The slow and steady decrease in the number of credits required for a baccalaureate degree in engineering at U.S. universities continues.
Each year for the last seven years, Jodie Bray Strickland, P.E., of Hampton, New Hampshire, has maintained and updated a spreadsheet showing the number of semester or quarter credits required for a B.S. degree in engineering, as reported on the Web site of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) for the period from 1998 through 2010. This database does not include all U.S. universities that offer engineering programs, but it is a significant sample size—233 institutions.
While most institutions’ degree requirements remain constant each year, for the past 20 years now there has been a trend: Each year a handful of institutions reduce their requirements significantly. This slow and steady erosion continues year after year. In 2010, 17% of the institutions reporting their information to ASEE offered an engineering program or programs requiring 120 credits, the current minimum for a bachelor’s degree in U.S. colleges and universities. In the year 2000, this percentage was 10%. The slide doesn’t appear to be accelerating, but it is steady and an unmistakable continuing trend.
Why is this happening? It isn’t being initiated by engineers or engineering program administrators, typically. The pressure to reduce credit requirements often comes from university administrators, and it is often based on university economics, and pressure from students and parents to allow B.S. degrees to be completed in four years in order to reduce college costs. Pressure to reduce credit requirements and college costs often comes from state legislatures. The typical engineering B.S. program takes a little more than 4 ½ years to complete on average. Most engineering deans probably don’t want to reduce degree requirements, but such decisions are being made none the less.
What is the impact on engineering education? I don’t want to overstate this point: The fact of the matter is that some of the finest engineering programs in the U.S., with some of the brightest engineering students, require 120 credits for a B.S. in engineering. At the other extreme, David Holger, the past president of ABET, made a comment to me last year to the effect that “you know, the programs that struggle on the cusp of engineering accreditation in the U.S. are not typically those with low credit requirements”. I believe that to be true. On the other side of the coin, those engineering programs that decrease their requirements to 120 credits, often from 128 credits, are faced with very difficult curriculum choices. I have seen civil engineering programs in the throes of heated faculty discussions over whether to drop surveying/GIS content, engineering economics, Physics II (leaving civil engineers permanently with little understanding of magnetism and electricity), thermodynamics, or even Physics I, with the assumption that there is enough Newtonian physics in the introductory section of a statics textbook. Those are difficult choices that can permanently change the body of knowledge of future graduates, and not for the better.
Where is this happening? In 2010, the University of Vermont and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks decreased their requirements to 120 credits. Listed below are those institutions that have historically always required significantly more credits for a B.S. degree in engineering, but changed in the past five years, for the first time, to a 120 semester credit (or 180 quarter credit) requirement for an engineering program or programs, as reported by the institution on the ASEE Web site.
University of Vermont
University of Alaska-Fairbanks
Texas Tech University
California State University, Long Beach
Texas A&M University
Northern Arizona University
University of the Pacific
Arizona State University
Oregon State University
The upshot is that although the body of knowledge required for engineering practice is increasing, and will continue to increase, the course requirements of engineering programs for a baccalaureate degree are slowly but steadily decreasing, with difficult choices being made as to what content can be dropped from engineering curricula. Slowly but surely.
Editorial input provided by Bernard Berson, P.E., F.NSPE; L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE, and Jodie Bray Strickland, P.E.
Published August 16, 2011 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE
Filed under: Education,