Engineering Education in Georgia

I spent part of this evening at a great event sponsored by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce to commemorate the launch of ATDC Gwinnett — a joint effort between Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. It’s proof that the traditional rival universities can work well together. But, at every turn for the last few weeks, I’ve been asked: “What do you think about UGA trying to start an engineering school?”

This is probably as good a place as any to restate my standard disclaimer: even though I work for Georgia Tech, anything I write on this blog is my personal opinion, and shouldn’t be construed as an official opinion of anybody else.

Okay, that being said… UGA already offers ten engineering degrees at the B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. levels. Mostly, these are in areas (like agricultural engineering) where Georgia Tech doesn’t have a program or where UGA has carved out a particular niche that doesn’t overlap too much with GT. What’s new is that UGA is now seeking Board of Regents permission to offer electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering programs… the core of Georgia Tech’s franchise in the state.

Michael Adams, president of UGA, makes several claims in support of his goal.

Georgia Tech isn’t meeting the needs of Georgia employers for more engineers.

I haven’t seen a shred of evidence to support this. Indeed, many of GT’s engineering graduates leave the state in search of employment. Anecdotally, at least, many of these would stay in Georgia if there were jobs available here for them.

And if there were a sudden groundswell of Georgia employers needing more engineers, it’s certainly cheaper and easier to increase capacity at Georgia Tech (including our Savannah campus, and the increasingly-popular engineering transfer program where students spend freshman and sophomore years at another unit in the Board of Regents system) than to start a brand new program at UGA.

Georgia Tech doesn’t admit enough Georgia high school graduates who want to study engineering.

There used to be an unwritten pact between Georgia Tech and the high schools in Georgia. It was “If you graduate from a Georgia high school with decent grades, we’ll let you into Georgia Tech. We will do our worst to wash you out early, and only the very best of you will survive.” Freshmen would be assembled and told, “Look to your left, look to your right. Only one of you will graduate from Georgia Tech.”

We now live in a kinder, gentler, less brutally Darwinian world. Georgia Tech, like most other top-rated schools, receives far more applications for admission that we can support, so we go through an elaborate weeding-out process before admitting someone to the freshman class. (This year, we enrolled 2,717 freshmen, our largest class ever, out of over 13,000 applications.) The goal today is retention… if we let you in, we think you’re good enough to be here, and we want you to graduate. About 81% of our students do.

So here, Mike Adams has a point. If you’re graduating from high school in Georgia with a straight B average and 1100 on your SATs, you’re not going to get into Georgia Tech.

But, here’s what Adams doesn’t say: You’re not going to get into UGA, either.

For UGA’s freshman class. the average high school GPA is actually a hair better than Georgia Tech’s. And their average SAT, although 100 points lower than ours, is a still-respectable 1237. (This is on the 1600-point, or “real,” SAT scale; I don’t understand 2400-point SATs.) All rivalry-inspired kidding aside, UGA is a damned good school, and they’re selective in their freshman admissions, also. I suspect any student in the UGA Honors program could get a degree from Georgia Tech.

Can you really see Mike Adams going to his faculty and saying “I want us to offer a third-rate engineering program, made up of the students not good enough to get into Georgia Tech”???

Of course not. His goal would be to build a top-tier undergraduate and graduate program with top-tier students and top-tier research awards. So your 1100-point SATs aren’t going to waltz you in to a hypothetical new engineering school at UGA.

Today, in that situation, you probably go to Auburn or Clemson or UT-Knoxville. In a future that holds a UGA engineering school… you probably go to Auburn or Clemson or UT-Knoxville.

Today’s focus on interdisciplinary research means UGA scientists have to partner with non-UGA engineering faculty to win grants.

Yep. Absolutely true. And Georgia Tech researchers partner with UGA researchers a lot. Happy to do more. Of course, that means we get part of the grant money. What was it that Mark Felt said to Bob Woodward?

