The Data Is Out There – But You Need To Look For It

In my previous post, I noted a growing interest in the Internet as a source of information about college. This post seeks to support an even more ambitious statement:  college counselors must regard the Internet as a critical source of information.

Consider this post to be Exhibit A in my case for using the Internet to assist students and their families:  the plight of the prospective undergraduate engineering student. This post concentrates on how the Internet can be mined for information which will help us avoid a “bad” placement.

At first glance, advising a pre-engineering student would appear to be easy work. There are relatively few engineering schools among the over 2,000 four-year institutions in the United States. The curriculum does not vary among those engineering schools, at least within a particular sub-specialty – such as electrical engineering – because ABET (the accrediting body for engineering education) requires a standard curriculum. Most engineering positions do not require state licensure, allowing students to work anywhere in the United States.

Pick the top-rated engineering schools that are likely to admit your student, in desirable locations, with reasonable tuitions, print out a list of that information, and you’re done. Right?

It’s not that simple.

While the engineering curriculum may not be changing, the rest of the engineering school environment is undergoing a rapid and radical transformation because of the swelling popularity of the major. According to Forbes magazine:

The most popular college major choice for high school seniors surveyed by Career Builder—the majority of whom already have a career in mind—is engineering. (

This is a recent development. As noted in “The Stem Enrollment Boom”:

Using data collected by UCLA, Jacobs and Sax write that from 1997 through 2005, the proportion of freshmen planning to enroll in STEM fields declined, hitting a low in 2005 of 20.7 percent. After modest gains in 2006 and 2007, real increases started to show up in 2008. The percentage of freshmen planning to major in STEM increased from 21.1 percent in 2007 to 28.2 percent in 2011, just as the recession was prompting many students and families to focus on the job potential of various fields of study. That represents a 48 percent increase in just a few years.


Engineering is the “hot major” of this decade. More students – and perhaps equally important – parents, are seeing it as the best path to probable employment after graduation.

Unfortunately, many of these students are lambs heading for slaughter unless you do some homework for your client. An examination of that vast library of information – the Internet – reveals why.

Engineering is increasingly regarded as a pre-professional major. By that I mean that unless you begin college as an engineering major (or “pre-major”), you cannot change your mind and enter the program later. Many colleges require that applicants specify their intent to enter an engineering program; these programs typically have tougher admissions standards than other departments. If at first you do not succeed in winning admission as an engineering major, well, thank you for playing – and goodbye. Consider the admissions decision one of my clients received this year from Purdue – admittedly an engineering powerhouse – after applying as a potential engineering major:

Thank you for your interest in Purdue. Unfortunately, because of the demand for the major to which you applied far exceeds its capacity, we cannot accommodate all applicants. However, you’re an excellent student who can succeed at Purdue. Therefore, we’d like to consider you for admission to an alternative major on our West Lafayette campus – and there are a number of outstanding programs.

To request an alternative major . . . submit the online form. 

When completing the form, please select a major in which you are truly interested. If you are admitted, we cannot guarantee you would be able to switch from the alternative major into the major you originally requested on your application. Typically, majors that are in very high demand at the admission stage also have limited capacity for enrolled students seeking to switch. 

Although we are not able to admit you to the major you requested originally, we hope you will request to be admitted to an alternative major. Earning a Purdue degree is a meaningful achievement that can open doors throughout your life. 

My client will not be a Boilermaker (Purdue’s mascot) engineer. For your information, here are just a few other colleges with similar policies: (minimum 3.5 GPA in technical subjects) (space available and grades) (grades)

The effect of these policies is to require high school students to commit to engineering well before they understand what that commitment entails. Unfortunately, not every prospective engineering major has the talent or inclination to become an engineer. One estimate pegs the attrition rate at an eye-watering 40% after the freshman year. See This information should not be surprising – how many high school students have actual experience with engineering work, and in particular, with the extremely difficult mathematics involved?

Worse, an unsuccessful foray into pre-engineering and engineering course work can damage a student’s GPA and graduate school prospects. Unlike other departments, grade deflation rules the day at engineering schools. Per the New York Times:

After studying nearly a decade of transcripts at one college, Kevin Rask, then a professor at Wake Forest University, concluded last year that the grades in the introductory math and science classes were among the lowest on campus. The chemistry department gave the lowest grades over all, averaging 2.78 out of 4, followed by mathematics at 2.90. Education, language and English courses had the highest averages, ranging from 3.33 to 3.36.  Ben Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found in a similar study that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors.


Students who wash out of engineering programs are left at a serious disadvantage when applying to graduate programs, where the overall undergraduate GPA is a critical factor in admission. I will have more to say about this in another post.

