The Engineering Credit Slide Continues

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, hasmaintained and updated a spreadsheetshowing 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.

2010
University of Vermont
University of Alaska-Fairbanks

2009
Texas Tech University

2008
California State University, Long Beach
Texas A&M University
Rice University

2007
Northern Arizona University
University of the Pacific

2006
Arizona State University
Oregon State University
Vanderbilt 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,

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

Comments

I don't remember a past where most people had to take more than 4 years for a BS in engineering.  I've observed that 5 year programs are a relatively recent phenomenon. However, I have observed that arts and humanities requirements have tended to bump engineering students into 5 year programs, if not taking a higher percentage of the course load.  I personally don't see the justification for 4-6 humanities courses over critical engineering and physics courses.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 4:35 PM by Katherine Fry

The schools and engineering degrees my children have been researching have the same or more hours as my engineering degree.  What has been shrinking is the number of hours within your major to start accounting for mandatory humanities, foreign language, foreign studies, etc.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 4:38 PM by Allen

As a long-time Dean of Engineering, I was told that I had 7% of the students and would get 7% of the attention!

When I graduated from WVU, 154 semester hours were required for the BSME.  But we had less general education and more practical courses than today's curricula.

Linton E. Grinter started the move to remove all practical courses and add more sophisticated math and science courses.  The young Ph.D.'s grabbed that adoringly!  

We had to fight the loss of funding which made it impossible faculty and the emphasis on the Doctorate which made it impossible to employ people with professional experience, frequently having access only to Foreign faculty.

Now the move to STEM has diluted the programs even further.  HELP!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 4:41 PM by George E. Sutton, Ph.D., PE., FNSPE

There is already a decline in the number of engineering degrees awarded vs the number of students who start off in engineering, and I think that a degree requiring more than 4 years of coursework decreases the likelihood of students following through.

However, it took me 5 years to complete my BE because I went to a liberal arts college. The extra year's worth of courses that I took outside of engineering, and also earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, was invaluable and critical to helping make the me successful engingger I am today, with a PhD and a PE in mechanical engineering.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 4:46 PM by Heather

The default schedule for completion at my Alma Mater was roughly 4.5 to 5 years. That being said it was up to the individual student as to the course load and class selection. With that in mind many of my classmates were able to complete their respective engineering bachelor programs in under 4 years.

The default schedule for graduate studies encouraged a minimum 2-yr expenditure of time. As with the undergraduate program the students were granted deference as to what their individual schedules allowed / required. In my personal case the graduate course load was completed in 9 months. In both cases the credit requirements met or exceeded national standards and were not online/vocational credits and the college was ABET accredited.

I must concur that through my own experience it did appear that the common complaint was that the degree program included too many arts and humanities; however, I challange any engineer to tell me that such courses did not prepare them for an ever dynamic work environment. The engineers of today must be communicators not just calculators.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 4:49 PM by A. James

 I do think it’s disheartening that many Universities continue to reduce the number of engineering credit hours required for engineering degrees.  I think as many Universities face financial hardships by reduced budgets, more and more will reduce the number of engineering credit hours and increase the humanities requirements to keep the humanities departments afloat as more students are shifting towards engineering majors.  The even scarier fact is that many civil engineering programs are now employing professors that don’t even have engineering degrees are shifting their education towards “green and sustainability.”  I know of one program that in the past few years has hired professors that have degrees in chemistry and public policy to teach these types of classes, as special topic classes within the department and hired contract professors to teach the core engineering classes.  However, now that their budget was greatly reduced those contract professors are no longer employed and the department is left with a handful of engineering professors that have never even taken an engineering class.  So, with reduce credit hours required and professors that have no education in the department in which they teach the future of engineering might be in trouble.  I just hope that if this is happening in the engineering curriculum, it’s not also happening in the medical curriculum!    

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 4:50 PM by Nick P.

