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50% of US engineering students drop out - Why? (dondodge.typepad.com)
54 points by wumi on Nov 12, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 106 comments

Because it's far easier for a smart person to get a business degree that pays just as well, if not better?

Because a degree in engineering is a fast-track to career marginalization by the frat-boy MBAs who see technical workers as interchangeable cogs?

Because engineering virtually guarantees you a minimum of social interaction in college, when your peers are actually enjoying their lives?

Because you'll run smack into the wall of age (and possibly sex) discrimination, right when you should be entering your prime earning years?

Because you've got to eternally compete in the job market with 20-year-olds who will always be more proficient with new technologies, and willing to work at lower wages?

Let's be real: as a career, engineering sucks. We shouldn't scratch our heads and act totally shocked when young people turn their noses up at the prospect of working like a dog until they turn 40, only to be laid off by the guys who played frisbee golf and drank their way through school.

Because you'll run smack into the wall of age (and possibly sex) discrimination, right when you should be entering your prime earning years?

Because you've got to eternally compete in the job market with 20-year-olds who will always be more proficient with new technologies, and willing to work at lower wages?

Come on, that's not the typical experience of most engineers outside the IT/software sector, and as far as I'm aware, most engineers don't work in IT. I'm an EE in oil and gas and it's definitely a "pay your dues" industry where often, the young people are the ones that are marginalised. Believe me, a guy with 30 years of experience isn't competing with 20 year olds, and their payscales are astronomically different (obviously in favour of the experienced). Furthermore, most of the middle managers and top level executives are engineers (eg. Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon is a civil engineer, van der Veer, CEO of Shell is a mechanical engineer, etc).

I'm told it's a similar story in the mining and manufacturing sectors also.

I think that engineering disciplines where professional certification are required tend to do a better job of rewarding experience. So do most professional degrees.

(That said, my father's an EE, and I know that age discrimination is a problem in his industry, too...it's just posed as a question of salary discrimination.)

Not quite. My father was an aeronautical engineer. He hit his 40s and.. that was it. He was, thankfully, offered voluntary redundancy and they replaced him with someone half his age.

Thankfully, he had it in him to go back to college and retrain. He's now an analytical chemist, making far more and doing less work ;)

I am about to graduate(heh I hope) this year with an ECE degree. Few of the points made here and by Don Dodge hold true.

Engineering is a tough degree, I have seen quite a few people drop out of CS and EE degrees in the last 4 years.

- Honestly the initial years of the program are quite boring, this is a huge de-motivator. People seem to get burnt early during the degree.

- Most teachers don't seem to give a shit. Not all, but many. Young people need motivation not everyone is driven, even as an engineering student. Especially with the content being tough, the faculty needs to show a little more enthusiasm through programs, events and 1-1 with the student.

- Its definitely true that I could have spent more time on working on my startup and other activities in college. Although I have managed to create balance between school and life. I party, I am not an A student. Although, I really don't aspire to be either. I could be more happy getting those As and Bs on all my classes but I will live with A/Bs and Cs. It does take a decent amount of effort to get a low B in an engineering class. Business and liberal arts classes are much much easier. I get a little annoyed when people whine about their silly little stats and writing classes.

Yep. http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/

There's always hope that the complete collapse of the Wall Street institutions build by those "frat-boy MBAs" will change things. Probably not though. They'll get bailed out by that other frat-boy MBA institution, the government.

Of course the fact that Philip Greenspun walked away from Ars Digita with ~ $8 million proves there are some opportunities.

The folks that took down Wall Street were mostly physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists. MBAs have been largely marginalized in many hedge funds and proprietary trading desks (unless you have both an MBA and a quantitative degree, in which case you're golden), in favor of people that can value (or not, I guess) esoteric securities with sophisticated mathematical models.

Kinda an interesting change, to see lots of innocent MBAs lose their jobs because of the fuckups of a bunch of egotistical math geeks. Normally it's the other way around.

After having to deal with the MBAs that nearly took his company from him, no?

No to what? I guess my point is that the best background to have is one that's interdisciplinary. Philip did a lot of stuff at aD that wasn't engineering, but really sort of like sales - evangelism, recruiting, etc.

The fact that I have a B.A., B. Sc., MBA and ABD have nothing to do with my contention. Of course, it's also better not to be old ;-)

The no was just to get confirmation of what I said. I read about it somewhere a while back but wasn't too sure if it was biased. My point was that it wasn't just walking away with the 8M and that he had to fight tooth and nail for it.

I agree that the interdisciplinary background is best to have but it's even more important to go out into the real world and use those skills. Philip was able to learn how to deal with MBAs by dealing with MBAs - might have been even better than getting an MBA.

Maybe the purpose of the MBA is to just get you accepted by the other MBA types which are in the higher level positions.

Should be formed into a bronze plaque and put at the entry of every cs/engineering campus building.

