To quote Barbie: Engineering is hard

My daughter, an American Studies major, was talking with her lawyer friends. They all decided they’d raise their children to be engineers. “No sociology majors!” she says. “No English majors! No American Studies!”  Engineering graduates have it made, the lawyers decided. (They’re assuming their children will earn engineering degrees at top universities.)

But attrition is high for college students who plan on science, technology, engineering and math majors, writes the New York Times. In middle and high school, kids decide that science is fun. In college, “the excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls ‘the math-science death march.’ Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.”

Some 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors switch or quit. That rises to 60 percent when pre-meds are counted, twice the  attrition rate of all other majors.

While some students lack the math skills or the work ethic, the attrition rate is high at super-selective schools, says UCLA Education Professor Mitchell Chang.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

Grading is tougher in science and math classes than in the humanities or social sciences, discouraging some students.

Others find the coursework abstract.

Some engineering programs are breaking up large lecture classes, giving students more design opportunities and pushing social engagement.

(Notre Dame) students now do four projects. They build Lego robots and design bridges capable of carrying heavy loads at minimal cost. They also create electronic circuit boards and dream up a project of their own.

“They learn how to work with their hands, how to program the robot and how to work with design constraints,” (Dean of Engineering Peter Kilpatrick) says. But he also says it’s inevitable that students will be lost. Some new students do not have a good feel for how deeply technical engineering is. Other bright students may have breezed through high school without developing disciplined habits. By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.

In other words, it’s hard.

President Obama wants U.S. universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year. Not going to happen, say engineering professors.


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  1. I wonder if pre-med has such a high drop rate because people realize what a scam that degree track is. You can go to med school with a degree in biology or chemistry or engineering. On the other hand if you have a degree in pre-med, the only thing you can do is go to med school. Realize you don’t want to be a doctor? Time to start over.

  2. Jeff,

    Very few schools have a “pre-med” major, certianly none of the top schools…. When students say they are “pre-med”, that does NOT mean they are actually majoring in “pre-med”, just that they are trying to complete the requirements to get into med school. The vast, vast majority of kids who are pre-med do indeed major in an actual discipline (biology being the most obvious).

    True, you can major in anything and go to med school, though in practice, it is difficult to major in a non-science discipline… between major requirements, general education requirements, and pre-med requirements, there will be zero electives, and students will have to be careful to plan their courses so they can graduate on time.

  3. When I graduated from college 15 years ago, our profs (in the sciences) felt that they were doing us a favor when they graded without pity. They thought that it was better to realize that you couldn’t hack it before you got too far into the program. If you were having a bad semester (illness, family death, etc) then you needed to retake the courses to learn the material sufficiently to get through subsequent classes.

    I actually remember one old-school prof saying that it was better to flunk out as a freshman than to be trying to do your comps in grad school before you realized that you weren’t really any good at this science stuff. I had great teachers who were willing to help with extra review time, office hours, etc, but eventually you had to learn both content and problem solving or you’d never get through the degree program.

  4. Soapbox0916 says:

    I commented on the original article. I really loved many of the comments to this article, I highly suggest reading the comments of the original article because the majority of the comments are much better than the article itself. I was really disappointed with this article. I think the author really missed the point of why many students drop out of science majors including engineering.

    Yes the coursework is hard, but hard by itself is not why many students change majors or drop out. There is much more going on than “hard”, although “hard” does not help. Why work that hard for something of questionable career prospects? The career prospects for many science majors suck, jobs are overly specialized, career paths are seen as too inflexible, unstable due to outsourcing, and real life science jobs are not as appealing to many students. Real science jobs are not as glamorous as CSI or Grey’s Anatomy.

    Plus, for example, a math major can switch to a business finance major and believe that they have more choices in job prospects, and that they can potentially make a lot more money. Science is seen as very confining (while being hard too).

    I have been having discussions with a number of current engineers that are not encouraging their own kids to become engineers, as they see their jobs being outsourced or cut out. With science jobs being so specialized and technical, it is seen as more difficult to get a new science job. We need to instill some more confidence in current engineers and current science degree holders before we can convince more students to stick with a science major. We also lose a number of science graduates to non-science jobs. All of this affects whether or not students see a science major as worthwhile beyond beng hard.

    Make the real jobs of science majors more appealing in the real world, and students will be more likely to think a science degree is worth their while. Make it worth the while, and more students will find the “hard” coursework worth their while too.

    • Fromer HS Science Teacher says:


      Companies demanding a MS in chemistry for a $15 an hour job doesn’t help matters either.