The emphasis on engineering fundamentals can not be decreased.  These fundamentals are what carry us when we address new problems or challenges on the job.  A lack of understanding of electronics, or basic statics, physics, or thermodynamics - whatever it might be - leaves us at a loss when we need to interact with other engineers on multi-disciplinary teams.  Granted we do not need to an expert in everything, but being able to understand the discussions and interact as appropriate.

In addition, understanding fundamentals are critical when one uses engineering analysis tools.  If we can not understand or justify the physical results shown in a model - how can we rely on it for a critical design?  A comprehension of engineering fundamentals is all we have to rely on in these situations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 5:34 PM by Randy Clarksean

I honest think the solution is to reevaluate engineering degree curriculum understanding that its value is in the technical material.  I’m not saying that an engineer should not be well rounded but I do think too many hours now are being accumulated in non technical classes.  Just go back and look at your own college transcript and see how many additional engineering hours could be accumulated if it were restructured to lower the number of Human Sciences and similar course requirements.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 5:37 PM by Scott Franks, PE

Engineers can see the obvious, the public can't!  What were the requirements in 1969 when I graduated?  I was thrilled not to have Saturday classes (which ran until noon), now it is common for students not to have classes on Friday!  I hear so much about needing a masters degree to be licensed.  You would not need that if the students spent their time working hard and learning the engineering they need.  Stay another year if you want the liberal arts that engineers do not get.  You can't have it all.  The term "Jack of all trades master of none" comes to mind.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 5:40 PM by Paul Beck

I agree with Ms. Fry with a bit of clarification: any "Humanities" should be of practical use such as Speech or Logic where possible. My average course load was 18 semester hours and 20 or 21 hours  for 3 semesters. Phys Ed was required (A JFK requirement)and an pure waste of time. Whatever the credit count, they need to be useful!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 5:43 PM by Roger T. Hillers, PE

I took a five year double degree program from 1966 through 1971.  I  graduated with a BS and a BA.  I completed 189 undergraduate credits and graduated on time with my class.  As I recall the four year program required 145 credits.  While any number of students took summer courses to reduce the workload we tended to graduate with our class.  If the student can't do the work he or she doesn't belong in the program  This is why mandatory continuing education is now a big deal.  The graduates know less than I did and I was as ignorant as could be.  The schools are doing a gross disservice to the students and to the profession.  The profession needs to mandate some reasonable level of undergraduate education or the profession will fall on its face.  Is it any wonder this country continues to fall behind?  However, I temper my thoughts with the reality that any intelligent student with a head for math and/or science will earn a lot more money in other professions.  I believe that is the biggest issue the profession faces and it will not be corrected any time soon.  This is why the profession can't get the numbers it needs.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 6:43 PM by Derek McGrath PE PP

I have found that recent engineering graduates do not have the broad grasp of fundamentals, such as fluids and statics.  I am told that these were optional courses, picked from a group.  I am disturbed that engineering  education is experiencing this trend.  Is the cause of 4.5 years to complete the curriculum due to extra course work, repeating failed courses, or taking fewer hours per semester?  I can't reconcile less hours with a longer time to complete.  If parents and students are pushing for less hours, it is symptomatic of a larger concern that today's students might be less equipped to handle the requirments in the given time.  The natual outcome of reduced student proficiency might now be coming home to roost.  Engineering is a difficult profession.  It should not meant be scholastically easy.  If it is, the school has done a disservice in preparing the student for the workplace.  We will suffer for it in the long run.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 6:51 PM by James A. Hart

I can recall back in the late 60's where I needed

142 credit hours to graduate.

It appears this is nothing more than what we are seeing across the entire spectrum of education today that in order to hold on to more students and maintain the income needed that schools are simply making the requirements easier and shorter.