10 years in, I'm near maxed out at what an EE can make in my geographic region. That salary happens to be about 75 percent of what the average law student in my area makes right after graduation.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, majoring in engineering is a BBB (Bad Bayesian Bet) from an economic and even intellectual stimulation point of view.

Man, if it's so easy to just go get an MBA and make awesome money, why don't all us engineers just go do it then?

The belief there's some kind of massive inefficiency in the market that disproportionally rewards a bunch of frat-boy do-nothings at the expensive of us geeks reeks of a little sour grapes.

Well, no, because everyone's motivations are different. Some people want money and power more than they want to work on interesting technical problems. And that's fine It's the second-order effects that are suboptimal for the latter group, and for the economy as a whole.

If engineers were willing to move into management (that group is who MBA educations were originally intended for) then the problem would self-correct, but too few engineers are.

I'll actually be graduating soon from an engineering program, and myself and all of my classmates face the same issues. Some have been offered lucrative careers in tech, some in consulting, some in management, and some are considering MBAs.

The answer? Because some of us actually like tech. There are two types of people who join engineering: those who have been doing it in some amateur form or another for years, and those who are in it because they had nothing else better to do, and it seemed like an ok bet.

The former won't be attracted by an MBA, because they enjoy being in the trenches, working out the difficult technical problems. They derive thrill out of the act of engineering, and that's why they are there.

The latter will inevitably go for an MBA, or go work at some bank in the vain hope that someone will notice him and promote him to day trader status (believe me, many engineering grads work at banks precisely for this reason). They have no real interest nor attachment to engineering, and will simply go for whatever pays the most.

I think the belief that all MBAs are just frat-boy do-nothing is sour grapes. That being said, I do believe that the industry and investors in general have altogether too much faith in MBAs and pure-management types. The company my father works for had its engineer-CEO retire a couple of years ago, and investors replaced him with a pure manager - someone with no engineering expertise, and is a "pure" business type. The company is floundering, selling off assets, and generally in a miserable state. To me the concept of letting non-experts in the company's field manage the company is downright insane, but yet people do it on a daily basis. If you run an engineering company, for God's sake hire a CEO who's an engineer.

"The answer? Because some of us actually like tech." - Yep.

It's true that it's much more difficult to evaluate MBA competency than engineering competency, but I do think the market is some what efficient. I've worked some pretty idiot MBAs (Harvard no less) and they haven't really gone anywhere too far.

Also, at least here in San Francisco, I've met more MBAs than I can count wishing they were engineers so they could build their ideas themselves. Consider yourself incredibly lucky and privileged to be able to take your idea from pure thought stuff to reality.

The market might be efficient at something, but that doesn't mean that it's efficient at rewarding engineers.

It is almost certainly efficient at rewarding engineers enough, but perhaps not enough to make engineers happy.

The answer? Because some of us actually like tech.

More than a wage commensurate with your intelligence? So much that you are willing to not only explore it on your own but solve any problem, no matter how mundane, that anyone places in front of you just because it's tech? For decades on end?

Rock on.

On the other hand, as an engineer you can:

-Work for a big company, a small company or just work for yourself.

-Work from anywhere in the world you can take a laptop and an internet connection

-Use free tools to create a product you can duplicate (and sell) infinitely

-Be a part of an extremely active and passionate community that is on the cutting edge of the industry that is driving the global economy

Where else are you going to find that much flexibility and potential?

Wait here, we know that "engineer" is not a euphemism for "computer programmer", right?

Yeah. For real engineers, and not just computer programmers, I would say none of those are true. Unless we're reading Wired during the dot.com era, where any yuppie anywhere could do anything via laptop and internet.

Seriously tho:

-Real Engineers are often professionally licensed. Sometimes they have to get certified in every state they operate in. Some require a minimum of 5 years of experience before you can even apply for them.

--Real Engineers use software that often doesn't play well with laptops. VLSI/VHDL apps come to mind at first. Huge PSpice sims come next. AutoCAD and all that come next. Run into issues like needing to have a license server, or hardware dongle. And some of those special engineering programs cost $25,000/license. Not free in any sense of the word.

--Real engineers -- civil engineers I'm looking at you -- are not extremely active and passionate. They are punch clock engineers. Even in undergrad civil engineers are known as 9 to 5 engineers. Being home every night to kiss your wife is apparently one of those awesome job perks in a field that's barely changed in 30 years (i'm specifically singling out highway development in civil engineering here. This isn't meant to be flamebait.)

--Real engineers often need real budgets. Which is why governments or large corporations pay for us. With government, there's a chance you might need a security clearance. No more international travel unless its cleared with the state department.

The real truth is you become an engineer to solve the really hard problems that nobody else thinks about. Like how man will colonize Mars. Or what we're going to do with all these mountains of garbage piling up. Or what's the cheapest way we can deal with nuclear waste that doesn't involve dumping it into the ocean. Or how do we effectively managing the supply chain of a nuclear power plant so it can turn a profit (this is one I'm proud to say I've tackled.). How do we get military goods from one side of the world to another on a daily basis?

