Is the ordinary college education the best route to become an engineer? Some no longer think so, as tuition costs have skyrocketed over the last several decades while quality of education has decreased, manifested in the rise of postmodernism in academia and a growing fraction of college courses devoid of educational value. The engineering education problem can be approached as we do other problems: first define it and then seek alternative solutions.
As an E.E. Oregon State U. graduate of 1972, I paid about $1500 1968 US dollars for tuition, books, and room-and-board for my freshman year and about $2500 for my senior (1972) year. A friend of mine at the same time who went to MIT paid about $5000 per year. A class of ’72 MIT E.E. would have consequently paid about $20,000 for a BSEE-level education. This could be paid back in about 2 to 3 years by a debt-averse engineer. Today, one can easily expect to pay $40,000 to $60,000 (or much more) for an undergraduate education. Though intervening wages have also increased, they have not kept pace with college costs, and payback time has extended.
A subtle but pervasive side-effect on youth leaving home and going to college is the intellectual and moral milieu of academia. Like the firemen who went around starting fires in Ray Bradbury’s story, Fahrenheit 451 , the schools are yet another American institution in which one can find an inversion of original purpose. While engineering and the physical sciences are not as subject to the propagandizing and mind-fogging effects of some other study choices, college environments nowadays tend to mold students into an anti-intellectual mind-set that irrationally fails to distinguish (or “discriminate”) between incompatible systems of thought, and pressures acceptance of them all (though incompatible) as “tolerance” and “diversity”. Put simply, the mainstream-education buyer is given no real choice regarding what is bought. To find product differentiation one must move outside the box of Establishment academia.
I do not need to make an extended argument to most engineers about the absurdity that much of academia has become. Some clear-headed professors have already made the point in a few succinct quotes at the World Wide Web server on the Pegasus machine, the departmental web server for the University of Central Florida..
From this site, I offer in passing a couple of quotes that gives its flavor. In ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education (St. Martin's Press, 1989), Charles Sykes writes, quoting another book making the same point:
The use of jargon, obfuscating convolutions and “nebulous verbosity,” Stanislav Andreski noted in his classic The Social Sciences as Sorcery , “opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly.” Andreski proposed a formula of his own: Verbiage increases to the extent that ambition exceeds knowledge.
In the abovementioned book, Andreski also wrote:
Possessing only a very approximate and tentative knowledge, mostly of the rule-of-thumb kind, and yet able to exert much influence through his utterances, a practitioner of the social sciences often resembles a witch-doctor who speaks with a view to the effects his words may have rather than to their factual correctness; and then invents fables to support what he has said, and to justify his position in the society.
The readiness to assume that everything that one does not understand must be nonsense cannot fail to condemn one to eternal ignorance; and consequently, the last thing I would wish to do is give encouragement to lazy dim-wits who gravitate towards the humanistic and social studies as a soft option, and who are always on the lookout for an excuse for not working. So, it is tragic that the professiorial jargon-mongers have provided such loafers with good grounds for indulging in their proclivities.
Though with some effort one can find exceptions to Andreski’s point, it is nevertheless likely to resonate a chord or two among engineers who have experienced the truth of it. But enough said of the characteristics of the problem. How can it be solved? Given that the above malaise is wide-spread in government and Establishment academia, we will need to be creative and broaden the scope of our solution search to outside of this “box” of the present suboptimal solutions for achieving an engineering education.
In addressing the financial aspect of the education problem, former Stanford U. economics professor, prolific author, world-watcher and financial advisor Gary North does not think a college education nowadays is worth the money. His website offers alternatives for obtaining a college education at a deep discount; see this article here.
In this article, he writes:
Every system has loopholes. Loopholes are official exceptions that are mandatory for any system to be consistent with its official standards, but which would threaten its economic survival if more than a small minority of users took advantage of these loopholes. Higher education is no exception.
One of the factors impacting cost is the motivation for obtaining an accredited degree, or a degree from a particular category of colleges. As North writes:
A degree from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton will have a lot more prestige than one from any of the colleges I discuss. But will that degree get its holder a job that pays 10 times more (after taxes) than a degree from a college that costs 10 times less? Not likely.
The best engineering schools, such as MIT or CMU, cost more than J. Random State U., though the differential is not as wide as among the Ivy League schools, which do not stand out in prestige because of their engineering. Yet cost is high even for those not enamored by sheepskins or academic renown but who simply want to acquire the skills. North illustrates this point;
If you have ever seen the movie, Good Will Hunting , you probably remember the scene in the restaurant where Will, a high school graduate who is a genius, blows away a hot-shot Harvard student. Will knows more than he does. That’s because Will has spent a lot of time in the public library, and he remembers everything he has read. He tells the Harvard student that he is spending a fortune to learn what Will has learned at the public library.
