Nationally, enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs rose 3 percent in 2007 and 4.5 percent 2008, according to the American Association of Engineering Education. Meanwhile, enrollment in masters' degree programs rose 7 percent in 2007 and 2 percent in 2008. In the fall of 2008, 91,489 masters degree students and 403,193 undergraduates were studying engineering at US universities and colleges.
Skeptics note that engineering remains a low priority for US students: Among the 25 top engineer-producing countries, the United States ranks No. 22 on a per capita basis. But here at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, applications have rebounded 25 percent during the past two years – with enrollment rising from 550 to 732 – after falling early in the decade. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., applications have risen 70 percent over the past five years, and the 902 freshmen who enrolled last fall were 100 more than expected.
"People laugh when I say we have another record-breaking year," said Kristin Tichenor, vice president of enrollment management at Worcester Polytechnic. "But it keeps going up."
The profession fell in popularity after the mid-1980s and has been struggling to recover ever since. Especially in depressed economic times, the lure of good job prospects for engineers seems to be helping.
"I do think that students, when difficult economic times come around, kind of fall back on some of the main curriculums – the bread-and-butter curriculums," says Tim Valley, vice president of enrollment management at the Milwaukee School. "There's also quite a bit written about the shortage of engineers in the United States: I think students are picking up on that."