You have to want it.

You don't need a degree for any of those things.

While 'Engineer' is a set that may overlap 'Open Source Programmer' (what you described), it's definitely not an equivalent set, and I wouldn't even say it's a superset.

  Clean Room Technician: You know what they do with engineers when they turn forty?
  [to Aaron, who shakes his head]
  Clean Room Technician: They take them out and shoot them.

The only self-employed engineer I know is a mechanical engineer who's living on food stamps, trying to get enough interest in converting vehicles to passive cooling, which seems to be her personal calling, to pay the bills.

The only self-employed engineer I know is actually not an engineering grad, but a high school dropout who has an unusually keen skill in network security, and is rolling in massive amounts of money consulting for small-to-mid-sized traditional businesses, a one man shop.

Anecdotes can always be countered by anecdotes.

You are what you make of yourself.

That's a lot of upvotes for a rant. Is this your experience personally? Do you not like working for justin.tv?

Justin.tv is great...but it's not your typical engineering job.

I think that a lot of the appeal of startups to young engineers is that they represent the opportunity to do things differently. Rather than tethering your future to the MBA bean-counter at corporate, you can have the chance to be corporate. That's a critical difference.

You make a pretty broad generalization that programming sucks as a career. I think you need to compare the best engineering jobs to the best MBA jobs, and the average engineering job to the average MBA job. So compare working at justin.tv to working as a Bain consultant. And compare being a typical big company engineer to being a middle manager. Does engineering still come out poorly as a career choice? Being an MBA middle manager's not exactly a load of fun, and you have student loans to pay off.

The average case is effectively the only one that matters, since that's where most people will end up.

The fundamental difference between your average MBA and your average engineer, in my opinion, is that engineers are viewed as tactical assets by the business people, whereas business people view themselves as strategic assets. Only in small tech companies are the technical problems so important that the engineers become strategic advantages. That kind of thinking is still pretty rare.

(But for what it's worth, your hypothetical Bain consultant is earning a six-figure salary, traveling around the world and developing hugely important business experience and professional contacts that will serve him well when he leaves consulting. Even the best engineering jobs have limited expanse and authority -- you interact with techies, focus on the details of implementing someone else's vision, and rarely rise to a level where strategic thinking is required.)

this also means that if you're going into it, you have to really like it (in addition to being relatively intelligent), which is why the article talks about the "surprising" statistic that mit et al have very high retention rates (though I think caltech is a counterexample)

There are many aspects to consider in the differences in drop-out rates. One is that not all engineering programs are the same. MIT's education is very different than RPI's or Georgia Tech's (I'm went to GT). The RPI or GT style is more like 5 years of boot camp (yes, its really a 5 years program, another problem to consider when comparing against a management degree). Its a non-stop grind of 6 classes at a time with tests every week. MIT's is fewer classes with higher student:teacher ratio. The MIT program is structured to guide students to the finish line. The GT or RPI approach is very clear that they are trying to cull students.

I don't think either approach is wrong. They are just different. Do they produce different types of engineers? maybe. There are many other aspects to consider as well.

what types of students would you consider better suited to each type of environment? [edit] Also, what manner of 6 classes every semester courseloads are we talking about? Because some 6 course combos are easily manageable whereas I've seen other combos only a person who can score a perfect on the putnam exam while drunk could manage comfortably.

I went to Georgia Tech because I lived in Georgia and if was going to college at all it had to be in state at a public school. I think cost factors trump most other considerations for the bulk of people making college decisions.

When I was at GT (late 80s) we were on the quarter system, they've since changed to semesters. If you wanted to finish a BSEE in 4 years, you needed to take 7 or 8 classes a quarter. 6 was a common load and hence the average time to graduate was 5 years. There were no "crib" courses. Every class made you work for your grade; every one. If you had a bad week, your grades would suffer as there were tests and graded assignments every single week. I was told when I was there that there had not been an EE student in anyone's memory that finished with a 4.0 GPA. Even the most gifted student with perfect study skills would eventually get taken down a notch.

Most all classes were graded on a bell curve. Even in your junior or senior year, you were reminded by professors that 40% of the class would repeat the course.

Schools like GT have a social obligation to take on more than they can handle. That means doing more (more students) with less (less faculty, less support structure). That said, I think they do a great job.

If they had more funds to provide students with more tutors and more private scholarship money to allow students forgiveness if they needed to take a quarter off to rest, the graduation rates might improve. Keep in mind that most students at a school like GT are at least half operating off state and federal support funds. These systems do what they can, but are unforgiving if you need to take a break or require some other support like a tutor.

I'm a proud alum. I support my school scholarship funds through alumni channels. I think if people want to see things improve, look at schools that are working hard and doing things right and throw more money at them; they always need it.

I should note that things at Georgia Tech today are not quite so dire as jhancock describes them being. Yes, classes are still quite hard and you still have to take a lot of painful ones to get through (often simultaneously, especially if you want to pursue other opportunities like research, internships and co-op).

