I see my engineering degree every morning. It hangs above my dresser, a badge of honor for five of the toughest, yet most rewarding years of my life. It represents late nights studying, way too much calculus and thermodynamics, and likely an ulcer or two.
I was lucky to have chosen a public institution where even the out-of-state tuition was reasonable. And I was fortunate to have grandparents who were willing to help cover the cost of tuition. Many of my friends graduated with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
But more and more, I ask myself: What is an engineering degree worth these days?
According to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, engineering degrees account for four of the five most highly paid majors. Tops are petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, computer engineering and electrical/electronics engineering.
With starting salaries ranging from $59,000 to $75,000, the top engineering degrees hold their places on the list because of demand. NACE says that as of 2008, engineering degrees represented a mere 5.4% of all undergraduate degrees earned in the U.S.
Several years back, MSN Money claimed that the value of an engineering degree over a high school diploma was $497,930 over a 40-year career. But my concern is that the cost of engineering degrees is outstripping this value. The four-year tuition at MIT is now $156,000. At Stanford, it’s $154,000. Even a state school like The Ohio State University clocks in at $37,000 in-state or $94,000 out-of-state for a degree. Keep in mind these are tuition fees only. They don’t include room, board, books, fees, etc. Add that in and you’re likely looking at numbers approaching a quarter-million dollars—especially if the degree takes closer to five years, as many engineering schools are loathe to admit.
You can counter that many or most students get some kind of financial aid. While that’s true, there are a lot of student loans that are classified as “aid.” Graduating with $100,000 in low-interest loans is not an efficient way to start a career. Talk about bad deals—even with a well-paying job like engineering, those loans are going to be overwhelming to a young professional who needs to be saving for his or her future.
Some have been wondering whether higher education is the next bubble to burst. Honestly, I don’t see how it can’t be. The cost of college has been climbing more rapidly than almost anything else in our economy. Forecasts show that trend continuing into the future—but it simply can’t go on forever. Pressure from non-traditional institutions, online learning, and smaller schools will reverse the trend at some point.
For engineering in particular, one answer is to greatly expand co-op programs. Some colleges (the University of Cincinnati immediately comes to mind) have strong, successful co-op programs across their engineering disciplines. But at most institutions, it’s merely an option, and oftentimes, not a well-marketed option at that. Giving kids the opportunity to learn in the real world, not to mention earning real money toward those loans, is a step in the right direction. And in this struggling economy, some relatively inexpensive labor isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.
What do you think the solution is for today’s engineering students?