Is engineering a good major? A reality check for prospective students

Harvey J. Graff Olga Knezevic

Harvey J. Graff,

Harvey J. Graff

Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, and more.

Olga Knezevic

Olga Knezevic

Olga is an in-house editor and writer at She has previous experience as a higher education instructional designer and a university librarian. Olga is passionate about well-crafted sentences, Wikipedia rabbit holes, and the Oxford comma.


Published May. 24, 2023 Updated May. 31, 2023
Is engineering a good major? A reality check for prospective students

    Promises of high-paying jobs draw students to engineering, but the reality doesn’t always match the hype.

    The surge of engineering students outpaces the resources, faculty, and advisors available to support them.

    Engineering students’ exposure to courses outside their major is limited, neglecting key intellectual, civic, and communication skills.

    While there is a lot of demand for high-tech expertise, many of those jobs are accessible with a 2-year degree.

    Engineering consistently ranks among the top 10 most popular majors, with its appeal growing even as other fields, like social sciences and humanities, experience rapidly decreasing enrollments.

    Five of the top ten best-paid majors in our database are engineering fields. However, there are several other important points to consider that should affect your salary expectations post-graduation, including:

    • Will you successfully graduate?

    Unlocking the earning potential of your major depends on actually finishing your degree.

    • Will you find a job in your field after graduation?

    Although our data looks at all earnings regardless of field of employment, those famously high engineering salaries are only accessible if you actually become an engineer

    Engineering can be an excellent major if you secure admission to a good-quality engineering school, gear up for the rigorous academic journey, and choose a field that isn’t over-saturated. We examine some of the potential pitfalls of an engineering degree to help you make an informed choice for your future.

    Is engineering a good major 5 hard truths

    Hard truth #1: There are too many engineering students

    In the early 2010s, universities began adopting various methods to attract a larger student population to engineering programs. Marketing campaigns propagated the notion that engineering degrees would lead students to immense financial rewards, often showcasing the allure of “cool” jobs designing futuristic automobiles or deploying drones for humanitarian missions. Brochures distributed at college fairs showcased glossy images of engineering graduates engaged in thrilling fields like aerospace, robotics, and renewable energy.

    This resulted in an increase in enrollment in engineering majors – many of whom were enticed by the hype but either unprepared for or lacking sufficient interest in the often narrowly rigorous nature of an engineering degree. More broadly, the excessive admission of STEM students had a detrimental effect on the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, which are all essential pillars that should complement technical education.

    These surging enrollment numbers quickly surpassed the capabilities of faculty, advisors, and resources to provide students with the educational value they deserved. This is especially true when considering the diverse levels of readiness and dedication to engineering studies among students.

    Hard truth #2: Half of all engineering students drop out

    Around half of all engineering majors will either switch majors or drop out.

    The reasons for this high attrition rate are multifaceted. Students often report a lack of preparedness for the narrow rigor and complexity of engineering coursework, which includes challenging math and calculus-based physics classes.

    The high-pressure, extremely competitive environment of many engineering programs can lead to stress and burnout. Some research also indicates that a lack of diversity and inclusivity in engineering negatively affects retention rates, particularly for women and underrepresented minorities.

    In addition, because teaching plays a less significant role in tenure and promotion in engineering than it does in the arts and sciences, engineering faculty prioritize it less. For example, it is not uncommon for junior- and senior-year engineering students to assume the responsibilities of teaching and lab assistants for undergraduate majors.

    The result of all this – exacerbated by the Covid pandemic – is shockingly high levels of dropout and flunk-out rates.

    Hard truth #3: Only a quarter of all engineering graduates actually become engineers

    Colleges are often incentivized to promote engineering programs based on perceived local demand for high-tech expertise. For instance, the prospect of tech giant Intel building chip factories in Ohio prompted a rush to produce more engineering graduates in the state. However, most of these jobs require a 2-year associate rather than a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

    Just over half (52%) of all engineering graduates end up working in a STEM field, and only about 1 in 4 actually become engineers. Given the ubiquity and popularity of engineering degrees and the changing job market, we may soon see an overflow of unemployed engineering graduates.

    Another aspect of the issue is the disproportionate number of engineers in certain fields compared to others where there might be greater demand. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts slower-than-average job growth for mechanical and electrical engineers (3% and 2%, respectively), while fields like biomedical engineering are predicted to face shortages.

    Hard truth #4: Engineering degrees don’t offer a well-rounded education

    Engineering students rarely have opportunities to take classes outside their major. In part, this follows from many engineering schools being cut off from the rest of their universities. In pursuit of higher enrollments to boost budgets, engineering schools reject or limit university-wide, student-centered, intra- and interdisciplinary connections with other departments. As a result, engineering majors are at risk of missing out on a lot of what college has to offer. Students often comment that they “miss reading” and would greatly value a first-year course like history, philosophy, or literature of science and technology.

    This lack of a well-rounded education has negative effects in various aspects of both students’ and graduates’ lives and careers, as well as social and cultural effects. While preparing for a career is crucial, it’s also important for students to develop critical thinking, effective communication (both speaking and writing), and an understanding of civic responsibilities. These skills have value within and also well beyond the workplace. They contribute to a broader and more meaningful education.

    Hard truth #5: Engineering is often an office job

    Many engineering students begin college expecting to engage in hands-on, practical work, involving the direct creation or assembly of complex systems or devices. However, a significant proportion of professional engineering roles are predominantly office-based, focusing on design, planning, data analysis, and project management.

    For a more practical, hands-on career, a 2- or 4-year degree in engineering technology may be a better choice. These programs often emphasize applied learning, providing more opportunities to directly engage with machinery, electronics, and other technical systems. Contrary to popular belief, students can get a “real” engineering job (and not just an “engineering technologist” position) with this degree. In some states, students can even get a PE license with a 4-year engineering tech degree.

    So, is engineering a good major?

    Based on the available government data on graduate salaries: absolutely. According to projected job demand – it varies a great deal…it’s vital to dig into the specific market trends and figure out what’s hot and what’s not.

    Is engineering a major that guarantees a 6-figure salary and an ultra-cool job designing the latest tech? No. Should you go into engineering if you don’t really love and excel at math and science? Almost certainly not.

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