But in my 5+ years at GT I've never felt a lack of support made available to me. TAs, professors, tutors (in some cases) and other resources have always been pretty readily available. Most of all, the "fight the shaft" perspective means students are generally willing to help eachother out and work together.

Far fewer classes are graded on a bell curve, too, though the average GPA at Tech remains around a 2.7 or 2.8 and it really is uncommon for people in the harder majors to graduate with a 4.0.

That's not to say that the Institute can't use more resources to do a better job than it is currently doing. But for better or worse, GT is no longer the throw you in the pool and see if you manage to swim school it once was.

Very happy to hear your report. I was told that switching to semesters was an attempt to deal with the fast pace we always felt under the quarter system.

It really was a great education and the pains we experienced did bond the students in natural support groups. I have several life long friends from that journey. Other than going to UGA and having more access to women, I wouldn't have done it any other way ;).

Correlation != causation, hmm? Even when we're talking about anecdotal evidence. Come on, as an engineer or programmer you should be more logical than that.

Maybe the engineers you describe tend to roll with the kicks and take pretty much anything that's given to them as long as they're more or less left alone to work on something interesting, while the frat-boy MBAs are more the type to drift through life on other people's backs and make enough noise to get what they want? Maybe there are engineers who had a blast in college (I know I did), and there are business types who spend all their time studying?

It's easy to just blame it on the degree, but it's never ACTUALLY that simple, is it?

I love being a software engineer and I can't upvote timr's comment enough.

That's the hard truth folks, don't get into engineering if you don't love it.

Apparently you've identified a major inefficiency in the labor market. You ought to be able to make a killing by founding a company to compete against those run by frat-boy MBAs and employing the talented engineers your competitors have discarded.

Ermm, that is what most startups are intended to do.

Right on timr. I have an MS in engineering and it took me 17 years on the job to figure out what a joke my degree was.

Earning a degree in engineering is the functional equivalent of buying your way into slavery.

So if you could do it again, what degree/career path would you have chosen?

Because there are better opportunities on Wall Str... oh wait.

Your second point is key. Corporate society is structured so terribly that the big-box companies pretty much can't get top talent (and fire what little they can get for various forms of "insubordination"). No one with any talent is going to answer to a frat boy.

There are two somewhat parallel (but unequally situated) trees within the modern workplace, the old-style management tree ("visionaries" at the apex, implementers at the bottom) and the technology tree (of which technologists occupy the middle-upper levels and the lower ranks are filled entirely by machines). The tech tree has historically been mounted to a middling position on the management tree, resulting in a scenario where technology people become peons. The world's learning that this arrangement is a fistful of fail, and the mount point is moving up in the structure... but this is a discrete sort of transition, and traditional managers have to be brought kicking and screaming to it, so it usually happens through the destruction of old and creation of new companies, rather than within existing ones. This is one major reason why big-box companies have been slowly melting down, while the bulk of the nation's private sector talent was rather uselessly employed in an abstruse game called "finance".

In finance, technical people ("quants") were often given a designation one-half level above their seniority-based position, e.g. an entry-level quantitative analyst was between the "analyst" and "associate" levels. Finance is old-style corporate compared to cutting-edge startups, but Wall Street has (had?) a better grasp of how to capture talent than most F-500s.

I don't know that they had a better grasp, they just paid the highest.

I agree that there are probably a lot of improvements to be made in undergraduate engineering education.


I think it's a big mistake to assume that every engineering dropout represents a failure of the college, or even a failure of the student. Maybe it's simply a question of incoming students not having the slightest idea what an engineering degree is all about. I seem to remember a lot of people who signed up for engineering before they discovered that you need to learn a lot of fairly difficult math and physics to be an engineer, after which they switched to something else.

That's why the dropout rate is so much smaller at MIT and other elite engineering schools: The students are preselected for their affinity for math and/or physics. For example, I can't help but notice that Olin's "redefinition of engineering education" includes this bullet point:

Applicants are required to spend a weekend at Olin before acceptance. During the weekend they participate in team engineering projects to assess their teamwork and technical skill.

Note: "Assess their technical skill." Now, I'm not saying that Olin's not a great school, but if you get to hand-pick the students, and then you give them a 100% scholarship, having a low dropout rate isn't much of an achievement. I assume with confidence that the vast majority of calculus-phobic people get weeded out before they ever get to Olin. At least, I hope so, because otherwise this practice would be cruel and unusual punishment:

Other engineering schools require students to take foundational courses in physics, thermo-dynamics, chemistry, and math for the first two years. Olin introduces these disciplines as needed throughout the 4 years.

If there's anything worse than hitting the wall in year one, it's being encouraged to go through a year or two in the major before you hit the wall.