Industry has been doing that for years. Make the coffee can still look like a 5 lb can, but put less product in it, and charge more.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 6:53 PM by John Pollock

Yes it does take up to 5 years for the average engineering student to get an Engineering Degree, this has been the case for a long time. I graduated in 1984 with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering after spending 5 years in school. In my graduating class there were several students that spent 5 years getting their degree. For me the extra 1 year has been worth it as I have had 27 years in a profession that I really enjoy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 11:11 PM by James Link

My advisor at Cornell explained to me many years ago that most engineering programs used to be 5 year programs.  Once colleges started offering 4-year programs (with 18-19 hour course loads) Cornell had to respond with a 4 year BS, and a 5th year became the M. Eng.  I think a 145 hr BS requirement in itself helps justify higher engineer salaries vs. other BS programs.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011 12:43 AM by Joel Christian, P.E.

In taking a look at the spreadsheet, I was having trouble finding schools that drastically reduced their credits. Their only seemed to be minor reductions that probably should be no cause for concern. Every college is playing with the numbers to figure out the best credit load for both maximizing learning and keeping the students on track for four years. I would also be intriguied by a stat showing how many schools actually increased their course loads. At my alma mater, Georgia Tech, which I'm blown away is not on the list, needed 128 hrs for my BS in Civil Eng. Retook some classes and it brought me out to 4 1/2 yrs. I feel that maybe some restructuring could have been done on the front end by replacing english classes on romances and zombies with technical writing and other gripes of humanities I've had. The decisions on balancing the technical with humanities is one I do not envy the schools being cautious with.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 7:50 AM by Evan Drew

Part of the increase in the amount of time it takes to complete a BS degree is due to internships, which were not a part of undergraduate education in the past. Some politicians and non-engineering faculty and administrators have not noticed this, neither do they understand the importance of meeting the requirements for professional registration. Consequently they produce pressure to lower the number of credits required. Reducing the number of credits required devalues the degree when it means that important foundational information is left out of the curriculum. With the increase in cost of a degree outstripping inflation, there could very well soon be a higher-education bubble.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 8:37 AM by Bob Spooner

As the parent of a future engineering student I am interested in this discussion because I don't think that a 4 year degree should take longer than that, and I agree with Ms. Fry that preference should be given to Engineering related courses for Engineering degrees. The priority of an Institution should be to graduate as many of their Students in the required time with the best combination of courses to equip them to work in and contribute to their field, not to make more money by having students stay in school longer. If the classes are scheduled in such a way that their students can take the maximum number of courses a year to complete their degree in a timely manner that should be the priority. Fortunately some schools are starting to use technology based classes that allow for more flexibility in scheduling - maybe that is a solution.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 8:47 AM by Katja Walker

I know it may not be a popular opinion, espeicially with more seasoned engineers, but I do support ASCE's push to call the BS a pre-engineering degree" the fundamentals are critical, and so are the humanities! Engineers deal with people, engineers are creative, engineers are entrepreneursu, they need training in these skills at the undergraduate level. Specialization should be at the Masters degree level.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 1:04 PM by Ruth Wertz

The continuing cheapening of the Bachelor's Degree is across all educational areas.  Governments do not want to pay for the education of the citizenry like in the past.  Today's engineering students receive a semester's less education than those of the early 1980s.  The early 1980s students received a semester's less than the early 1960s.  Regents lower the credit hours in the name of "we want them to get through in 4 years".  That is unmitigated BS from pseudo-politicians!  They want to spend less money!

