Weathering the Storm

Amid reports that college enrollment in the U.S. fell by 4.1% from spring 2021 to spring 2022, comes a new survey looking at enrollment at engineering schools, which points to a more resilient situation.

By Marc Lefkowitz, SWE Contributor

Standing in stark contrast to a May report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) that showed a significant drop in college enrollment overall in the U.S. over the last 12 months, engineering schools, for now, are weathering the storm.

“The median change in enrollment across the U.S. for those pursuing engineering was zero,” said Joseph Roy, Ph.D., director of institutional research and analytics for the American Society for Engineering Education. ASEE conducts an annual survey of 350 engineering programs of mainly large, but also elite, private universities.

When compared with the sharp loss felt by university engineering programs in 2020, the 2021 numbers suggest enrollment, particularly among women, in engineering programs appears to be stabilizing.

Early in the pandemic, the picture was not so rosy. ASEE found that 3,152 women dropped out of undergraduate engineering programs from 2019 to 2020, led by international students, who accounted for 843 of that loss. The outlook was dire in 2020 for international women pursuing master’s degree programs in engineering, with a loss of 4,221 students, while international women seeking doctoral degrees slipped by 225 in the same period. Dr. Roy attributes the across-the-board loss of international students in 2020 to the uncertainty cast by the Trump administration over immigration policy. He also points out that it may be an outlier in an otherwise steady period of growth for women seeking out U.S. engineering programs.

“The trend had been upward for international students,” said Dr. Roy.

Among the items from the NSCRC report that concern Dr. Roy for engineering schools are lingering doubts among international students, even as the Biden administration has indicated its position to help them secure visas and lift travel restrictions.

“For international students, there’s been a shift in the certainty in immigration policy of the current [Biden] administration, but still lingering effects from the previous administration talking about removing the supports.”

Removing barriers for international women to gain entry to the U.S. will help women at least hold ground with their male counterparts vying for positions in university programs and in research posts. While women account for only 20% of engineering degree seekers, international women constitute two-thirds of the postdoctoral research positions in engineering, Dr. Roy said.

“There’s no way to remove that group and not have a catastrophic impact on research in the U.S.,” he said, adding, “Other countries are competing for that pool of highly competent students and have been explicitly welcoming and letting them know that not only will we support you through completion of graduate programs, but that there is a pathway to citizenship after graduation.”

International students have contributed to growth in undergraduates in engineering as well, which for all genders, have grown by 10% over the course of the last 10 years, Dr. Roy said.

“We’re seeing an increased number of withdrawals from classes, which slows down progression. I’m concerned about that because we want students to progress as quickly as possible.”

– Don Leo, Ph.D., dean, School of Engineering, University of Georgia

Rebounding while facing new challenges

Even after challenging times, such as the Great Recession, engineering schools have seen a steady, upward climb in enrollment. The latest data from ASEE suggests that college and university engineering programs could expect a fast rebound from the pandemic.

“[2021] wasn’t the expected increase,” Dr. Roy said, but, when combined with the hard-hit 2020, “what we see happening for engineering is there’s not that great of a decline. It’s a smaller decline since the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Roy attributes the stability of enrollment in college engineering programs to the perceived value of the degree.

“I think one of the primary drivers of enrollment in engineering is the ability to sense that there are good careers in engineering,” he said. “So, while there have been sentiments against a college degree, and enrollment (overall) has soured some, there is still a sense of getting an engineering degree is worth the cost. If you have to go into debt, it will pay off when you get a career.”

Dr. Roy’s optimism is shared by Don Leo, Ph.D., dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Georgia, who says the university is projecting an enrollment increase of 23% with its fall 2022 first-year class. That aligns with the national survey, which recorded an impressive 4.2% gain in first-time, first-year students from spring 2021 to spring 2022. In fact, these students were one of the bright spots in the NSCRC report.

“Our program has been very resilient here and so has enrollment at UGA,” said Dr. Leo. “ASEE’s data is consistent with what is happening at UGA and with peers (in engineering schools) across the nation holding steady.”

Worrisome perhaps indirectly for engineering schools were the fault lines the NSCRC report exposed between parts of the country and among demographic groups. There were noticeable differences between geographies in who lost the most college students — with the Northeast and parts of the Midwest hit harder than the South and West, for instance. Also, the gain in first-time, first-year students was not shared equally across all demographic groups. In fact, among Black first-year students, their ranks fell by 6.5% since last spring.

Dr. Leo expressed concern that a lack of female students, particularly from underrepresented groups, combined with the impact of a 7.8% enrollment loss experienced at community colleges, which act as a feeder system to colleges with engineering schools, ultimately could impact the ability of engineering firms to fill available positions.

“We see a number of students who transfer to get an engineering degree,” Dr. Leo confirmed. “An overall drop would impact that pathway and potentially reduce the number of those students who would get their engineering degree at UGA.”

More immediately pressing is the so-called persistence of students, or their ability to continue on with college enrollment to completion of their degrees. Two troubling trends have emerged during the pandemic: students taking longer to finish their degrees, and, in some cases, pausing their academic studies.

“We’re seeing an increased number of withdrawals from classes, which slows down progression,” Dr. Leo said. “I’m concerned about that because we want students to progress as quickly as possible.”

Bolstering mental health services; building up peer-to-peer networks, such as student tutoring; and discussing how taxing the pandemic is with administrators such as research advisors are tactics being tried at UGA.

“We want to be more empathetic to these challenges,” Dr. Leo said, “and that means creating a community where there’s not only us and the university helping during these chal-lenging times.”