Top Tier vs Lower Tier Engineering Programs

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Greetings everyone! In the past few weeks, I purchased a house. The buying process took up much of my free time (though didn’t seem to diminish my blog-ambition). Anyway, with summer in the home-stretch it’s time to get back into it. Abby and I will have our regular weekly posts returning soon. In the meantime, my brain is in the depths of “big thinking” mode. As a former engineer, and an advisor of first-year engineering students, I often find myself thinking about how we educate them.

Modern society holds complex problems. No longer is it enough for engineers to create a widget, present it to the world, and say “go forth, use this widget to make your life easier!” Beyond the question of making things faster or more-efficient, we want to know if a widget intended for a developing nation can be manufactured with local materials at low cost. Will the locals even want to use the widget?

In addition, we’re increasingly reliant on our engineers’ moral decision making. So you want to build a car that drives itself? How much will one of these cost? Can it share the road with human-driven automobiles? If the car finds itself in a certain-impact situation, should it rear-end the car in front of it or veer off onto the sidewalk? Our engineers should have the technical toolbelt to needed to design the widget as well as development required to decide how to use those tools.

This takes me to the state of today’s engineering education. Each engineering degree has a set of technical content expected of a person with that degree. The technical content takes up most of what can be covered in four years. This leaves little room for personal/moral/ethical development in the curricular portion of a student’s experience, and has us (student affairs folks) urging students to get involved outside of the classroom.

Students arrive to college with varying levels of abilities and backgrounds. The most desirable students tend to have credit from Advanced Placement courses or college courses they took while in high school. Assuming they plan to stay for four years, completing college requirements while in high school leaves students with more “wiggle room” in their schedule to pursue interests in addition to the bachelor’s degree. This may mean a minor or even taking fewer credits each term to allow for more extra-curricular time.

But what about the students who do not arrive with AP credit — the students who have the grit and determination, but have not yet studied calculus and may not have stellar standardized test scores? These students are often overlooked by the more competitive institutions. When you’re looking at thousands of applications, you need a means of sorting through them quickly.

We’re left with two tiers of institutions. Students accepted into the lower tier of institutions are not coming in with much college-level coursework completed. Since those students will be expected to have a certain toolbelt upon graduation, those programs are forced to put their resources into the classroom experience. Students accepted into the upper tier of institutions – already having college credit – have the room to take a minor in philosophy or spend time working on research in a professor’s lab.

What’s the difference? Top-tier students have the time for extra-curriculars which force them to juggle the more complex questions, often lead to the personal/moral/ethical development required of today’s engineers. Lower tier students are forced to put their time into learning technical content. They’re acquiring the tools but are not challenged to think about how to use them.

Both of these groups finish with bachelor’s degrees, the signal to employers that they’re ready for the workforce. What happens next? My gut tells me that top-tier students, equipped with experience in how to use the tools, are moving into leadership positions at a higher rate than their lower tier colleagues.

The questions I keep coming back to: Is the personal/moral/ethical development part of what is (or should be) a part of the bachelor’s degree? With the high cost of higher education, are we limiting the potential of some students by not allowing them the opportunity for that development? Does our current educational system, which nudges affluent students toward leadership, exacerbate the gap between the upper and lower socioeconomic classes?

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