Engineering Degrees: How Tough Is It To Get One?

Last Updated Jan 27, 2010 12:53 PM EST

On college campuses, engineering programs are hot. And so is student interest in the other STEM majors, Engineering degrees: How Hard Is It To Get One?which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

More than one out of every three college freshman plan to obtain an engineering degree, a degree in science or in one of the other STEM disciplines. Students' interest in these fields has jumped considerably since the early 1990s as the focus on practical majors and well-paying careers has soared.

But do students have any idea how hard it is to become a mechanical engineer, a chemist or a computer scientist?

It's scary hard. You can see that just by looking at the washout rate for these majors.

Students who major in a STEM field aren't graduating nearly as fast as other college students. That's one of the conclusions of a new study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

In the study, UCLA researchers looked at students by ethnicity when measuring their progress in obtaining science, math and engineering degrees. Among white and Asian-American students, who were freshmen in 2004, only 24.5% and 32% of them had received a degree in the sciences or engineering in four years. Within five years, 33% of whites and 42% of Asian Americans had graduated. The five-year graduation rates for Latinos, African-Americans and Native Americans in these tough majors were 22%, 18% and 19%.

So how did students pursuing other academic majors fare compared to the students grappling with Calculus III and organic chemistry? A lot better. About 73% of white students, who skipped the sciences, graduated in five years, as did 65% of Asian students and 68% of Latino undergrads.

So how can students be better prepared for science and engineering programs? Here are three suggestions:

Don't be buffaloed by inflated grades. Earning "A's" in analytic trig and calculus in high school won't mean much if the curriculum is weak and grade inflation is rampant. If there is a disconnect between a student's great math grades in high school and SAT or ACT math scores, there is probably a problem.

Consider supplemental math and science classes. Community colleges can be a great source of math and science classes. My son, who is a high school senior, is currently taking Calculus II at our nearby community college -- the fourth math course he's taken there. It's the same math curriculum that is taught at the University of California, San Diego, so I'm about as confident as I can be that he will be prepared for a physics/engineering major when he heads off to college in the fall.

Check out science enrichment programs. Lots of colleges offer summer science experiences and I'd suggest you also check out Stanford's year-round online program for high school students called Education Program for Gifted Youth.
Degree in science image by Alejandro Hernandez. CC 2.0.

Further Reading:

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