larger role than just in the technical area," he said.
Among Lehigh's offerings is an Integrated Business and Engineering program. IBE students follow a full engineer- ing course of study up to a point, and then take business and cross-disciplinary courses to round out their experience.
After four years, a student graduates with an IBE degree in, for example, electrical engineering, but lacking 25 to 30 credits' worth of senior-year electives.
If that student wanted an engineering degree with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology stamp of approval, he or she could do a fifth year, ending up with two degrees--one in IBE and one in EE.
"For students who want to start with higher-level technical specialization, the fifth year would make sense," Wu said.
In IBE, just over a third of the students take the option. Lehigh then allows them to reconfigure their financial aid from four to five years.
Wu doesn't see future students flocking to the extra-year option, though. Lehigh has a 99.7 percent undergraduate placement for all engineers, with more than half placed before Christmas of their senior year, he pointed out.
"I don't think the fifth year will be a trend, because there are plenty of jobs out there that really don't need an additional year," he said.
Curt Beck, a mechanical engineer who manages the energy services de- partment of Hawaii Electric Light Co. (Hilo), would agree. "In my mind, the new technologies, systems and equipment are applications," Beck said. "The basic circuit theory of electronics still applies, and engineers will apply that in whatever work they do."
Undergraduate education is the place to learn how to apply basic engineering principles to solve problems, he said. "It's always going to be the case where most of the real-world training an engineer gets is going to be in the real world, in the field," Beck said.
That's particularly true in Hawaii, where no classroom prepares an engineer for working in an island tropical storm with generators 100 miles apart and a volcano between them. "We're almost like a laboratory; we're a closed system," Beck said. "There's no way a distribution engineer is going to get that perspective in an undergraduate course."
Another working engineer who thinks four years is sufficient to pin down the fundamentals is Andy Russo, consultant for a major software company and chairman of NSPE's Professional Engineers in Industry board.
"There's room to get everything at a basic level and to establish the ability to learn, and the interest," Russo said. "Then they get out and get exposed to real needs and apply the learning skills to learn the specifics of the business."
Ultimately, the issue is public safety, Russo said. If would-be engineers are discouraged by the increased difficulty of getting qualified, many will still end up doing the work.
"What you're effectively doing is keeping those people from having the ethical background and accountability that come with the license," Russo said. n
Sheila Riley is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.