  5. Sean Mays says:

    I survived through Quantum Mechanics I when the professor gave me a useful piece of advice about getting a B.S. in Physics: “Your head isn’t in this game and your assumption is that you’d pass the 2nd semester and earn your B.S.; it’s unlikely.” I dropped Quantum II and Senior Lab – 12 hours a week of awesome experiments; picked up a bunch of History classes and finised with Honors there. Many were the evenings I pushed food through a slot – LITERALLY to feed my dear wife as she toiled through the labs. Went to Wall Street as an IT guy, consulted, earned and MBA, consulted more…

    I loved it and I employed the kinds of thought processes that are useful in science, but I’m glad I didn’t go on.

    STEM grads then and now have tricky career paths and the payoff can stink. Wife earned a PhD from Yale and in their early 40’s very few of her cohort are tenured or even tenure track. Science did a nice study a couple years back examining the tenure track mythos. Federal funding has been pretty flat for the sciences, compounding the problem – many senior profs aren’t retiring and gobbling up plenty of grants which cuts into what the younger ones get.

    STEM undergrads typically have those large lectures with high attrition and low grade distributions. “Look to the left, look to the right; one of you won’t be here by the end.” (push) WHY BOTHER? The growth of financial services and consulting gave these people PLENTY of other opportunities other than banging their heads against the wall. (pull) Jamming 10 hours a week for Analytical Mechanics homework? or 1 hour a week for Microeconomics? It’s hard to be virtuous.

    When I taught, I’d always ask kids saying they wanted to be STEM’s what they planned to do NEXT. After 5 or 10 years? Law, business, entrepreneur…

    We don’t need more STEM majors, certainly not in the numbers being asked for. It might be nice to have better math and science teachers, but that’s a whole ‘nuther problem. The rise of our value relative, post-modern culture has made it unsavory to say things like a physics B.A. is better than underwater basket weaving B.A. but it doesn’t make it untrue.

    Reading the underlying article, I can’t help but think that Freshman projects and social engagement is only postponing the inevitable. Somewhere the rubber will meet the road, and there begins the trouble.

    Soapbox: Sign me up. My wifew and I would never encourage my kids to get a STEM degree unless they evidenced real talent for it.

  6. Soapbox0916 says:

    @Sean It surprised me at first how many current engineers would not encourage their kids to do likewise, but the more I research STEM jobs, the more dismal view I get.

    I have mentioned before that I am a STEM graduate working in a non-STEM job. However, my supervisor has an art degree (in a non-art job). So not only does my supervisor make more money than I do with her art degree, but I have to report to her and pretty much do as she says. So in this particular case, the art degree is trumping the STEM degree. That said, I do enjoy my job and I know I could evetually get a STEM job if I moved away from my hometown, but when it comes to degrees, I have found locally that who you know is more important that what you know.

    As for the occupiers, there are STEM graduates occupying too, I have seen the signs. I could see a student who puts in the hard work to obtain a STEM degree only to be offered Starbucks as being more inclined to be upset enough to occupy because they were not rewarded for their hard work. Someone who goes after a fluff or easy course load might not have been as practical to begin with, but they also may feel less betrayed.

    I could see the certificate in gay studies as being potentially useful to a counselor, social worker, teacher, or mentor wanting to work with the gay population (as long as it does not cost too much), but as for a bachelor’s degree, I think that would only maybe work as a double major with something else that is more practical. I think certificates are the way to go for more specialized or off-beat topics. I think trade school in general would be of much more benefit for many people.

  7. Soapbox0916 says:

    Oops, part of my previous comment was meant for the previous thread, Instead of College.

    Also, I meant to say eventually above.

  8. Mark Roulo says:

    …I have been having discussions with a number of current engineers that are not encouraging their own kids to become engineers…

    But you can’t get a degree in “not engineering.” You have to pick something (even if that something is ‘General Studies’). So … engineering parents think poorly of engineering. But I also can read where doctors do not want their kids to go into medicine. And lawyers are suggesting that if you don’t get into a top-15 law school, you shouldn’t do that. Teachers write suggesting that teaching is too hard for the money compared to other fields. There aren’t enough tenure track positions to make academia a good bet.

    So … assuming one is going to go to college, what *should* a kid major in? Sociology? Women’s Studies?

    The only field that I haven’t seen people griping about is accounting … but I think most people don’t want to spend their lives auditing.

    So what *actionable* advice would one give an 18-year-old freshman (or, better yet, a high school junior)?

    • The actionable advice I gave my students who wanted to be STEMs: Another major or demonstrated interest besides; couple it with general business, an arts degree, something. Plan on leaving the field in 5, maybe 10 years tops. If you’re not on track to complete AP Calc; I’d really revisit your whole “I’m a STEM message”; I saw too many kids who thought solving for x was tough, but were on their way to STEM majors. Accountants have plenty of options though, it’s portable, moderately interesting and you can easily choose to become more technical OR more managerial.

