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Engineering Schools Dominate 'Unhappiness' List

Engineering Schools Dominate 'Unhappiness' List

Apparently, engineering students still aren't very happy.

In a list of the "least happy students" published in The Princeton Review's 2012 edition of the "Best 376 Colleges" last week, six of the seven unhappiest colleges were schools predominantly made up of engineering students. Only one engineering school -- Franklin Olin W. College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. -- made the top 20 "happiest students" list.

We've cited these lists in previous years and, unfortunately, the results have always been the same. In 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012, at least five of the 10 unhappiest were engineering schools. In three of the last five years, only one engineering school made it to the top 10 of the "happiest" list. In the other two years, no engineering schools made it.

So, yes, there appears to be a trend. When you ask 120,000 students a year for their opinion (as The Princeton Review does), and you keep getting the same results, it's safe to say there must be a reason for it.

The larger question, though, is whether it matters. It's not hard to imagine that many engineers, as they read these words, are grumbling, "You mean they're supposed to be happy? They get a good education and have the best job prospects of any students in the American educational establishment, and they're supposed to be happy, too?"

Truth be told, that's an excellent point. Engineering students get great job offers for the same reason that they're unhappy -- because they work so hard in school. If you don't believe that, then take a look at another Princeton Review list: In a category called "students study the most," engineering cleans up. The top three "study" schools -- Harvey Mudd College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Franklin W. Olin College -- are all engineering schools. Students in those institutions are said to study more, on the whole, then students at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.

The fact is, it's difficult to disconnect the hard work from the job success. Many corporations seek engineering students because they know they'll work hard. Few prospective employers are likely to scroll through The Princeton Review's list of "party schools" when they're looking for great places to recruit.

Having said that, it's also important to note that all is not perfect on the engineering education front. Engineering schools have traditionally blamed their situation on the woeful state of K-12 science education in this country, but there's more to it than that. In many engineering schools, administrators still make no effort to link theoretical classes to real-world engineering during the initial semesters. Students often spend two years taking calculus, physics, thermodynamics, circuit analysis, fluid mechanics, and strength of materials before they get to think about an engineering problem. This raises a question: Are the administrators even talking to the students?

And then there are the professors: Some prefer research to teaching; many struggle with English; others don't seem to care about making a real effort to communicate with students.

"There's reason to believe that some university professors aren't adapting their methods to the teaching of kids," Ray Almgren, vice president of product marketing for National Instruments and a member of the company's academic relations team, told me. "It's unfortunate, because we've seen great results when professors make that effort to connect."

Is it any wonder then that many big schools have washout rates ranging from one half to two thirds? Sure, we all know that a certain percentage of incoming freshmen aren't well suited to the rigors of an engineering curriculum. But two thirds?

Some schools are proving that students can be happy and that profs can communicate. Three engineering colleges -- Olin, Harvey Mudd, and Rose-Hulman Institute -- managed to land on a Princeton Review list called "professors get high marks." It's especially interesting to note that Mudd and Olin made this list, even while being included at the top of the "students study the most" category.

So, yes, it's possible to connect with engineering students and make them work hard. No one's suggesting that we need to see engineering colleges on the "party school" list.

But would it hurt to communicate a little better?

Princeton Review's Least Happy Students:

  1. New Jersey Institute of Technology
  2. Marywood University
  3. US Merchant Marine Academy
  4. US Coast Guard Academy
  5. Montana Tech, University of Montana
  6. Clarkson University
  7. US Naval Academy
  8. Indiana University of Pennsylvania
  9. Illinois Institute of Technology
  10. Baruch College, City University of New York
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