But the problem which draws my attention today is that just battling to get into an engineering program is not enough. For many schools, a new competition begins on Day 1 of freshman year, and the stakes are high.

Some colleges do not admit students directly into their engineering major. Rather, they admit them as “pre-majors”. Admission to the major requires an additional application after the student’s sophomore or junior year.

You might think of this as an innocuous feature designed to make sure that students with little talent do not advance – a sort of early warning system that this career may not be for you. And once upon a time, it probably was.

Not anymore, and you will only learn that hard fact from the Internet.

Consider the University of Washington, a top-ranked engineering school. The Engineering Department only admits 10-20% of applicants directly. The rest are required to apply later, as juniors. See

What happens to the rest?  It isn’t pretty:


No, please. Click that link. You will have to read it to believe it. Hit the Back button on your browser when you are done, and we will proceed.

You will not find this article in the information distributed by the University of Washington to visiting students. But Google did. To summarize, the majority of these very bright and talented students fail to get into their engineering sub-specialty. (Thus, the would-be aeronautical engineer may have to settle for industrial engineering – much like a would-be brain surgeon ending up as a general practitioner.)  Some students get into none of the available sub-specialties, and either switch majors or transfer to schools to finish their engineering degree.

Like many universities, the University of Washington has endured massive budget cuts. Unfortunately, its response has been to turn its Engineering Department into a collegiate version of the “Hunger Games”. Maybe Purdue did my client a favor by turning him away at the outset.

Before outraged UW alumni and administrators lunge to their keyboards to leave comments, I concede that many engineering schools use “weed out” courses to thin out their classes. (At Georgia Tech, disappointed students refer to the common practice of transferring out to a Business major as “taking the B train”.)

And the old “Paper Chase” movie line about Harvard Law School (“look to your left, now to your right – because one of you won’t be here by the end of the year”) makes it clear that this sort of winnowing has a long history, even outside engineering. (See Wikipedia for more information about just that winnowing at Harvard.

However, I see a difference between requiring students to take extremely difficult introductory courses which award very low grades and UW’s practice of setting a very high bar merely to get into the major. The former practice still allows students to graduate in engineering unless they literally flunk out.

As the old joke goes, “what do they call a medical student at the bottom of his class?  Doctor.”

Students who fail to make UW’s cut have already invested years of tuition, and may incur further costs if they have to transfer to schools which do not accept all of their credits. They may have thought that UW accepted as freshmen only those whom it planned to graduate as engineers. Sadly, no.

The problem with UW’s enrollment control strategy is that students do not learn about it until it is far too late for them to change course (literally). The rules are virtually undisclosed until you begin matriculating at UW; unless you do extensive research on the Internet, you will not discover the problem. As a college counselor, the worst thing you can do is to set a student up for failure without even knowing the risks.

How bad is the situation at UW?

As the title of this post states, “The Data Is Out There – But You Need To Look For It.”

If you look (hard) for it, you will find a UW Engineering database where you can look up acceptance rates by sub-specialty (such as biomedical engineering or aeronautical engineering), by academic year, and even rates for under-represented and minority students. See

Variables include the department (sub-specialty), the quarter (first-time applicants apply in the Fall), and whether the student is already at UW or is a transfer candidate. There are also variables for gender and minority status.

Acceptance rates range from 30% to 45%. Fewer than half are accepted into the major. Further, this helpful table shows that UW’s winnowing has become much more severe since the recession. See

This information is not mentioned in college guidebooks or the university’s glossy brochure. Once I pointed it out, my client did not apply to UW.

But UW may not be an outlier for much longer. Other schools are looking to control enrollment in this suddenly “hot” major.

Did you know that the Ohio State University keeps records – online – of its committee meetings?  Consider this nugget from the minutes of a College of Engineering Committee on Academic Affairs meeting in 2013.

10.1.1 We have 1750 new first semester freshmen this year and have 2300 students taking one of our Introduction to Engineering courses this semester.

10.1.2. We have a massive enrollment bubble going through the college, but our new enrollment management plans should help keep our enrollment under control.

And what might those enrollment management plans entail?

The plan was approved by the university and programs were required to create their own enrollment management plan that needed to be approved by ASAP. These policies are important to Engineering as it appears that we will have about 1,800 new freshmen this coming autumn. Part of the college’s enrollment management plan is increasing the requirements for admission of transfer students.

And that is exactly what Ohio State has done. Students applying to their sub-specialty majors in 2015-16 will find that the GPA requirements are significantly tougher than in previous years. Again, you can find this information on OSU’s website, but only if you know where to look:  (compare with

In sum, the world is changing for engineering students. But unless you turn to the Internet, you will not detect and appreciate the magnitude of that change.

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