      BTW: When I’ve told the story about the professor who counseled me out of physics, ed people typically remark what a horrible human being he must have been. STEM people nod knowingly; it’s an interesting litmus test.

    • I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering in 1987. I worked in the field for 20 years and mostly had a great time. I got to work on technologies now used in the world’s largest supercomputers. I have several patents; I was paid really well.

      That said, I’d tell my kids to learn a trade before college, if they want to go. There’s almost nothing an engineer in N. America can do that can’t be done in India or China, but there’s no way to outsource the work of (e.g.) plumbers, electricians, or HVAC techs.

  9. Christina Lordeman says:

    A couple thoughts:

    1. Perhaps we should amp up our K-12 math and science curriculum? You know, since STEM majors aren’t such a big deal for Indian and Chinese students… So many kids go through school thinking they’re “good at math” because they’re better at adding than writing, or that they like science because they had fun blowing things up in lab experiments (“inquiry-based learning”). Kids need exposure to more difficult material, including some of the abstract stuff that threatens to throw them for a loop in college.

    2. The original article brought up a great point in mentioning the grade inflation that is so rampant in other majors. Maybe it’s the other majors that need to up their standards and start grading more rigorously. I worked really hard to get highest honors in my German major, but I’m pretty sure the engineering students worked even harder. If nothing else, they put in a lot of lab hours that I never had to.

  10. I think that the problem most of these kids have is that high school was a lark and college presented them with the first real challenge of their young lives.

    I also think a lot of the people here who are disparaging the job prospects for those with STEM degrees are missing the most important factor: these days, if you want to keep your STEM job, you are going to have to become a life-long learner. The technology changes relentlessly and you have to keep up. Also, expectations continue to rise; employers now expect their top folks to be a little better every year. Every couple of years you’re going to add a certification or major new skill. Sometimes you may even have to change your career trajectory. It’s a fair bit of work, but you got into it because you enjoyed it, right?

    I’ve been steadily employed in STEM jobs for 30 years and there’s nothing remarkable about me. I expect to continue on to retirement.

    • Agreed on the “lark” part.

      ” In middle and high school, kids decide that science is fun.”
      There’s your mistake right there. None of my fellow STEM majors (who are all employed) ever thought science was fun. It was interesting, amazing, rewarding, but from middle school on it was a pain in the arse. The switch to hands-on demo-heavy Bill Nye-style science education has resulted in more unprepared STEM majors than anything else.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    To be employed, it’s necessary to be employable. I had a fraternity brother heading toward Mech Eng who was invited to join the engineering fraternity, Triangle. He shuddered at the prospect of a house full of engineers. I suspect it could have doubled as a research venue for Aspergers.
    My buddy busted second year calc four times before he got the message and went into our school’s fallback for lost engineering souls, packaging. Did okay for himself. Discovered the Army thought packaging corn flakes was a sufficiently valuable job that he never was drafted.
    You don’t just show up with a slide rule–see the local history museum–if you’re in STEM and want a job. There’s all that business stuff. Meetings, deadlines, working in teams, thinking outside the organizational box. Trying to recall the organization’s goal while immersed to the ears in all those wonderful numbers.
    Problem is, engineers, in my long-gone experience, tended to look down not only on business majors, but on the concept itself. One of my friends went to Michigan Tech where finance and business majors were referred to as “Jewish engineering”. Gives you an idea of what the new engineer grad would think when asked to perform some general business function.
    Lkie anything else, your career is what you make it and some guys will make a good career out of engineering and others will be stuck figuring out fixes for obsolete products.

  12. You know that when the system is broken for people who work their rear ends off to get STEM degrees, then the system is broken for EVERYONE.

    It’s time for our society to rewrite how it works, as it has done many times before. But it’s going to be very unpleasant for Generations X and Y… At least Generation Z will feel like our society isn’t a series of lies on top of opportunities that no longer exist. (We hope.)

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Maybe, regardless of major, college isn’t actually about job preparation.

  14. College was NEVER designed to be about Job Prep. Those skills used to be taught when I attended high school 30 years ago in a class called ‘career education’ which was (in my case) a 45 day (1 school quarter) course taught by a retired military man who swore that by the time we left his class, we would be able to do the following:

    Read and understand an employment ad.
    How to fill out a job application (correctly)
    How to prepare a resume
    How to figure out the requirements and education needed for various vocations/careers
    We had guest speakers, field trips, and the like as well.

    I seriously doubt you’d find any of this information offered in any high school class these days. Also, college was (in my case) never about getting a job, since I’ve worked in a STEM field for 29+ years, but rather getting through the coursework and actually thinking that I accomplished something.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      In our district, it’s called Senior Seminar. Mostly it is for the kids whose parents can’t help them with that sort of thing.

      And, anyway, I know several unemployed plumbers right now. They’re taking a hit along with the rest of new construction labor.