An Expensive Option

With all that being said… engineering education is expensive. Nothing except medical schools cost more. And Georgia is broke. We already have one of the very best engineering schools in the world at Georgia Tech. (There are more rankings that I can shake a stick at… but, basically, we’re probably in the Top Five in the US, indisputably in the Top Ten, and respected surveys from England and China both think we’re Top Ten in the world.)

There are arguably a lot of things the state of Georgia could invest in that would have a lot more impact on our students, and our economy.

For one thing, we could invest in our K-12 science and math teachers. That’s a much longer topic than I have room for here, but the current strategy isn’t working, and maybe we should try something else. I think bringing back shop class would be a good start. Shop classes are expensive. They’re a lot less expensive than welfare for the unemployed.

Keep that thought going… we could try to break the current prejudice that a college degree is a prerequisite for a good job, and that someone without a degree is a subhuman troll who probably cannot make change unassisted. That’s nonsense. You don’t need a four-year college degree to run AutoCAD, but that’s a darned good job that can support a middle-class family very nicely. Heck, running a plumbing contracting company can easily elevate you into the ranks of the “rich” as defined by our current tax code!

Far too many kids go to college today because their parents expect it of them, and the kids don’t know what else to do. So they waste four years and $100,000 studying business administration, or journalism, or 16th century Portuguese literature. They’d be far better off spending a few years in the work force, or the military, or at a two-year technical school. Then, if they still have a burning desire to study 16th century Portuguese literature, more power to them! (Someone has to, after all.)

And, parents please take note: After all those tuition payments, and student loans, and multiple degrees, it’s quite possible for your son the radiologist to find his job reading X-rays to be outsourced to Bangalore. Ditto for your daughter the lawyer. It’s pretty darned hard to outsource your plumber. (Or your car mechanic, for that matter. Lots of high-end factory-certified mechanics make over $100,000/year.)

It’s quite possible that when Dr. Adams says Georgia needs more engineering graduates, what he really means is that Georgia needs more technically-trained graduates. That’s probably true, but that’s not a problem that any Board of Regents university can solve. That’s Dean Alford’s challenge over at the Technical College System of Georgia, and I suspect he’d make good use of a few more bucks thrown at him.

Engineering is the new liberals arts degree.

All that being said… I’m a huge fan of engineering undergraduate education. It used to be said that a classic liberal arts education was the foundation of a free citizenry. I no longer believe that. The liberal arts have been hijacked by post-colonial post-rational trans-national elites who are increasingly out of touch with the real world. At the same time, the problems facing the citizenry — from trace pollutants to bioterrorism to human cloning to sustainable energy — demand a higher level of technical knowledge than you can get from a modern “liberal arts” curriculum.

(It shouldn’t be possible to graduate from Harvard without taking calculus. But it is. You can get a degree from Harvard with your sole “quantitative reasoning” class being “Practical Math,” which appears to be a review of basic arithmetic plus tips for using Microsoft Excel.)

Engineering is the new liberal arts degree. *

If you’re 18 years old and have no idea what you want to do with your life… major in engineering! I don’t really care what branch of engineering. The interesting stuff happens at the edges, anyhow (merging electrical engineering with biomedical engineering leads to implantable heart monitors, etc.). But, engineering remains rigorous, engineering remains grounded in reality, and you can’t gobbledygook your way to an engineering degree. If you get the design wrong, or flub the calculations, the bridge will fall down, and not all the neo-Marxist deconstructionist twaddle in the world will change that.

Engineering will kick your butt, but you will learn something… and you’ll learn how to learn. (Something that cannot be said for the earnest young undergraduate who can regurgitate the entire works of Jacques Derrida, but whom I wouldn’t hire as night watchman in a cement factory.) And that will set you up for a lifetime of fulfilling and successful work, whether you choose to continue in engineering, or switch to medicine, or law, or farming, or building electric guitars.

