What is your engineering degree worth?

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?

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Comment by James J Savino on December 29, 2011 at 5:38pm
Hello again to all;

Dear Tom;

My heart goes out to you, man. This same thing has happened to me and to a number of guys I know.
If I proportioned out the number of years I've been employed versus the number I haven't been (due to exactly what happened to you) it reduces my effective salary and life earnings by 20%, and that's just in provable lost income. When I additionally take out the loss of a house and a marriage due to engineering unemployment - well, I don't need to go there, eh? So much for those high engineering salaries!!
As a kid engineer, you're a hot property advance rapidly, and get lots of competing offers. But wait and see what happens when, after busting your butt, you're the highest-paid guy in the place, like Tom.
Hard work, they say? See where all that hard work got you?
As my union civil servant parents told me repeatedly, "Jimmy, stay away from private business. They
have no loyalty to anybody. You have no protection, you're at their mercy. At the end of a lifetime you'll have nothing to show for all your work and effort. Instead, go civil service, become a cop or a teacher, do anything...but stay away from private business" .
How right they were and how I wish I had listened, instead of following this dark and unproductive star. I'd have been better off in the public sector, anywhere.
This is why I when I encounter young engineering students, I earnestly and honestly tell them "Run, while you still can". (Not in front of my boss!)
Tom - somebody you don't even know will say a prayer for you to find new employment soon.

PS The same circumstances are affecting pilots, too. I just read the posts send in response to an article describing the "Pilot Shortage". The number of people who wrote in saying they'd invested over $100,000 in a flight education, only to have to compete hard for an $18,000 a year job, was nothing short of amazing. There's a LOT of baloney in the employment pages.
Comment by Thomas M. Cunningham on December 28, 2011 at 5:09am

This is one of those discussions that sticks in my head.   Recently I  have been let go by my employer.  I was the highest paid engineer in the place.  "I did a good job but was being let go because of economic conditions."  My experiences have been similar to those of James.  Many engineers experience job turnover, especially in tough economic times.  My family and I have a difficult time sustaining a lifestyle because if the inconsistency of employment as an engineer.  It is too late for me to change careers, and i would not know what else to do anyhow. 

Under the conditions that engineers currently live, I find it amazing that Obama is promoting the idea that we need more engineers.  That won't help the existing engineers.

Comment by G S Jha on December 28, 2011 at 1:11am

There are two different things.One is experiance and another is Degree.The latter one is the result of theoritical knowledge.By studying in a college for 4-5 years and a person gets the degree.This helps a person to get the job but he has to learn a lot from the actuals.This learning makes a man perfect.When a person works with his own then he feels the difference and this is called Experiance that matters.In actual life many degree holders are not succeeded.On the other hand a Non degree holders are doing better.There is a difference between a Degree holder and an Educated person.Hence experiace must be counted.

Comment by James J Savino on September 13, 2011 at 12:25pm

Hello, gentlemen;


I couldn't agree more with everything you say. Those delightful Heathkits and Gilbert chemistry sets are long gone to the machinations of product liability attorneys. The commercial orientation of almost everything now is one of the natural consequences of "privatization", which was not anticipated when this thinking first surfaced in the early '80's but is easily seen in hindsight.

My issue with the engineering money is not that it doesn't make one rich, which is an unworthy goal. Instead, the issue is that even very good professional performance can't be relied upon to pay even ordinary bills - and you aren't worried about going down to the pond with your kids when you're going to lose the house, or move them to another state so you can stay in the profession at all.

Comment by Russell A. Richard on September 13, 2011 at 9:59am

As a recent graduate, I can personally attest to the fact that school is now all about money.  One of the first things that my college orientation professor taught me was how much money I was going to make.  He had graphs and charts and research to back up his claims (which proved false).  I will say for my school that it did a much better job of teaching me the actual material than most (because it was one of those private schools that teach what public schools should), but the sense of wonder and excitement that should go with learning had been replaced by a thirst to get out on top so the graduate could make more money. 


My Dad was one of those “children who could make anything.”  He has told me long stories about mail-order kits for radios, scientific experiments, and other gadgets which he put together himself, eventually learning what everything did and how to make things without instructions.  I went looking for those same kits and teaching tools.  I discovered that they no longer exist.  Apparently, building radios, or learning in general, isn’t fun any more.


The previous comments have been correct.  Our education system, and even our culture’s view of education, is based on the wrong thing.  Being smart is socially stigmatized.  Children are seen by other children as nerds or geeks if they want to pursue knowledge instead of money, clothing, or sports.  Teachers and parents do little to dispel this view.  There are few parents who go to find some pond muck with their 8 year old to look at under a microscope.  There are fewer teachers who aren’t too bogged down with regulations to love their jobs. 


The pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world around us, whether it come in the form of art or science, should never be seen as something that a person shouldn’t do because it isn’t worth it.  Yes, money is great; it makes life easy.  But what kind of economy are we putting together if all we produce are corporate ladder-climbing know-nothings? 

Comment by James J Savino on September 13, 2011 at 9:16am

Good morning, gentlemen, and thanks for all the comments so far.

How interesting is it also, Chuck, that the money part of engineering worked out well enough for you that you have had the luxury of even thinking about the learning part.

I also grew up in the '50's and 60's, and was curious about everything, becoming one of those kids who could "make anything". My point was that, wonderful thought this may be, it was not a good choice of  life skills, not when compared with making multi-millions off of "perceived value" in the business, finance and real estate sectors.

The money is the lesser of the real concerns, you suggest? My experience suggests otherwise.


The mortgage bankers and the divorce court weren't interested at all in how much I had learned. All they cared about was the money.

