What is the state of the American university system? Does it produce the types of professionals needed to keep the American economy strong and innovative?
We often hear a lot about how our contemporary economy requires plenty of professionals skilled in science and technology to maintain a healthy rate of innovation. There are are many reasons why science and engineering degrees are often used as barometers or leading indicators of the future state of innovation of the American economy. We won’t have time to discuss all of those reasons here. They are by no means comprehensive, but they provide a easily measurable metric for conversation.
This article is going to present data on how well the university system has been producing engineers. The information behind the graphs comes from the National Center for Education Statistics and Engineering Trends.
First, let’s consider how many degrees the United States university system produces. The graph below shows both the total number of degrees (of limited use), and the number of degrees per million population (a measure of how common degrees are in the population, like a per capita value). After a stage of stagnation between the 70s to the 90s, the recent trend has been up.
The overall message of the graph above is positive. The overall number of 4-year and graduate degrees per million population in the United States is increasing. Next, let’s consider the numbers of engineers being produced within that overall increase. Below, still reporting in terms of degrees per million population, we have a different sort of trend. This graph shows overall stagnation in recent decades only broken by a spike in the mid-1980s. There is some hope that the trend is turning upwards in the last few years. As an aside, the numbers of engineers generated per million population when the World War II generation went to college on the GI Bill in the late 1940s and early 1950s was close to the peak on this graph.
With an overall increasing trend in all degrees and stagnation in engineering, the expected result would be a decrease in engineers out of all graduates, which is exactly what the next graph displays.
So, fewer and fewer students in recent decades have been earning degrees in engineering. If you consider only US citizens, the trend is even more severe. If corporations need engineers for innovation and managing high technology enterprises, they have to resort to hiring foreign nationals, but given these trends, even the supply of domestically trained foreign students may not be sufficient.
Why are the numbers of engineers decreasing? Is it really a problem? What are all the options for correcting this situation in the near and long term? These are all important questions that I will have to leave to another article. Until then, we should consider that the product of our education system has been changing. Whether that is an appropriate response to the market, or based on the fashion of high school seniors remains to be seen.