That's because our system somehow rewards real estate speculators, mortgage brokers, middle management, lawyers and healthcare professionals way more than it rewards engineers. I don't really know why this is happening, but I am sure you all have met a few MBA types who have "the vision" and looking for "just" a code monkey to build their fortune. This is also the reason why GE/Ford/Chrysler continued building shit for decades, giving out multi-million dollar bonuses to their top-tier management.

Someone suggested it's because we live in a "services economy" not a "product economy" and, therefore, the value of engineering is declining. There is some truth in that: google isn't an engineering firm, they are in the entertainment business, very much like ESPN, Fox and those annoying guys in big hats at your local Tres Amigos.

That's funny, it's a routine complaint at Stanford that all the campus job fairs are filled with companies recruiting engineers and nobody else. :p

Our system also rewards engineers way more than teachers, graduates who go into public service, and-- at graduation time, at least-- anyone with a humanities degree. I'd worry about fixing compensation for teachers before rewarding engineers...

Google is an engineering firm, they just happen to make money from ads.

Compensation for teachers is fantastic, as long as you compare it properly to compensation for other workers.

To begin with, multiply by (12 months worked by others)/(9 months worked by teachers).

Then add in the value of the state health plan, usually fantastic.

Then add in the real value of a defined benefit pension plan (chances are you only get a defined contribution plan) available in most states.

Then add in the value of tenure, which I'll tentatively estimate as effectively doubling the salary (1).

All that is actually pretty good for a group of people who tend to come from the bottom of the barrel cognitively (http://www.ncsu.edu/chass/philo/GRE%20Scores%20by%20Intended...).

The idea that teachers are underpaid is a myth propagated by teachers unions and their lackeys in the media.

(1) Many tenured professors could easily double their salary by quitting, but choose not to.

Your doubling the salary for teachers due to tenure is questionable. The reason tenured professors don't quit is only partly due to tenure, also due to the fact that they find being a professor more interesting than the other work. Regular (grade-school to high-school) teachers don't exactly have tenure (though for those in most unions it is close), and they probably don't have the same employment options outside the profession.

I'd give a multiple of 1.2.

It's certainly questionable, I didn't mean to imply it was more than a rough guess. It's true, professor jobs at research universities have an "interestingness" premium, so part of the multiple comes from that.

On the other hand, lack of external employment options makes tenure MORE valuable, since it raises the risk premium the teacher would demand to quit the tenured job.

Since my financial math is rusty, I won't try to compute the actuarial values of these revenue streams, however.

Most teachers are not professors. Most teachers work for public schools in the k-12 arena. Many times tenure doesnt work out.

Teachers rarely get overtime, but overtime is necessary. The best teachers I know, and I know about 20, work 7-7. They work during the summer to setup curriculum, to tutor summer school students, to select books, to setup their classroom. And they do this all without any extra pay than their salary. They also supplement poor school budgets with their own money to buy supplies the students need to learn.

They are generally pressured to pay into a Teachers union that supports the misfits in their profession, and doesn't generally help them at all. These same awesome teachers are paid solely on the number of years they have been working -- not (at all) by performance, skill, or student/parent reviews. This translates into little reward for awesome teachers over not to awesome 8:15-3pm teachers.

But I digress.

A 50% dropout rate may be a sign of health - it means the courses haven't been watered down. I'd be far more worried about a 95% graduation rate. States universities are less selective with general admission, so the engineering departments have to screen out the students who aren't up to the challenge. MIT pre-screens everyone so it's not fair to compare it to state schools.

I think the other problem here is that we have no information available about other programs.

Isn't it just as likely that people drop out of all or many programs at relatively the same rate? Psychology, Pre-Med, Law, Business, Journalism, Poli Sci, etc.

These are undergraduates, after all.

If I recall correctly, something like 20-30% of undergraduates drop out during the course of their degree. Engineering is generally the most difficult program, so you'd expect that the dropout rates would be higher. I suspect there's also a number of transfers to less demanding programs baked in there.

Why should we want to minimize drop-out rates anyway? It doesn't necessarily indicate there's a problem with the curriculum - engineering should be a tough program. The only way you could minimize drop-outs would be to prevent all but the strongest students from entering in the first place. I think it's telling that the highly-selective schools have very low drop-out rates. Is MIT's methodology all that different from less selective universities? I doubt it.

"At the recent Web 2.0 conference John suggested that the US should staple a Green Card to every foreign student's engineering diploma and encourage them to stay in the USA."

I really agree this. It's hard for a foreigner to work here.

It isn't really an unmitigated good, though. By increasing the incentive for a foreigner to get a US engineering degree, it would increase the competition for those slots, and result in fewer US students getting degrees. Of course, if the foreign degree holders stay in the US, that might be OK, but things must be thought through carefully. For example, presumably at least some people not interested in engineering, but interested in a green card would get degrees.

Mixing up incentives is a dangerous business. I would prefer a more mundane approach, like increasing the number of H1B visas.

Keep in mind that all schools have a foreign student quota - i.e. slots that will either be filled by foreign students or not filled at all. Foreigners do not compete with domestic students for college enrollment at all.