Engineering in Georgia

So, would more engineering education be good for Georgia? I think so. You can count the members of the Georgia Legislature with engineering degrees on one hand. (Sadly, there are only a dozen engineers among the 535 U.S. Congressmen and Senators… a ratio of under 3%.) I’d rather have a few hundred more engineers per year in Georgia than a few hundred more philosophy majors. Even if there’s no crying demand for more 4-year engineering graduates, it’d be good to have quantitative skills more widely distributed in the population.

But it would be relatively straightforward for Georgia Tech to open up a few hundred more engineering undergraduate slots per year. We’d need a few more dollars for instructional faculty, but the curriculum and (expensive!) facilities are all in place.

Starting electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering undergraduate curricula from scratch is expensive. That’s squared and cubed for graduate education. I don’t know what numbers UGA is using internally, but they have to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

The state doesn’t have that kind of money right now. Certainly the Board of Regents doesn’t. So where will it come from?

Academic programs can’t be turned on and off quickly to match demand. If UGA adds new engineering degrees, they’ll be offering those degrees for a long, long time. I hope Georgia’s regents and legislators do the math. Even if they didn’t have to take calculus in college.


  1. My two cents: I got an excellent degree from Georgia Tech and applied to companies both within Georgia and in other states. Big companies, small companies, you name it, I applied for a job with them. I got *one* offer, and it wasn’t in Georgia; so what did I do? I followed the money.

  2. Great post, Steve, especially regarding K-12 education. Unfortunately, changing things at that level (in a controlled, verifiable fashion) seems much more difficult then establishing a new program; certainly there’s fewer immediate results at which one could point…

  3. Isn’t your argument like Delta saying “we need more flights, and Southwest is a great airline, but wouldn’t it be cheaper to just grow Delta?” Competition will be good for both schools.

  4. Will,

    Sure, if Delta and Southwest were funded and operated with taxpayer money instead of being a business.

  5. Will: I’m a huge believer in competition… on level playing fields. In a zero-sum game with a state budget that’s already stretched to the breaking point, competition just means Georgia Tech will find more and more of its resources coming from non-Georgia sources. We’re already down around the 20% point… at what point do we cease to be a public university?

  6. Twelve hours after I posted this, Governor Perdue stepped in and put the brakes on UGA’s request to the Regents.

    I’m glad that the Regents are going to take more time to study the matter. The proposal will now be considered no sooner than the November meeting of the Board of Regents, which is after the election of a new governor. And Georgia Southern will have a proposal for an engineering school at the same meeting. Georgia politics are never boring!

  7. For those who have emailed me liking the phrase “Engineering is the new liberal arts degree”… it’s a great phrase, isn’t it? I wish I could take credit for it. But I stole it from Bill Wepfer, chair of the School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech, and I should have said so in the text.

  8. |I think bringing back shop class would be a good start. Shop classes are |expensive. They’re a lot less expensive than welfare for the unemployed.

    I think that you understate this point a little bit. Very few high school students want to go to Georgia Tech and get an engineering degree. Sadly, most people who are undecided on majors will probably do so based on future job $$$. Shop, on the other hand, drastically increases interests in engineering and building / creating things – actual passion in doing things on your own – not just for a paycheck.

  9. What about Auburn? One complaint that Adams made was that Auburn is stealing GA students. But Auburn WILL let students in with an 1100 SAT and typically before they even start their senior year. Competitively, Auburn actually has more Astronauts (sign of great engineering programs and flight school) than GT.

    And Auburn is almost exactly the same distance away from Atlanta as Athens. If you can get into UGA w/ HOPE, you can get in state tuition at Auburn. You’re much more likely to go to SEC championship games [ok that maybe a little dirty.]

  10. For those of you coming to this post in 2012… we lost this battle a year ago, and UGA will be enrolling its civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers this fall. But the middle bits of my post about the value of engineering education are more true than ever!