Students and parents should be clamoring for more hours and complaining of the cheapening but are misguided.  Students are happy to work less for the same piece of paper.  ASCE took part in this charade with their new 5 year plan for a license.  Instead of fighting for the education, they buckled.  The same academia that runs ASCE is NOT fighting the cuts.  I am ashamed to see these less educated graduates come out and know so little.  Of course, it is easy for career politicians, very few of whom are educated in any profession, to talk around the subject since they know so little about it themselves and they are turning out a less educated populace.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 3:42 PM by Brad Novacek, PE

I received a BS in ChE in 1963.  As an average or below average student it took me 5 years.  However, I also took military science which was an additive to graduating requirements.  Credit hour reguirement to graduated was 156 hours.  I worked primarily in industrial settings but did pass the PE examination as soon as I had the 5 years of experience requirement.  After my industrial carreer I wasn't completely ready to retire so applied for and obtained an State environmental engineering position which required a PE lience.  Over the years I managed various engineering functions and had the opportunity to see young engineers start careers.  In the industrial setting I found most were quick to learn their jobs.  However, since there is no financial reward for registering and passing of the exam most did not make the effort.  My government career was short but the engineers hired to do the work was generally lacking in ability.  Many found it difficult to pass the PE exam and some just gave up.  However, they did not loose their jobs nor were they rewarded in any way when passing the exam.  Now the students in the family seem to believe takig 15-16 hours of classwork is to heavy of work load.  No Saturday, summer labs, or in many cases Friday classes.  The knowledge base to be an engineer has increased over the years but we non educational employed engineers for the most part are not active in the educational field to cause change.  I suggest on more than one occassiong that an government engineer that could not their professional examination should not remain employed as a government engineer.  The outcry by the government engineers was furious and loud.  It is important to have a liberal education but the technical base knowledge must be there for long term success.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 7:49 PM by Richard Buck

In Sept. 1954, I enrolled in mechanical engineering program of City College of New York.Program had 148 mandatory credit hours with no possible electives.

I studied 2-years of Civil Engineering,2-years of Electrical Engineering,3 credit hours of Speech,2-years of Math courses,and 3-years o nationnical Engineering,and one course of Technical Writing.

Today,we have a nation full of persons with SLIP-BY atitudes. In 1967,I passed the 2-days professioal engineering examination and EACH question required full development of your answers.TODAY,in our nation P.E. exams are MULTIPLE CHOICE per question.Our nation for years have permitted foreign engineering graduates to work in America. Our current crop of engineering graduates are not prepared for priovate industry. My degree: Bachelor of mechnaical Enginering.

Friday, August 26, 2011 12:56 PM by Wallace Johnston, P.E.

One of the most memorable quotes from my days at the University of Illinois at Chicago is from the Assistant Dean of Engineering.  In a Survey of Engineering class, she said that they were not teaching us how to be engineers; they were teaching us how to think.

Twenty years after I graduated from UIC, I look back on my engineering education and wonder is the four years (including three summer school terms) was worth the time and effort.  The thoughts are spurred because I use high school algebra, trigonometry, and the introductory information from a single class.  To work a physics, fluid mechanic or electrical engineering problem, I have to dig out a textbook and relearn what was long forgotten.  The same goes for many of the other classes that UIC required for graduation.

All that I know as a traffic engineer has been learned on the job.  Which leads me back to the Dean’s quote, we were thought how to think – What is the problem and what are the possible solutions?  Using this frame of reference, my time at UIC was a valuable experience.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 5:51 PM by William Raffensperger, P.E., PTP, PTOE

When I took my BSME in the mid-60's, my university, Oregon State, required 207 quarter hours, including mandatory non-engineering credits.  Even then, I considered 4 years with those credits were too intense for suitable comprehension, but the curriculm did instill that critical thinking process that allowed for real education following graduation.  A five year program, such as my grandfather took at Cornell in 1911-1916, would have been better from an educational standpoint, but also would have added to the already heavy financial burden.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 2:30 PM by Alan Werner, P.E., F.NSPE

I have looked at the data and find that the average change for the 234 instiutions on the list from 2001 to 2010 was 1.4 credit hours. More than half of them showed no change at all.
It seems to me that this very modest decrease shows the result of better preparation of incoming students that obviates the need for some courses and streamlining of the curriculum to remove dated technologies. Both are positive trends.

Sunday, August 31, 2014 3:01 PM by R E Luna

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