I would prefer an approach that is more realistic and honest about the state of immigration - the H1B is organized as a work visa, not an immigration visa. What the US needs to do is establish means for direct immigration for qualified, professional people. The problem with H1Bs all stem from the fact that, if the recipient desires permanent residency, he/she is essentially a slave to the sponsor company for 5+ years. This encourages abuse both in employee treatment and in wages - which affects everyone.

If highly qualified people can simply immigrate to the US and find jobs, without signing themselves into virtual slavery, we would all benefit.

> Keep in mind that all schools have a foreign student quota - i.e. slots that will either be filled by foreign students or not filled at all. Foreigners do not compete with domestic students for college enrollment at all.

Well, I know that is false for grad school. (In my department, the percentage of Americans goes up during recessions, as the US applicant pool is stronger at those times. Yet enough Americans apply every year to fill all slots many times over.) I don't know about undergrad, but I would be very surprised if it were true for all schools! Where did you get this information?

Not hard enough.

Because I would have gotten C's & D's in Engineering school working my ass off.

Because in business school I graduated with great grades, didn't do anything, and landed a pretty awesome job.

Undergraduate business school was somewhat worthless, but all the free time allowed me to learn how to start my own business and campus job hop like a mofo.

Look like I'm showing up late to this discussion.

I'll just comment on the "stapling a green card to every engineering degree awarded to a foreign national idea."

I have no doubt this would increase the incentives for foreigners to study engineering in the US, but if we only do this in engineering and not in medicine, law, business, art, humanities, etc... well then wouldn't we create an incentive for US citizens to avoid engineering degrees and instead go into areas that are insulated from foreign competition? It seems that this has already happened to some extent. If one of our goals as a nation is to increase the interest of our young people in science and engineering, we should at least consider the effect a program like this on their career choices, shouldn't we?

I'm not saying there's no room for debate on this subject, but I'm eternally amazed that pundits almost never consider this possibility when making this recommendation.

(BTW, in "the world is flat", Friedman suggested doing this for all doctoral degrees, not just engineering...)

I was hoping that Don Dodge would actually have some kind of technical background (because mixed technical/business backgrounds are in my opinion the best). Nope - accounting undergrad/MBA. Preach to someone else.

The article fails to acknowledge that MIT and Olin have 2% drop-out rates because they are f*ng hard to get in in the first place.

The drop-out rate is directly proportional on how easy it is to enroll in a hard program.

The school I graduated from, FEI (in Brazil), has a very high drop-out rate in the first semester - about 50% on my freshman year, mostly due to calculus and physics. It's also regarded as a top private school in its field.

So, that's why those teachers are not being fired - because students pay for their first semester whether or not they stick around for the second one.

Well, I nearly drop out recent two years. It is unbearable in university to see so many students who are 4th year and don't have basic skills in programming (i.e. comparing two double variables in C with == operator). As playing a while with profs, I am so confident that I have all the skills and knowledges I should know in the next 3 years. It is just had to stick on CS major when you had them all. The only reason I still here is that I am so desperately wanting to publish a good paper in next year.

That's a language issue and not a people issue. C also allows you to assign variable in if clauses, which can cause hard to find errors.

It is not a language issue. In some perspectives, you may say that it is a processor issue of handling float. But this is the fact of every nowadays processor. Languages don't have the responsibility to deal with processor's fault, people do.

Any recent engineering grads here who can tell us if there really is a shortage? If you guys are getting multiple job offers with hiring bonuses, there is. If not, there isn't.

As class of 2005 grad (who incidentally goes to Olin), I have multiple offers w/ signing bonuses.

Whether this is a sign of a shortage, I am not sure.

It's a sign of a shortage of graduates that companies trust to be of a certain caliber. Either you have done something to distinguish yourself, or Olin has developed a track record that companies trust, or both.

Because engineering is difficult.

I don't agree that difficulty is the reason for high dropout rates. Olin has long been lauded for it's almost zero dropout rate, but I will not use that to make my point since we have a very small sample size (300 people) and we are relatively selective, and therefore not representative of the average US engineering student.

Instead, lets look at ASU in this study: http://www.foundationcoalition.org/publications/journalpaper...

The study found that the top 5 reasons (as summarized on page 3) are:

1) reasons for choice of SME [Science, Math, Engineering] proved inappropriate

2) poor teaching by SME faculty

3) inadequate advising or help with academic problems

4) non-SME major offers better education/more interest

5) lack/loss of interest in SME ("turned off science")

Reasons 2, 3, 4 and 5 are directly related to failures of the institution. Sure, there are students who cannot comprehend the coursework, but those are few and far between compared to the numbers who simply do not receive the support necessary for them to succeed.

This study, along with many others, points to a common trend: we blame the student for being incompetent or unmotivated, instead of blaming the institution for not providing them the necessary help (that they are paying tens of thousands for).

