The Challenges of Success

By Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen

For years, we have been lamenting the lack of engineers at a time when technology is playing an ever-increasing role in society. Recently, however, we have seen some good news as enrollments in engineering schools have risen nationally. Boston University is no exception: Applications have almost doubled in the last five years and we now have the largest freshman class in our history, even though we admit far few students than we did just a few years ago.

The national enrollment rise may be recognition of the profession’s promising future, as well as the thriving job market available to today’s engineering graduates — something not unimportant to students, and parents, who take on the expense of a college education.

This burgeoning pipeline of future engineers is something that delights engineers and the leaders of engineering schools. It should also delight society because an engineering foundation at the undergraduate level is an extraordinary foundation for success in virtually any career path imaginable. Nevertheless, this expansion of enrollment raises issues that should cause engineering deans and university presidents to take a deeper look at who our students are, how we are teaching them and how we allocate our educational resources.

For instance, a large fraction of the engineering student population resides outside the US. This has been the case at the graduate level for years, with more than half of engineering PhDs and nearly half of all master’s degree graduates nationally hailing from overseas. This is a good thing from a global perspective as foreign countries and economies stand to benefit more, and an educated society is generally a more civilized and constructive one. While the proportion of non-resident bachelor’s degree graduates is comparatively low (around 8 percent), it is rising. The rise is all too often driven by financial forces and soon US engineering schools will need to address the challenge of recruiting more American students, especially a diverse set of US citizens.

Domestically, there is a large imbalance in engineering student demographics. Women make up less than a quarter of the student population, and the proportion of underrepresented minorities – defined as African-American, Hispanic, American Indian and Pacific Islander — is much smaller. Among those, only the number of Hispanic engineering students is rising, and that is probably due to a rising Hispanic population nationally. We need to find a way to attract more women and underrepresented minorities to engineering, beginning at the bachelor’s degree level, and make their education financially viable for both the student and US institutions. We need to develop interest and passion starting at the elementary and middle school levels and then work with high schools to nourish this passion.

While these challenges face us in the near and middle term, there are long-range issues we need to consider as well. For many years, the undergraduate engineering curriculum – largely dictated by accreditation organizations – has been fairly rigid. Strong technical foundations are obviously essential, but today’s engineers need more. Increasingly, engineers interact with other professionals in business, law, medicine and other fields – and many engineering graduates go on to pursue careers in those fields. We need a more flexible curriculum that exposes our students to other disciplines and to the processes that make organizations and society function.

While rising enrollments – and the revenue they generate – bring smiles to the faces of university presidents, they bring challenges on the other side of the ledger. A larger faculty is required to keep class sizes reasonable. Engineering students need laboratories, which are expensive to build and equip, and must be regularly updated to keep education in a rapidly advancing field relevant. For many years, engineering schools have found it challenging to sustain sufficient resources – not because engineering is not valued, but because it costs more to maintain relative to other disciplines. But savvy leaders everywhere are aware that one of the biggest dangers to any organization is to grow at a rate far in excess of its resources. Quality can drop as quickly as enrollment increases, threatening long-term survival. Given society’s increasing reliance on engineering, it is time for universities to consider reallocating resources as enrollments become more disproportionate in favor of engineering. Such reallocations are often complex and eventually will require difficult decisions made by the leadership.

Success always brings challenges, and these are problems engineering educators are happy to have. But a careful, reasoned assessment of where this success has brought us, and where it is likely to lead, will ensure that our profession continues to produce leaders who make great strides in advancing our society.

This essay appeared originally in the Fall 2014 issue of The Engineer.