More kids are graduating from high school with the passion and the qualifications to pursue higher education in STEM fields. But we don’t have the capacity in our universities to provide these students with the education required to qualify for a bow wave of engineering jobs.
THE Seattle Times’ report on the University of Washington’s engineering program highlighted the problem of too many highly qualified students competing for too few slots. The UW and the state of Washington have been working together for several years to solve this challenge and our progress has been good. But we need to do better.
Nationally, Washington state is in an enviable position: Our region is expected to create 740,000 new jobs over the next five years. Many of these openings will require postsecondary education, especially in engineering. The state’s Connecting Washington transportation package and Sound Transit’s expansion will require more civil engineers. Bioengineers play a large role in the region’s prominence in biotech. Electrical engineers and computer scientists drive technological innovation and many types of engineers fuel the aerospace industry. Yet Washington state ranks 49th in the nation in the production of engineers, based on the size of our engineering workforce. We simply don’t have anywhere near the capacity needed in our universities to provide Washington students with the education required to qualify for those positions.
Student demand for engineering education is soaring. More than 2,000 incoming UW Seattle freshmen indicate an interest in an engineering major, up almost 50 percent over the past five years. But only about a third of those freshmen can be accommodated with current UW resources.
Our state has been very successful in promoting STEM programs in K-12 schools. More kids are graduating from high school with the passion and the qualifications to pursue higher education in STEM fields. STEM programs can be successful only if we build education as a system that begins in elementary school and continues through the university.
Thanks to past investments by the Legislature, industry, community and the University, the UW has been able to increase engineering enrollment by 40 percent over the past seven years, expand computer science facilities and grow diversity and access opportunities. We are currently asking the Legislature to invest $16 million in the next biennium to allow us to increase combined enrollment in high-demand fields across our three campuses (Bothell, Seattle and Tacoma).
As a first-generation college graduate, I understand how access to higher-education transforms lives. In the last few years, we have taken significant steps to expand our student support programs and educational offerings in the UW College of Engineering. We opened an Engineering Career Center to better place students with industry partners, and expanded our Engineering Academic Center to support students as they move through a rigorous curriculum. We have launched and grown access programs such as STARS and Math Academy to ensure that students from economically disadvantaged and educationally underserved backgrounds across the state can successfully pursue engineering degrees. We lead the nation in the percentage of female engineering faculty members and are working hard to attract more female students to engineering with access programs like Women in Science & Engineering.
The university is actively pursuing revisions to the admission process that would allow students to receive direct admission to engineering programs. If approved, this policy will provide incoming students and their families with the certainty that they can pursue an engineering degree at the UW, beginning in their freshman year. However, a revised admission process will not open more seats to qualified and interested students — that will require state investment.
Investment in engineering education is in our region’s economic self-interest. For every engineer in the field, there are directly related well-paying technical and support jobs. The huge demand that is projected for engineers isn’t sustainable if we can’t supply it. In the short-term, companies can backfill their needs by attracting talent from other regions. But in the longer term, companies, especially new and growing companies, will locate where they can find a well-educated workforce.
The popularity of engineering isn’t a fad. It’s our future. The UW College of Engineering produces more than 50 percent of the engineering graduates in Washington state every year. Whether in aerospace, biotech, transportation and infrastructure, or software design, our iconic local companies need engineers. More state investment could help loosen the bottleneck and provide life-changing opportunities for Washington’s young people and long-term benefits to our economy.