Reasons (4) and (5) are not necessarily a failure of the institution. If a student likes dinosaur bones more than ODEs after being exposed to both, how is that a failure at all? Students may have an incorrect idea of either science or their personal preferences, and college may correct these views. That's a good thing.

Another fact to note: I don't see "I'm not smart/hardworking enough to be an engineer" as even an option. It would be interesting to know what fraction of students flunked out or were barely able to avoid this fate.

Plus, I'm highly suspicious of the quality of this study. The authors appear to be morons:

...only the difference on the seventh ranked reason... was statistically significant (p=.019). ... However, another [statistically insignificant] difference worth noting is...

It's not useful to compare raw numbers against India and China since their population is larger than ours.

Also, what % of total college students drop out? It's got to be near 50 (though maybe less for declared majors).

Furthermore, it's stupid to compare numbers of technical graduates. It's not the numbers that count but the quality.

Has there been any academic research on the average quality of technical graduates in the USA versus India and China? I don't mean just memorization of facts and formulas, but ability to creatively solve real-world problems. Perhaps that's impossible to objectively measure.

"It's not the numbers that count but the quality."

For the short term economy (1-5 yrs), the quantity counts much more than quality. If Bank of America needs to hire 500 interchangeable Java programmers, they probably can't use or manage 10 excellent programmers instead. But for the longer term, a couple Sergeys and Zuckerbergs (or for that matter, Grahams and Morrises) are much more valuable.

My theory is that a high percentage are forced out because there are incentives for doing so. Undergraduate programs are ranked based on the percentage of graduates they place in competitive graduate programs and top employers. Getting weaker students to change majors lowers the denominator.

Engineering and science faculties, in general, want to produce stars and have little interest in helping students along that find the material interesting but challenging.

The Olin program looks pretty similar to what Harvey Mudd College has been doing for decades.

You are right - there are many similarities. In fact, our Dean of Faculty came from Harvey Mudd. I think that Olin has a bit more freedom to innovate, though, given it's young age (fourth graduating class this year). There is a joke around campus that no class has ever been the same for two years - in almost every case, there are significant overhauls that result from student feedback. While this makes things tumultuous (and of course there is no guarantee that change is good), it is clear that the profs are not willing to settle on something that is just "good" or "acceptable". Did you get this feeling at HMC?

I can't really make a more detailed comparison without more information about what aspects of Harvey Mudd you find similar.

I thought it was common knowledge that the only 2 useful B.S. degrees are C.S. (and related) and Finance (and related).

Accounting is more useful than finance.

/did both

I slot accounting under finance. but yes. the reason those two B.S.s are useful is that there is ALWAYS work for book keepers and coders. any city, any time. Might not always be good work, but you'll always be in demand.

I'm a programmer writing accounting software... not always exciting work but there's no shortage of work to be done.

handling software for accountants is probably the holy grail of "can't be fired".

Unfortunately you can graduate with a degree in finance and not know shit about accounting.

Biology is good if your grades are good enough to get into a professional program. Not so much otherwise.

Biology is worthless as a major; as long as you take the pre-med requirements, they don't care what your major is.

Granted, Biology requires a lot of the same classes, so it might be easier to be a bio major if you're already pre-med, but the biology degree itself isn't worth anything.

For the purpose of getting into med school, as long as you take the pre-med requirements, you are better off majoring in anything but biology.

That's news to me. It seems like majoring in anything else would be a waste of time because you would have to take more irrelevant classes.

Taking more irrelevant classes is probably harder (as I said), but because it's harder it is also more impressive and thus looks better on your resume (as rms said).

Some of them prefer that you have a degree, but it's true that you don't have to have it.

I know the wash-out rate at my school -- just during the "freshmen engineering" program was 50%. The next year, the wash out rate was 25%.

They don't want airline safety / nuclear reactor controls / bridges devices made by D students. And the best way to ensure that's going to happen is make the person really really really want to call himself an engineer. Its far easier to be a a liberal arts major and convince two girls to follow you back to your place.

If my university only had a 5% drop out rate, I would have studied at the wrong university. If everybody get's a degree, everybody is equal and your degree is worthless.

I am not sure about the exact numbers, but i suspect it is the same in Germany where I have been studying.

(at least in Stuttgart / Germany)

Two words: Linear algebra. Or if you wish, Differential Equations.

Because Don Dodge wears a toupee.

Oops wrong article.

Incidentally, the National Science Foundation and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics describe the Obama's education plan as abysmally bad. Specifically the NSF and NCTM are very much against the AP curriculum, which Obama wants to expand by 50% over the next few years. I think the exact quote is that AP science/math courses represent "the worst kind of pedagogy" or something like that.

I call bullshit--

1) Not a single source that can be googled.

2) The NSF gave the College Board 1.8 million two years ago to fund AP science courses: http://www.collegeboard.com/press/releases/51572.html

3) It's highly unlikely that either organization, which have broader educational concerns than AP curriculum, would ever release a statement condemning either political candidate.

1) Read books.

2) The source you linked to supports my claim, if you actually read it.

