Skip to main content

News & events

The cost of engineering's capacity problem

April 27, 2012

Like many of her post-dot-com-bubble peers, UW sophomore KeliAnne Hara focuses her career sights on a bigger picture, beyond mere economic self-interest. An aspiring bioengineer, she wants to make a difference, to impact the environment or basic infrastructure, or work in global health.

The 20-year-old forged a stellar academic achievement record. A well-rounded student, she entered the UW with an impressive Issaquah high school transcript packed with advanced placement credits and extra-curricular skills. She slam-dunked her UW engineering prerequisites.

Confident but cautious, she applied to the bioengineering program at the UW College of Engineering. Then, in what seems like a strange plot twist, a rejection email dropped in her inbox. As has happened to so many others, she slammed head-on into the capacity problem.

“It was incredibly competitive and I didn't get in,” Hara said. “At the UW, you can be smart, but not smart enough.”

Hers is not an isolated example. Good students collide into the capacity wall all the time. Sadly, the UW College of Engineering is unable to accommodate hundreds of highly qualified students every quarter – redirecting them to other departments, or dispatching them to other schools, often out of state.

“It was incredibly competitive and I didn't get in,” Hara said. “At the UW, you can be smart, but not smart enough.”
KeliAnne Hara UW sophomore

The capacity problem is not a soft rain, misting lightly on a select few; it's a downpour. Last year, in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering – the most over-subscribed department in the College – only 30 percent of qualified applicants could be accommodated. Last year, the college as a whole turned away more than 500 prospective engineering majors. Nearly half of upper-division applicants saw their goals blocked.

“It is heartbreaking,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering. “We are sending away outstanding students who would absolutely succeed in the program. It's depriving students of the preparation they need, and it's depriving employers of the employees they need.”

Acutely aware of the conditions, administrators are exploring alternatives for growing enrollments, increasing student financial aid, and promoting engineering education.

The Governor and legislature recently approved a proposal to increase capacity in engineering programs. This will begin to address the backlog of students seeking an engineering education.

“Nobody likes the access predicament,” says Matthew O'Donnell, dean of the UW College of Engineering. “We aren't talking about turning away kids who can't do algebra. We turn away UW students who have completed pre-reqs and have well above 3.0 averages, and we can't accommodate them.”

graphic showing Washington needs about 1,000 more baccalaureate and graduate level engineers each year

Student demand far outstrips supply of classroom – and perhaps more importantly – laboratory seats. Paradoxically, at the same time, high-tech companies locally and nationally clamor for engineering talent. If the College doubled the number of engineers it graduated, local industry would absorb them all, O'Donnell insists.

Among the overall engineering applicant pool, Lazowska said, 40 percent of the students who were rejected carried G.P.A.s of 3.25 or higher. In computer science, it climbs to 60 percent.

At present, the two primary funding sources for undergraduate education – state funds and tuition – are increasingly inadequate. In fact, the UW's state funding has been cut 50 percent – over $200 million – in the past three years. In 1990, the state provided nearly 80 percent of funds to educate students; today the state funds only about 30 percent. Tuition has risen, but state funds and tuition do not cover the full costs for engineering programs.

At the UW, as well as on a national level, engineering education is more expensive to deliver than most other disciplines. It requires competitive faculty salaries, modern laboratories and up-to-date technology. Establishing a program fee for engineering students is one method that peer engineering schools nationally have employed, and is a method administrators are considering to ease the budget crunch. Such a fee would not be undertaken without a concurrent student aid plan to relieve the burden on students as much as possible.

“A program fee is on the table,” O'Donnell said. “If we don't talk about it, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. The fundamental issue is that we can't charge tuition anywhere near what actually covers costs.

“With the right fee, we could accept more students, but access has two A's – affordability and availability. Affordability will require a substantial increase in financial aid to ensure that all qualified students can become Washington Engineers.”

Dean Matt O'Donnell

Read more in Q&A: A Conversation about Access to Engineering Education.

Funding shortfalls are taking a toll. Undergraduate, in-state tuition at the UW rose 20 percent last year, to $10,575 in tuition and fees. The costs have nearly doubled in five years. In 2006-07, in-state undergraduates paid $5,460 and about 10 percent more in fees. In engineering, direct impacts include a sharp decline in the number of teaching assistants and the elimination of electives.

“It is simple, just hard to accept,” O'Donnell says. “It's not broken or inefficient systems. We are one of the most efficient major research institutions. It's not a pipeline issue. It's about capacity. Our students love what engineering can do for the world. There are a large number of high-paying jobs out there, jobs that drive the economy of this state, and the region needs more engineers.”

Remarkably, the number of UW engineering graduates has not grown during the astronomical rise of Seattle's high-tech marketplace. Some 30 years ago, Microsoft Corp. employed no one in Washington state; today, the global software titan's head count is 90,412.

The home-grown aerospace and computing industry broods over the same topic.

Remarkably, the number of UW engineering graduates has not grown during the astronomical rise of Seattle's high-tech marketplace. Some 30 years ago, Microsoft Corp. employed no one in Washington state; today, the global software titan's head count is 90,412.

Jeremy Jaech, chairman of the Technology Alliance, a statewide industry organization, decries the shortage of qualified technical workers. Tech-focused companies — especially mid-size firms and start-ups — can't afford to hire nationally or internationally. A limited local talent pool holds them back.

“In the information science area, unemployment here is less than 3 percent. That's full employment. It's very competitive for hiring right now,” says Jaech (MS, CS '80), who has led market-creating, job-generating software companies for three decades. He co-founded Aldus, creator of PageMaker layout software. He also started Visio, which was acquired by Microsoft. Jaech serves on the boards of a dozen software companies, one of which may flee to a state with more available engineers.

“If our own kids are not getting into the schools because of capacity issues, we are squeezing them out of a high-paying future,” he said, urging College of Engineering alumni to get involved.

Boeing is constantly looking for the best and brightest aerospace engineers and computer scientists, said Todd Zarfos, vice president of engineering for Boeing Commercial Aviation Services. Boeing not only hires to expand business but also because of increasing retirements, said Zarfos (MS, EE '90). Boeing workers' average age is 48.

“Around 28 percent of our employees are retirement eligible,” Zarfos said. “That will go up to 50 percent in five years. We are going to have a continuing demand for aerospace workers.” Boeing pushes math and science education in K-12 schools and syncs up with all the state’s institutions of higher education, Zarfos says. He serves on the College of Engineering Visiting Committee.

“We absolutely want to see healthy, indigenous programs and where we see constraints, like the capacity issue, we will encourage the state to help address that,” Zarfos said.

Meanwhile, as industry hunts for next-generation engineers, too many young Husky hopefuls face the stark capacity limits.

By the way, Ms. Hara insists her rejection email is not the final verdict.

“I'll keep my grades up,” she said, her voice still upbeat and focused. With confidence and clarity, she added: “I'll apply again this summer.”