North has researched the financial aspect of the education problem and, on the above webpage, offers for a rather low price (under $100 US) seven loopholes in gaining a discount college education that he has found.
The other aspect of the education problem is what you get for your money and avoidance of the abovementioned side-effects of living for a few years in an academic milieu. We now move even farther outside the box, a box with bulging sides and weakened corrugation that will lead an increasing fraction of prospective engineers to look beyond its familiar boundaries. And well outside it is the do-it-yourself route, a route like the one Will in the above-cited movie took.
I went the traditional government-college route to a degree in electrical engineering. I would sit in class lectures and soon realized I had a choice. I could either pay close attention to the arguments and derivations as the professor presented them on the chalkboard; or I could carefully write down what he wrote on the board, though if I paid attention to that, I would be unable to follow the presentation. I opted for the latter and learned the concepts out of the book, with lecture notes as supplements. Nowadays, the availability of computerized class presentations helps, though I expect that most of the actual learning comes from reading textbooks. No wonder the British talk about which university they “read” at. Why not just read at home and save the money?
Many engineering students are afraid of not obtaining a degree from an accredited school because they believe they need it as a prerequisite for a decent engineering job in government or industry. They go the familiar academic route not only to learn but to obtain an accrediting document. There certainly are hiring organizations who require sheepskins, though some of the best companies have not. GE did not care about Steinmetz’s academic credentials. Nor were Edison and, more recently, Bill Lear and Bill Gates, unable to excel without college degrees. The first recipient of the Howard Vollum Prize of Tektronix, given for creative contributions in engineering, went to Art Metz who had a two-year technician degree from DeVry in Chicago. He was a top Tektronix design engineer.
If one is not inclined to work for a large corporation or government, with their standardized requirements to accommodate their high volume of hiring, but to find a niche in a smaller, growing company, then formal certifications are less important than demonstrable skills. Nowadays, much leading-edge activity and industrial dynamism is found in the smaller start-ups (or up-starts, as viewed by the large corporations) and are preferred places to exercise one’s skills and anticipate financial rewards. They are often founded by those from large organizations who are capable enough to go on their own. They consequently are often excellent creators of old H-P or Tektronix-culture technical environments.
To go the home-school engineering route, it has to be approached comprehensively. The need for adequate prior education alternatives are either previous home-schooling or careful choice of a school that offers real and acceptable education. A physicist friend of mine who also lived here in the jungle had five bright sons whom he educated. I asked him what year of school one of them was in and I received a puzzled stare. They have obviously moved beyond formal conceptual categories engrained into most of us about education. They start studying and keep going. The second-oldest son is finishing calculus and is about 15 years of age. These sons will receive a college-level education in largely the same way I did, by reading textbooks (and also a few webpages nowadays, but mostly paper books) and working problems in them. They will be debt-free and also free of a muddled outlook by the time they have competent scientific or engineering skills, and no degree. Tutored by a PhD in particle physics, their resumes (should they ever need them) could reflect this. So far, none of them have needed it.
Such a resume would weed out hirers who are stuck on inside-the-box workers. The most creative ones are likely to be overlooked that way. And with the trend toward global economic collapse, they have a home-spun orientation that lets them apply their skills to the situation at hand rather then be stuck in an employee-employer mode lacking employers. The academic world does not teach much in the way of survival skills nor is there much “homestead engineering” taught in engineering departments either.
We live at a time when information has never been freer and so widely available in such abundance. The Web has got to be the largest library ever known to humanity, and with a very low accessibility barrier. The changing parameters of society are leading forward-thinking people to take them into account. Just as blacksmiths have gone their way, so might high-priced, low-quality, academic-style education institutions.
With demographics showing an aging population in the developed world, including engineers, many of us can finish our years with the satisfying and legacy-leaving task of taking some prospective engineering youth under our tutorship and, like the guilds of the Middle Ages, work as master with apprentices, passing along to them our better engineering (and related) skills. Prospective apprentices could benefit from a website that connects masters and apprentices, if this approach were to become better known. My youthful experience in the Tektronix work-study program has convinced me that this is by far the best way to become an engineer: Study it and do it at the same time, under the supervision of those skilled in the art and capable of conveying their theoretical concepts and know-how to the next generation in a setting that applies them.