3) They didn't release a statement condemning Obama, but they've been criticizing the AP curriculum since the 90s. (And Obama's plan is to increase the number of students taking the AP.) I'm sure they'd never actually criticize Obama himself, at least not yet, since they will depend on him for lots of other stuff.

Could you provide some links? I googled a bit for some information, and didn't find much, and I'd like to read about this in more detail. It seems odd that either organization would be anti-AP, and Obama's proposed policies would provide more benefits to mathematicians and scientists who decided to teach in high schools...

I'll look it up in a couple hours when I go to the library. Basically my claim comes from Alfie Kohn's book The Schools Our Children Deserve, but I'll try to find the footnote with the primary source document.


The report was issued by the NRC, not the NSF, but the NSF apparently agrees because they paying for an overhaul of the AP curriculum based on the report.

Also, if you do a Google search for:

NSF criticism of AP curriculum

You see an overview of this as the second result. Also, I couldn't find this in that Alfie Kohn book, so I must have stumbled upon it in something I read around the same time.

A direct quote from that result:

"The AP and IB courses, while including some of the best education in the subject currently available at the secondary level, tend in general to be out of date, too broad, and too inflexible in their curricula."

So the argument the NRC is making is that the AP curriculum needs to be improved, but is currently some of the best available. In addition, the curriculum is being overhauled.

So what exactly is the problem with advocating increasing AB and IBO students when, even though there are problems, it's currently some of the best education available, and an overhaul to bring it in line with the NRC/NSF recommendations is underway?

So what exactly is the problem with advocating increasing AB and IBO students when, even though there are problems, it's currently some of the best education available, and an overhaul to bring it in line with the NRC/NSF recommendations is underway?

First, "including some of the best education currently available" != "currently some of the best education available." What the report is actually saying is that a few components of the curriculum are good, but the courses overall suck. If you read the rest of the executive summary, it absolutely shits on the AP. This might be couched in academic language, but make no mistake about what they're saying.

Now obviously if the courses are made to be completely different then advocating them might not be a bad thing. But right now all that's happened is the NSF has given the college board a small amount of money to reform the curriculum, a process which just started this summer. Right now we have no idea if any changes were actually made, and if so what those changes are and whether or not they are really inline with the NRC & NCTM standards.

Anyway, all we know is that right now the president elect is advocating a curriculum that has kids going through the motions of science and math without actually learning the principles of either subject, and without learning what it means to think like a scientist or a mathematician. And these are just the science and math courses. There is every reason to think the other AP courses, the majority which are not being overhauled, are just as bad if not worse.

Further, even if the science and math courses are overhauled, there are still lots of problems with them. For example, the assessments are inauthentic and norm referenced, and there is no reason to think this is going to change.

I did read it. The AP gets it rougher than the IBO. But maybe I'm not used to reading Academic-ese, because it didn't seem to me that they were taking a complete shit on the AP.

In any event, I don't disagree that the AP and IBO need work, I just haven't seen a proposal for what we should be doing instead.

(Maybe if those people learned to say what they mean directly, the non-academic advocates of school reform would have an easier time sorting things out.)

A lot of the AP course problems seemed to stem from the 'teach to the test' mentality, which occurs because college admissions and school rating agencies use the test results in ways the Collge Board/AP did not intend, so schools and teachers are rewarded by gaming the system.

In that respect, almost everything bad you can say about the AP or IBO courses can be said about regular classes thanks to NCLB. At least where my children attend high school, about 2/3 of all classes suffer from the same issues as AP classes, due to the need to put the kids through the state testing grinder.

In that context, the difference between the two is that the AP classes, at least in math and science, while far from ideal, do expose the students to more advanced concepts than they would encounter otherwise.

So, given the choice between AP classes, and non-AP classes that have the same fundamental problems except the course material is easier, what would you do?

I expect your answer is neither, and you would propose something else? Do you have pointers to that info? I really am curious.

I don't really have any specific recommendations beyond what's in the Kohn book I referenced. (I don't endorse everything in that book, but it's a good starting place because it at least asks the right questions.)

I think the real problem with AP courses is that they tend to be "at the top of a high school curriculum" but at the mean time "entry level college courses".

E.g. calculus - it's the "hardest" high school math class, but it's the most basic and foundational college mathematics course.

I took Calculus both at one of the top California non-magnet schools (AP Calculus) and a California community college (as well as took vector calculus and differential equations after transferring to a university). AP Calculus AB in high school in a way is "designed to be hard", people dropping the course, plenty of failing grades. It's the course for the "top of the class", the people "good in math". In college it's the course freshmen in any science major takes (at a community college it's the first course to be taken once the students complete remedial/"catch-up" math courses; at a university it's _the_ first math course in a math department other than finite math/statistics for humanities/social science majors).

The NSF and NCTM are anti-AP? I googled and didn't turn up anything on this, but it's altogether possible that I didn't search on the right terms.

Do you have any links?

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