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 Anthony Tellier on June 24, 2011 at 10:01am

In my field, jet engines and gas turbines, in most cases one MUST SHALL HAS-TO REQUIRED to have an Engineering Degree: Pratt, GE, Honeywell, and Rolls-Royce.  Otherwise "There's the door!"  Advanced degrees are (generally) neither req'd nor an advantage: BSME + Experience -> goodliness.  Thus my degree allowed me to visit eerie, fascinating places, such as: Peebles (OH), Tullahoma (TN), San Tan (AZ), Yuma (AZ), Moses Lake (WA), Cold Bay (REALLY!) (AK), Dahlewitz (Germany), Eglin AFB (FL), Grand Prairie (TX), Grand Forks (SD), Great Falls (MT) ... the list goes on.


Education at Washington State, circa 1958, was dirt-cheap = we never HEARD of school loans.

Comment by Tom Solon on June 24, 2011 at 9:49am

Much of this question relates to a college degree of any sort and to formal education in general.  I believe the greatest value of an education is learning how to acquire knowledge.  If an individual identifies an area of interest, using that subject as a context for an education is very worthwhile.  Engineering specifically teaches a thought process and problem solving methods.  A "good" engineer is usually able to research and address almost any problem.  The more native knowledge one has, the faster a response might come.


As a hiring manager, I view an accredited degree as a foundation and proof of an ability to master specific types of thought.  As such, it is a door opener.  If one wishes to practice engineering, an engineering degree is likely the most direct route.  If one wishes to be physician, a financial analyst, a real estate broker, a chef, etc., though an engineering education has general value, it may not be "worth it" unless the individual has a personal passion for engineering.


But separate from the degree is the experience - most intense in an on-campus setting but still present in more remote exposure.  College is sort of a transition zone.  Demands increase, responsibility is greater, personal interactions more varied, but the risks are still managed and feedback is received.  Once we attempt to apply knowledge, however acquire, in a paid professional setting, the outcome is much less controlled and the risks of mistakes greater.  For me, having the opportunity to explore in the college environment, learn from an elite peer group (which any college offers), prove my capabilities to myself, and do so in a somewhat protected environment, was probably the most valuable experience.  It gave me the confidence to venture out with positive expectations.


But as they say, your mileage may vary!

Comment by Anthony Tellier on June 24, 2011 at 9:07am
My BSME was invaluable simply because I did not have to go to Viet Nam - a college deferment and, then, a critical-skills deferment at Pratt & Whitney!  Not like I got rich in the jet engine trade, tho.
Comment by Russell A. Richard on June 23, 2011 at 1:16pm
As a recently graduated student, I have found this topic to be especially poignant. In high school, we are often told that the way to success is through college. Largely this is true, but as college degrees become more commonplace, they become less valuable. Sometimes called “education creep,” it is not uncommon for a type of career (say, engineering) to require a Master’s where only a Bachelor’s was needed ten years ago or a Bachelor’s when twenty years ago, a high school diploma would have done fine. Many college graduates are returning home to live with their parents because their impressive degree wasn’t able to score a job that can pay for loans and housing. The (no longer) recent recession doesn’t help graduates to find careers they love and the loans of an entire generation are slowly piling up. I imagine that when the job market turns around, there will be a rash of graduates who were stuck in a job they didn’t love switching companies, all of them set back years. Even more unfortunate souls might get stuck in a career path they don’t want.
Comment by Freddy Soria on June 20, 2011 at 7:04am
At least at the graduate level, lab grants strongly rely on the outcomes from the students. Is not there a place for using those funds to partially alleviate the tuition fees? I understand that the situation in Asia and Europe may be different, but at least in my lab in Japan, that is how my sensei used to help us whenever the funding source would allow it.


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