Mary McCormick joined an environmental engineering firm after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 2006 from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. But after four months analyzing levees and dams for seepage and slope stability, she left, feeling she lacked sufficient analytical skills and the ability to solve ill-defined real-world problems. “A master’s was critical if I wanted to move forward in engineering. I didn’t feel adequately prepared to jump into the field,” recounts McCormick, 28. A graduate program at Tufts University helped deepen her knowledge of theory and practical implications, giving her the confidence to make assumptions when necessary.
McCormick’s decision was justified, say the several large professional societies and various engineering luminaries waging a quiet campaign to make the master’s the first professional degree for engineers. Opponents argue just as passionately that the current system of minting engineers works just fine, and say there’s no evidence that either industry or the public is dissatisfied with the quality of America’s engineering workforce. Now the debate is gaining a higher profile, with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) leading an initiative called Raise the Bar, which would require engineers to have a master’s before applying for a Professional Engineer (P.E.) license. At ASEE’s annual conference in June, the society’s civil engineering division will sponsor what it is billing as the first open discussion of the issue at a major venue of engineering educators.
First raised in the 1940s, the notion of requiring a master’s for professional engineers resurfaced in 1965 in a recommendation from a Goals Committee led by Eric Walker, ASEE president in 1960-61. The idea drew opposition from three-quarters of the engineering organizations and more than half of the individuals who responded to the committee’s preliminary report. More recently, the idea has been embraced by the National Academy of Engineering panel that prepared the 2005 report “Educating the Engineer of 2020,” as well as by such éminences grises as former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt and Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. John A. White, chancellor emeritus at the University of Arkansas and former engineering dean at Georgia Tech, made the case for it at ASEE’s 2012 Public Policy Colloquium. On the opposing side are the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the American Council of Engineering Companies, and the executive board of ASEE’s Engineering Deans Council, which has twice voted unanimously in recent years to reject the idea. The full council plans to issue its own position. Within ASEE as a whole, opinion appears to be divided.
Proponents argue that to remain a technological leader in today’s fast-changing, digitized world, the United States needs engineers with excellent technical training who are also “broadly educated,” as the NAE “2020” panel put it, with good communications skills and a grounding in humanities, language, and social sciences – a tall order for a bachelor’s program. “Our jobs are getting more complex, and those who say they’re not getting more complex have their heads in the sand,” argues Blaine Leonard, an ASCE past president who is leading the Raise the Bar initiative. Duderstadt agrees. “We need to produce the world’s best engineers,” he adds, “and we can’t do that at the bachelor’s level.” Asia, he notes, can churn out tens of thousands of engineers “who work for 20 cents on the dollar.”
Opponents counter that technology and improvements in teaching enable today’s students to gain the required knowledge and skills in less time. Amos Holt, an ASME past president, says faster, more powerful computers mean that “a physics paper that took me three weeks can now be done in 30 minutes.” He adds, “More time is simply not a convincing argument.” Nicholas J. Altiero, science and engineering dean at Tulane University and chairman of the deans’ council’s executive board, notes that most incoming students have already earned Advance Placement credits, fulfilling some early-year requirements. Moreover, he says, “engineering faculty have worked hard on the development of pedagogy so that a credit hour today is much more effective than a credit hour decades ago.”
Adoption of the master’s route to licensure could delay, if not derail, the Obama administration’s industry-backed push to graduate 100,000 more engineers over the next decade. That doesn’t faze some master’s proponents. “We don’t need more engineers,” White says. “We need better engineering degrees.” Currently, the engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded at U.S. schools outnumber master’s degrees by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, but enrollment in master’s programs has been growing in recent years amid an influx of students from overseas.
Opponents worry that the additional time and money it would cost students to complete their engineering education could dent undergraduate enrollment, a fear ASCE’s Leonard calls overblown. He notes that many employers give financial assistance to engineers who attend graduate school. When pharmacy and accounting schools extended their curricula, neither suffered a long-term loss of enrollment, he says.
But if added time and cost don’t scare off undergraduates, universities would still need more space and faculty for expanded master’s programs, Altiero argues. “Where’s the capacity going to come from? That’s another issue.” David Munson, the University of Michigan’s engineering dean, has made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that it could cost schools nationwide $6 billion to add the faculty and facilities they would need to meet Obama’s demand for 10,000 more engineers a year -- all at a time when most public schools are facing reductions in state funding. Seeking accreditation of master’s programs – something most engineering schools currently forgo, would impose an additional burden.
Whither the bachelor’s degree if an M.S. were required to become an engineer? Mostly likely it would devolve into a pre-engineering degree that would allow holders to work as technologists or para-engineers. “There is a role for para-engineers,” Augustine says. ASME’s Holt says that would render the B.S. a second-class degree. “And that’s screwy. It’s not logical.”
Raise the Bar is, for now, the most concerted effort promoting the master’s degree. It urges states to adopt the new model law approved several years ago by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), the organization that administers the exams engineers in each state must take to become a licensed Professional Engineer. Currently, any engineer who wants to apply for a P.E. license must have a B.S. from an accredited engineering program, pass the Fundamentals of Engineering and Principles and Practices in Engineering exams, and have four years’ work experience. The new model law would add to these criteria either a master’s degree or 30 additional credit hours of upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses in engineering, math, or science.
The majority of P.E. exam-takers, perhaps around 60 percent, are civil engineers. Mechanical engineers account for about 10 percent, electrical engineers perhaps 4 percent. Civil engineers are more likely to work as consultants on public works projects or directly for government agencies, jobs that require a license. Many engineers from other disciplines tend to get hired by companies that don’t demand a license. Under an industrial exemption in most states – one that the National Society of Professional Engineers wants changed – product manufacturers and electrical and telecommunications utilities are not required to employ licensed engineers.
ASCE says that raising the requirement for a P.E. will encourage more students to seek a master’s. Duderstadt and White, while they share ASCE’s goal, question its approach. “Bringing licensure into this discussion just confuses the issue,” White says. “It’s a whole different agenda.” Duderstadt thinks a better route would be to use the accrediting agency ABET, which does not have an official position on the issue, as a lever for change: “The quickest way to achieve this is to push ABET out of accrediting undergraduate programs. ABET should focus on graduate-level programs only, where the true professional education begins.” But White doesn’t buy into Duderstadt’s plan, either. “It would be undercut by industry,” he says, because companies would continue to hire students with bachelor’s degrees. He himself doesn’t have a strategy: “We need to do it. But I am not sure how we can get there. I am not sure how we put the genie back into the bottle.”
Ultimately, White and Augustine say, market forces will bring change. Students will find that the kinds of jobs available to bachelor’s degree-level engineers are vulnerable to offshoring, and realize “that’s a dangerous place to be,” says Augustine. But Charles Hickman, ABET’s managing director for communications, says industry is as keen as ever to hire newly graduated engineers, and costs are pushing schools to find ways to graduate engineers in even less time.
So far, no state has adopted NCEES’s model law, and Joe Sussman, ABET’s managing director for accreditation, predicts that industry will lobby successfully in each state to block it. “That dog won’t hunt,” he says of the model law. But ASME’s Holt notes that state licensing boards are heavily laden with civil engineers, “and they’re pushing this hard.”
The status quo suits Mary McCormick, who is now pursuing a doctorate at Tufts, just fine. Even though four months on the job persuaded her that she needed more than a bachelor’s offered, she still favors the current system of letting students figure out for themselves how much schooling they need. “I don’t think it should be required to go beyond four years. It’s nice to have that break point, to have time to stop and reflect.”
Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.