Why It Is Important to Raise the Educational Bar for Future Engineering Licensure
Prepared by the NSPE Licensure and Qualifications for Practice Committee
In the past 40 years, the world has changed, and the nature of the practice of engineering at a professional level has changed with it. The planning, design, and implementation of engineering projects now takes place fully in a societal context, requiring extensive public and stakeholder input in project decision-making and heightened consideration of economic, environmental, public policy, code compliance, legal, and regulatory matters. More than ever before, this requires advanced professional practice skills on the part of professional engineers in the areas of communication and leadership as well as a broad understanding of the societal context. In technical areas, an explosion of scientific and engineering information has led to the need for both greater breadth of science and engineering knowledge and for much greater depth of technical knowledge in ever-narrowing areas of technical practice.
The education of engineers in preparation for professional practice in a four-year baccalaureate program faces two daunting and equally important challenges. First, the body of knowledge required for practice as a professional engineer has been and is expanding rapidly, both in terms of science and engineering knowledge and skills, and the need for more professional practice skills. This expanded body of knowledge no longer fits in the four year “bucket.” Secondly, the “bucket” is getting smaller. A BS in engineering in the 1930s typically required 150 or more credits. In the 1970s, it was typically in the mid-130s. Now, it is trending toward 120. Of the programs that report credit requirements to the American Society for Engineering Education, 17% are now at 120, and the median is less than 128. Each year, several more institutions drop their engineering program requirements to 120 credits.
The combination of an expanding body of knowledge and declining credit requirements has resulted primarily in a decrease in engineering content in terms of both breadth and depth. Each program deals with the narrowing of curriculum requirements in its own way. As examples of long-term changes in civil engineering curriculum content, programs have been reducing requirements for thermodynamics, electrical circuits, surveying (yielding future engineers who lack a basic understanding of geometrics), engineering economics (yielding future engineers who don’t understand the concept of present worth and the time value of money), and/or upper-level undergraduate engineering electives needed to provide any manner of technical depth.
Not all programs make all of these types of changes, but these are examples of compromises that are made. This year, at least two U.S. civil engineering programs announced changes to no longer require dynamics, yielding future engineers who have very limited backgrounds in the engineering science of motion and momentum. None of these changes are positive. Each change reduces the breadth and/or depth of science and engineering background at a time when the background required for practice at the professional level is increasing. Furthermore, we are generally not expanding the professional practice content in engineering education, even though professional practice requirements are accelerating.
It is for these reasons that the National Academy of Engineering—formed to advise the U.S. Congress on engineering matters—concluded in a major report that “it is evident that the exploding body of science and engineering knowledge cannot be accommodated within the context of the conventional four year baccalaureate degree.”
Virtually every other profession in the U.S. has faced the fact that the body of knowledge required to practice at a professional level (i.e., licensure) necessitates education beyond the baccalaureate level. It is not surprising that engineering has reached this point as well. In fact, the representatives from the state boards that form the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying concluded in 2006 that the current educational situation for engineers will not be adequate in the future. In response, NCEES changed its model state licensure law (effective no earlier than 2020) to require additional education beyond the bachelor’s degree for newly licensed professional engineers.
The purposes of requiring additional engineering education as a prerequisite for licensure as a professional engineer are to maintain technical and professional excellence as the engineering body of knowledge continues to expand and to assure the profession’s continued ability to protect and enhance the public health, safety, and welfare. This is not about prestige, or about compensation, or about “keeping up with the Joneses” (other professions). It is about keeping pace with the minimum requirements for practice as a professional engineer.
NCEES Model Law 2020 Provisions
As did the previous NCEES Model Law, the current version requires a candidate for licensure as a professional engineer to possess a degree from a program accredited by ABET’s Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) or equivalent, pass both the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Principles and Practices of Engineering (PE) exams, and have a record of at least four years or more of progressive engineering experience. What’s new in the Model Law 2020 provisions are requirements for post-BS education as a prerequisite for licensure after 2020. After a state adopts the Model Law, a candidate for an initial license would possess either:
- A baccalaureate degree from an EAC-ABET accredited program plus a master’s degree in engineering from an institution that offers EAC-ABET accredited programs, or;
- A baccalaureate degree from an EAC-ABET accredited program plus the equivalent of 30 additional credits of upper level undergraduate or graduate level coursework from approved providers, or;
- A master’s in engineering degree from an EAC-ABET accredited master’s program, or;
- A baccalaureate degree from an EAC-ABET accredited program consisting of at least 150 semester credit hours, of which at least 75 credit hours are in engineering, and at least 115 credit hours are in engineering, math, and science.
The Model Law 2020 provisions provide a great deal of flexibility for alternate pathways of meeting the new requirements.
Engineering master’s programs can be practice and project oriented (and need not be research oriented), consistent with the individual’s (and employer’s) needs. High quality online distance learning methods are anticipated to be a less costly and more convenient option for working engineers. Some in academia predict that distance learning will likely comprise more than half of graduate engineering education in the future.
