Students Flock to Arkansas Engineering Programs

Arkansas colleges are experiencing a surge of students enrolling in engineering programs.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock saw undergraduate enrollment in the Donaghey College of Engineering & Information Technology jump about 9 percent between 2011 and 2012 to approximately 900 students, said its dean, Eric Sandgren.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville also reported a similar increase. Enrollment in engineering majors climbed 10.7 percent to 3,467 students in 2012, Terry Martin, interim dean of engineering, said in an email to Arkansas Business.

Sandgren said he thought that students were interested in earning engineering degrees because graduates typically find jobs with high salaries.

The average salary nationwide for the 2012 class of engineering graduates was $61,913, an increase of 3.9 percent compared with the previous year, according to a January report by the National Association of Colleges & Employers of Bethlehem, Pa.

Engineers had the highest average starting salaries of any discipline, the study said.

“I think it’s slowly now sinking in that if you want a job, a good career and a future, that [the engineering field is] not a bad way to go,” Sandgren said.

Martin said he expected the demand for engineers to increase in the next five years, both in Arkansas and across the world. “Technology appears to be helping bring some of the manufacturing back to the United States,” he said.

Even with the carrot of high-paying jobs, attracting students to engineering remains difficult, Sandgren said.

“There’s only a limited number of students who have both the interest and have demonstrated the ability to be successful,” he said.

Students entering the Donaghey College, for example, are expected to be ready to take calculus. “The majority of students, even good students, are not at that point,” Sandgren said.

The class work in the Donaghey College might be more difficult for students, and they might not see the value in doing it, Sandgren said. “And that’s part of the challenge,” he said. “We need to show them the relevance of what they’re doing and why it’s important.”

He also said that the current students weren’t like those of 10 to 15 years ago.

“While this generation is probably the best user of technology, it’s not like they really want to develop it,” he said. Sandgren said he wanted the graduates to create the next Acxiom Corp. or other information-based companies.

There’s a targeted push from Gov. Mike Beebe to increase the number of graduates with degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, Sandgren said. “He sees that as the future of the state’s economy.”

One troubling trend Martin noted is the high student-loan debt carried by UA’s graduating students.

The average cost for tuition and room and board for an undergraduate resident at the UA is $16,225 for the current school year.

Sandgren, however, said a number of UALR students take advantage of scholarships and work during the year, so they have little or no debt when they graduate.

And when the students do complete their degrees, most of them are finding jobs.

Between 80 and 100 percent of Fayetteville’s undergraduate engineering students and nearly all of its graduate students find jobs, Martin said.

UALR’s students also have a high rate of success in landing jobs after graduation, including at companies such as Google or Facebook, Sandgren said. And a high percentage of the graduates end up working for Arkansas companies, he said.

“The job market has been good,” Martin said.