US universities’ engineering colleges are anything but collegiate

A misinformed rush to churn out employable graduates combined with a zero-sum budgeting approach is denuding other departments, says Harvey Graff

May 17, 2023
People hold unconnected cogwheels, one of which is gold
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Humanities and social science scholars often publish self-serving whines about a zero-sum game in which their side of the metaphorical ledger lost while the so-called professional and STEM fields gained. But this not that kind of essay.

I am a retired scholar with 50 years’ experience across diverse disciplines and universities, who has both personal and professional acquaintanceships across universities in much of the world. And it has become increasingly clear to me that engineering colleges (as well as business and other profession undergraduate schools) reject university-wide, student-centred, intra- and interdisciplinary connections.

In the early 2010s, with the typically unstated support of central university administrations, such schools began luring students by means both fair and foul, over-admitting first-year students significantly. Concurrently, students were under-admitted not only in arts, humanities and social sciences but also – with less vociferous, public opposition – the natural sciences and mathematics.

This over-admission led to over-enrolment in proliferating, unclearly defined and at least partially overlapping engineering majors and courses. It also meant that enrolment numbers rapidly exceeded the capacity of existing faculty, advisers and facilities to offer students their rising tuition’s worth – particularly given their varying levels of preparation for and commitment to engineering study.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that teaching plays a less significant part in tenure and promotion in engineering than it does in the arts and sciences, so faculty prioritise it less. Juniors and seniors substitute for graduate students as teaching and lab assistants for undergraduate majors. Only 1.5 per cent of the students of one engineering professor I am aware of would enrol for a second class with him, yet his classes continue.

The result – exacerbated by the Covid pandemic – is shockingly high levels of dropout and flunk-out rates. No university discusses this, but conversations suggest that everybody is aware of this. Yet still the situation continues unabated because universities and colleges of engineering are only to keen to cash in on promises, made to children and parents from at least middle school, of highly paid careers for those who study engineering.

Those promises aren’t always fulfilled. While some engineering fields still complain about an undersupply of good graduates, many others do not. And by no means all offer high starting salaries. Meanwhile, other areas of STEM employment, such as medicine, still suffer severe shortages of qualified staff. Yet colleges of engineering do nothing to correct the record. Rather, they amplify the misinformation in their recruitment pitches. Universities’ enrolment-based budget model means that each academic unit strives to amass all the course enrolment credits it can.

It also means that general education requirements are a campus battleground with little adjudication. In the case of engineering, students (to a greater degree than arts and science majors) are directed towards school and department prescriptions. To my intellectual amazement, for instance, each of the seven engineering units at Ohio State University, the institution I know best, requires students to study its own mathematics course. This amount of redundancy is incalculably wasteful at a time of staff and budget shortages.

In addition, to the detriment of engineering students’ educational breadth, interactions and job preparation, required courses and electives outside the departmental major are severely limited. Basic intellectual, civic and communication skills are neglected; regarding writing, for instance, Ohio engineers only have to study composition and communications for engineering students. Seniors get no assistance in preparing job search letters or résumés. The advisers, who are not faculty members, have neither time nor knowledge.

The damage actively and passively committed by professional schools reduces and distorts their entire parent institutions. Over-admitting and over-enrolling in certain subjects without enlarging overall enrolments, budgets and faculty numbers results directly in the loss of student credits, majors and both tenure-track and other faculty everywhere else in the university. Hence the deep irony of colleges of engineering’s complaints that the sciences are failing to offer the lower-division foundational courses that their students require. That lack of capacity is a direct result of the privileging of engineering.

Why are universities so keen on engineering? Sometimes it relates to perceptions of local need for high-tech expertise. For instance, lured by $3 billion (£2.4 billion) from the state, Intel is building two chip factories in Ohio in the next few years, which will employ several thousand technical workers. Even small liberal arts colleges want some of the action, rushing to enrol and graduate as many engineers as quickly as they can. But few pause to observe that there will be many more positions for two-year associates than four-year bachelors or five-year masters of science graduates. I wager publicly that there will be so many unemployed recent engineering graduates in five years that states – also including Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Michigan – will be forced to initiate a special unemployment insurance programme for them.

Why do I say that? Partly historical precedent, partly arithmetic. But no one involved in the feeding frenzy has any interest in history or arithmetic. Or students.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. This essay is part of a book-length project, “From Multi- or Mega-Versity to Uni-Versity: Remaking the American University for the 21st Century”.

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