Now that America's engineering schools are overcrowded, understaffed, and poorly equipped, there seems to be an insatiable demand for their graduates. A bachelor's degree in engineering can command a starting salary in the high 20s, well beyond the salaries of young assistant professors who spent four or five years beyond their own bachelor's degree to earn an engineering doctorate. This kind of inequity has precipitated a series of problems that have impeded engineering education at a time when politicians and educators, corporations and foundations are expressing concern over America's ability to remain technologically fit in an increasingly competitive world.
Simply put, the technical educational structure now is in turmoil. Engineering professors, overworked to an uncharacteristic militancy, increasingly are leaving the classroom for the industrial laboratory. Undergraduate students see all around them a faculty too overburdened with classes, students needing advice and other academic responsibilities to be engineers, let alone professors with a minute to sit down with students and talk about the future of engineering. This is not the way to attract the next generation of engineering professors to graduate school.
As if it were not bad enough that the education of engineers is suffering, the erstwhile antagonists of engineering are looking for reconciliation. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation recently struck out against "technological illiteracy" and called for a new liberal arts curriculum incorporating engineering concepts along with computing and applied mathematics. If this is still another demand to be placed upon engineering faculty, it may be the last straw. Teaching should take place in an atmosphere of reflection and projection, not in the frenetic atmosphere of the now that engulfs our engineering schools.
A decade ago the situation was quite different, and therein lie the roots of the present ills. In the late 1960s and early '70s aerospace engineers on the West Coast were forced to sell their homes in depressed housing markets like Seattle to look elsewhere for jobs. The space race had been declared won, and engineering soon became about as popular on college campuses as Vietnam.
Engineering enrollments, which had been steadily climbing, quickly leveled off and dropped precipitously. Faculties suddenly were overstaffed, and there were more classrooms and newly equipped laboratories than could be filled. The untenured faculty were let go, and many older ones began to look for new courses to teach.
In spite of the countless PhDs out of work, new doctorates continued to be awarded in record numbers. This was largely because the bachelor's degree was almost as worthless as Confederate currency, and research assistantships were often the only job offers graduating seniors received. The news soon got around, and full-time engineering students reached a low point: half today's enrollment.
Today some undergraduate engineering programs have six or seven applicants for every space in the freshman class, while graduate programs have a paucity of good applicants. The attraction of high-paying jobs has lured so many American engineering graduates away from graduate school that approximately half of the engineering graduate students in this country are now foreign. Since many junior faculty positions are filled with recent doctoral students, almost one- quarter of young faculty in engineering now have bachelor's degrees from foreign schools.
At the same time, engineering faculties, already pared down in the early 1970s, are being further diminished by middle-aged faculty being wooed over to industry where they find substantial salary increases and improved research and development facilities. As this has occurred, laboratory and classroom facilities on campus have been neglected for want of demand or attention. Now increased enrollments coupled with decreased faculties have so overburdened the faculties that there is little time or energy or money to renovate.
In spite of the documentation of these problems in a joint report from the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, the administration has drastically cut funds for science and engineering education. As with the arts and humanities, private industry is expected to take up the slack.
Some industries and foundations have responded to the need, and the Exxon Foundation has put forth $15 million to help engineering schools deal with the severe faculty shortage. Yet the Exxon program is but a drop in the bucket, for approximately 2,000 vacancies, an estimated 10 percent of all engineering faculty positions, are now unfilled.
Scores of other enlightened grants like Exxon's are needed if our engineering schools are to function under optimal conditions. And industry must be willing to invest in long-term educational goals, even if it means leaving some of the best engineering students and faculty in the university.