The hard work you spoke of DOESN"T PAY OFF ANY MORE.  Mine is evident in the patents and published papers, and in the founding of a manufacturing business.


That's why I can't in good conscience counsel young people, even those who have obvious talent, to go into engineering. It's a waste of their time.

Comment by Paul J. Heney on September 13, 2011 at 8:53am

More Design World reader comments:


Interesting that you talk about the money part of becoming an Engineer instead of the learning part.


‘When I was a kid’ growing up in through the 50’s and 60’s, I was curious about everything . . . TV, Radio, Airplanes, Cars, 2-way equipment, Radar, and so much more.  My emphasis was, is, and always will be on learning – not the money!


Long ago big name colleges charged for the knowledge they could transfer to students. 

It seems that today’s educational approach is on the money – not on growing talent.


It became apparent to me that our educational system was lacking when I started hearing advertisements for parents to send their children to schools outside the mainstream to help teach their children what the mainstream schools were supposed to.  Parents did not learn enough when they were in school (as the rules relaxed) to help their children when necessary.  I must also say that many of today’s teachers either don’t have the ability to teach, or have lost their flair for teaching.  Basically, todays  teachers get long summer vacations and can retire early with benefits galore (but even that might be changing getting rid of the good ones).  Just as an FYI, my son is Music Director at a HS in Wisconsin and a friend that I grew up with was a HS teacher in NY.  He retired at 60 with a full pension and more.  I have also done sessions and taught at the local Universities – I do know what teaching is all about!


My last boy is now starting his second year of college.  I had to tutor him in calculus during his first year.  Yes, I did talk to his Dean and was able to determine from that conversation that teaching today is more about handing out assignments and checking homework rather than teaching the mechanics of the subject.  The ‘WHY’ is simple - - - Computers and the Internet can do in-depth animated teaching taking the pressure off of the person who is actually responsible for it.


I don’t know how old you are, but when I was in HS, everything was done by hand and in many cases mentally (do it in your head so to speak).  We were not even allowed to use our slide rules until we were in college (I still have mine and I still know how to use it!!).


I can only hope that engineering comes back to Earth and that colleges begin teaching students how to ‘think’ rather than how much it will pay!  The command of high salaries will come over time with the experience graduates gain over years of working hard.


Chuck Raskin P.E.

R&D Manager

Principle R&D Engineer
Dynetic Systems

Elk River, MN


Comment by Paul J. Heney on September 13, 2011 at 8:39am

Comments from a Design World reader:


Your editorial, “What is your degree worth?” in the June “Insights”, notes that the cost of engineering degrees is outstripping their value, and you question whether higher education is the next bubble to burst.


You invite suggestions for today’s engineering students. Here’s my take: 


First, engineers must accept the fact that their jobs are facing competition from abroad (such as China and India). Second, within America, the income gap between engineers and the top income scale is widening. Worse, many of the ultra-rich are getting non-deserving pay and benefits.


These situations will make it difficult for engineers (most of whom are middle-class Americans or are in the “Lower Upper” class) to build secure and happy lives. The inequality and the rise of the undeserving rich are shattering the “money follows merit” idea that has long been the core of self-esteem for professionals. Further, the widening chasm between income classes threatens our democracy. A new class war may be fought between the “Lower Upper” class (which includes engineers) and the ultra-rich class.


Bottom line: If you are in engineering, you had better be in it for reasons other than money. Your love for engineering, per se, will be your true reward.


A former aerospace engineer and media marketing researcher, now retired, I am looking at the engineering profession from more than just a technical viewpoint. My thoughts are prompted by Matt Miller’s book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas; Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity, © 2009.


Raymond Herzog

Middleburg Heights, OH 

(B.S. Electronics Engineering)  


Comment by James J Savino on June 28, 2011 at 1:19pm

Huh. Here's my adjusted-for-inflation $.02 worth.

I have told young engineering majors "Run while you still can" and told my kids "if you want to go to engineering school, buy a wheelchair because Dad's going to break your legs".

I would not have wanted to sell used cars or wait on tables as a career choice, but engineering has not been kind to my wallet. 2 years unemployment in the '70's recession before my first job in '79, then rapid rise as a hot kid thru '87, then 6 mos.unemployment (plant closing) followed by 2 years of a low-payer, then 4 good years followed by a division sale & layoff, then 2 more years unemployment, then a few good years followed by another division sale, then my own business folded by the '97 Asian currency crash, followed by divorce mostly because I couldn't provide consistently, then 3 years of a low-payer, finally followed by 10 years at a national lab, which is secure but I don't even make what the kids are starting at.

Not a hell of a lot to show for a 35-year career.

All in all, I've spent 20% of my career unemployed, and for 20% of the rest I couldn't make hardly any more than that year's average starting salary for the new grads and often less.

You'd think a P.E. and a bunch of patents and publications would have prevented this, but all it did was make me a high-profile target for the cost-cutters.

All in all, used cars might well have done me better, and pride in technical ability be damned. For every engineer I know who did really well, I know ten others who will tell the same story of layoffs, plant closings, lost houses and stressed-to-failure marriages.

I can see why the kids don't go into it. For all the killer work you have to do to get an engineering degree, over a lifetime it doesn't pay off nearly as well as other things that don't require the work.




Comment by Thomas M. Cunningham on June 24, 2011 at 5:15pm

I am an engineer with 30 years experience with a daughter now going to college.  She will have to carry most of the school loans and is looking at an advanced degree in medicine.  Her choices as I see it: 


Don't go to school and be poor.

Go to school, learn a trade you love, and be poor with a chance to do better.


Any anyone has other options, I would like to hear them.



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