The option of the BS degree plus the equivalent of 30 additional credits is proposed to provide working engineers an avenue to meet the requirements by means of practice-oriented, industry-provided education/training in addition to university options. At least half of the 30 credits would be in math, science, engineering, or engineering management topics, while the other half could be in professional practice topics outside of engineering. The approval of providers and the tracking and approval of individual records for this option would occur within a “clearinghouse” established by NCEES.
Some Issues to Consider
A number of issues often surface during discussions of what has become known as the Raise the Bar initiative. Here is a sampling.
- How will the supply of engineers and engineering enrollments be affected?—Accounting and pharmacy, for example, have raised the bar for educational requirements, and no shortages exist. In fact, most professions have raised the bar, with no effect on supply. Those entering professions have invested, and will invest, the time and resources required to obtain an adequate education for professional practice. It is widely known within the civil engineering discipline, for example, that these new requirements are anticipated, and civil engineering enrollments in many programs throughout the U.S. are at an all-time high.
- Are licensure exam pass rates of concern?—Licensure exam pass rates are still low; some 30%-–40% of our graduates who take the exams are unable to pass. However, qualifications for engineering licensure are not based solely on exams but rather on the “three-legged stool” of education, examination, and experience. The FE and PE exams address a small sample of the full body of knowledge imparted in engineering education. The three legs of the stool are all different, and each leg is equally and separately important in assuring engineering qualifications. We don’t educate engineers so that they can pass exams. We educate, examine, and review the experience of engineers to assure that they are qualified to practice and to protect the public health, safety, and welfare.
- Will licensure comity be impacted?—Engineering comity works better now than it ever has in the past. The Model Law 2020 provisions have been carefully thought out, with separate definitions of a Model Law Engineer and a Model Law 2020 Engineer to ensure that comity will continue to work equally well when these new provisions are adopted. Duly qualified model law engineers licensed in any jurisdiction prior to the effective date of the new requirements can be fully mobile. Licensure comity is not a significant concern. It will work.
- Why not require all engineers, including those not on a licensure track, to meet these standards?—Some contend that engineering education should be reformed so that all receiving baccalaureate degrees meet similar additional education standards, since only about 20% of engineering graduates become licensed as professional engineers. The fact is that many graduate engineers who do not become licensed as professional engineers do not practice engineering but rather enter other fields. A BS in engineering is a beginning point for many different careers. There is no advocate in the engineering profession for increasing educational requirements beyond the four-year baccalaureate level for engineering graduates who do not pursue licensure.
- Is damage currently being done or is this initiative proactive?—The Raise the Bar initiative is forward-looking. It is intended to assure that future engineering standards of excellence and competence are adequate for the continued protection and enhancement of the public health, safety, and welfare.
With this initiative, engineers are preparing for the future by proposing a needed new baseline of professionalism. It is time to Raise the Bar.
The NSPE Licensure and Qualifications for Practice Committee was pleased to participate in a Raise the Bar seminar offered in Nebraska in September 2012 and to provide this summary of the initiative. This special NSPE report was unanimously approved by the L&QP Committee, the members of which are indicated below. The committee roster consists of agricultural, chemical, civil, environmental, mechanical, and electrical engineers and includes five past presidents of NSPE and two past presidents of NCEES.
2012–2013 NSPE Licensure & Qualifications for Practice Committee:
|Craig N. Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE (Chairman)
Jon D. Nelson, P.E. (Vice Chairman)
J. Steven Almon, P.E., CFM, F.NSPE
Bernard R. Berson, P.E., L.S., F.NSPE
Howard N. Blitman, P.E., F.NSPE
Josephine L. Emerick, P.E., F.NSPE
Jeffrey H. Greenfield, Ph.D., P.E., F.NSPE
Andrew S. Haimes, P.E., F.NSPE
Scott S. Haraburda, Ph.D., P.E.
Thomas “Dudley” Hixson, P.E., F.NSPE
L.G. "Skip" Lewis, P.E., F.NSPE
James T. McCarter, P.E., F.NSPE
James H. Milligan, Ph.D., P.E.
||Lawrence J. O’Connor, P.E., L.S., F.NSPE
John F. Ourada, P.E., F.NSPE, Chair
Monte L. Phillips, Ph.D., P.E., F.NSPE
Peter Pisasale, P.E.
Teresa Helmlinger Ratcliff, Ph.D., P.E., F.NSPE
Paul D. Schmidt, P.E., F.NSPE
L. Robert “Larry” Smith, P.E., F.NSPE
Paul K. Taormina, P.E.
Kirankumar V. Topudurti, Ph.D.,P.E.,BCEE, F.NSPE
Stuart G. Walesh, P.E., F.NSPE
V. Alan Werner, P.E., F.NSPE
William F. Fendley, P.E., F.NSPE (Observer)
Arthur E. Schwartz, CAE, JD (Staff Liaison - NSPE L&QP Committee)