Russel C. Jones, PhD., P.E.

World Expertise LLC

Falls Church, VA, USA


Key words: engineering education, quality assurance, international aspects



With the signing of the Washington Accord in the late 1980’s, engineering education in the United States of America took on a broader international aspect – agreeing to substantial equivalency with several other countries. The Accord has been expanded and extended, and has led to efforts to take a next step – some form of mutual recognition of practice certification or licensure.

Quality assurance of engineering education in the USA has matured since the establishment of the Engineers Council for Professional Development (now the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) in the 1930’s, and a significantly different approach to criteria for accreditation has been adopted as of the year 2000. The new EC2000 approach is based heavily on outcomes assessment, rather than the previous detailed procedural specifications.

Engineering education in the US has been reformed greatly over the past several years, due in large part to the major activities stimulated and supported by the Coalitions program of the National Science Foundation. Science and math courses have been integrated in many cases, teamwork has been encouraged, and design has been moved earlier in the curriculum and continued throughout the four-year programs.



Engineering education in the United States of America is a strong and vibrant enterprise. Many attribute the current strength of the USA economy to the pool of engineers and other technical experts who provide the driving forces behind high technology products and services, which make the USA economy function effectively, and provide a major factor in international trade.

There are some 300 accredited engineering colleges in the Unites States of America, most embedded in larger institutions where they comprise about 10% of the total student body. Bachelors degrees in engineering, the common point of entry to the profession today, require a heavy four year program of study – built upon 12 years of pre-college education in primary and secondary schools. Some 60,000 students graduate with Bachelors degrees in engineering each year at present, with another 30,000 completing Masters degrees and another 6000 completing Doctoral programs. A Masters program typically requires one or two years of study beyond the Bachelors degree, and the Doctorate typically another two or three years beyond the Masters degree.

The number of high school graduates who enroll in engineering programs in the USA has been declining significantly in recent years, despite a sustained and increasing demand for technical graduates by employers of engineers. In the mid-1980’s, engineering schools were graduating some 80,000 Bachelors degree students per year – a number that has dropped some 25% since then. It appears that many students are selecting other, often less demanding, paths to the technical employment marketplace – such as computer focused courses of study or quasi-engineering programs with less rigorous mathematics and science requirements.

There are some interesting trends among recently graduated engineers that may also be impacting on whether young people choose engineering education for career preparation. Many engineering graduates are now experiencing major job changes every few years throughout their careers, as employers ramp up and downsize depending on market shifts and mergers. These changes are often disruptive, and often lead to lateral job placements at best, thus giving the impression that the engineer pool is a ‘commodity’ – rather than engineering seen as a career with progressive placements. In addition, many engineering graduates – particularly those accepting first positions out of college – are being employed by financial consulting firms and similar non-engineering employers, who want to utilize their quantitative skills for a few years while they are on top of the latest high tech state-of-the-art. At some engineering colleges, as many as 40% of the recent graduates have taken such first jobs.


Reform of engineering education

After several decades when reward mechanisms for engineering faculty members swung strongly toward funded research and scholarly publications as primary criteria, a reverse movement has been gathering momentum in the United States of America – toward higher priority on undergraduate education. This movement has been fueled by demands for more accountability in undergraduate education overall, from consumers and from governments, and by a major Engineering Coalition Program at the National Science Foundation, aimed at reform of engineering education.

The Engineering Coalition Program solicited proposals from engineering schools during the spring of 1990, and began funding them for multi-year periods. During the course of this program, which is currently being phased down, the following coalitions have been funded: Synthesis Coalition (1990), ECSEL Coalition (1990), SUCCEED Coalition (1992), GATEWAY Coalition (1992), FOUNDATION Coalition (1993), GREENFIELD Coalition (1994), SCCEME Coalition (1994) and Engineering Academy of New England (1994).

Results of this major NSF effort to date have been encouraging. One primary benefit is that the major funding and highly visible priority of the Coalitions program have made engineering education research and development credible at universities where previously only scientific research had been emphasized as appropriate activity. The model programs developed by several of the Coalitions have also provided good models for others to adopt, in areas such as:

Ø      Inversion of the curriculum, to bring engineering subjects into the lower division in order to keep student interest in engineering high, and to provide the rationale for the study of mathematics and science which heavily dominates the first two years of engineering study

Ø      Just in time coordination of math and science coverage, within the context of engineering problem solving courses, as the major educational stream

Ø      Engineering design throughout the curriculum as a major theme, beginning in the Freshman year

Ø      Holistic, integrative experiences for undergraduate engineering students

Ø      Links to pre-college education, and increased recruitment and retention of under-represented groups

Ø      Integrated development of educational tools, including utilization of advanced technologies in the educational process

Due to the large number of engineering schools directly involved in the various Coalitions, and the size of many of those schools, large numbers of current engineering students are being directly impacted by these experimental programs. Some 40% of all current engineering students in the US are enrolled at Coalition schools, and as the experimental approaches developed are tested and scaled up, this large number of students can be expected to be beneficially impacted. In addition, due to progress reports on Coalition results to engineering education more broadly, schools outside the Coalition program are also adapting some of these new approaches for their own use. Thus, engineering education in the United States has been undergoing a systematic and healthy reform, leading to more emphasis on undergraduate education in engineering faculties and to a resulting improvement in the educational process and its graduates.


Quality assurance in engineering education

Since 1932, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (formerly Engineers Council for Professional Development) has been responsible for the assurance of quality in engineering education in the United States. ABET is a federation of some 28 professional engineering and technical societies which have joined together to promote and enhance education in engineering, technology, and related applied science areas. While it is recognized by the US government as the specialty accreditation group for engineering education, ABET is a non-governmental organization responsible to its participating bodies and to the institutions which it serves. Its quality assurance functions are carried out by a large number of peer volunteers from academia and industry, with the support of a small central staff.

Over the past decade, ABET has been engaged in a major reform to encourage curricular innovation and to improve the accreditation process, while continuing to assure the quality of engineering education at some 300 institutions. Its reform process has resulted in new criteria for the evaluation of engineering programs, Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC2000). This new approach replaces previous guidelines and criteria that had become increasingly lengthy and prescriptive over the years, and were often seen as a constraint on curricular innovation.

With the input and guidance of both industry and education, ABET has developed a new accreditation system which it hopes will provide the means for education programs to prepare graduates for successful engineering practice in the 21st Century. EC2000 has shifted the emphasis from input measures to student outcomes. The criteria continue to require a strong technical component in the curriculum, but each program has more latitude in deciding how to structure it. The new criteria require that each program have educational objectives in place:

a)      Detailed published educational objectives that are consistent with the mission of the institution, and with the new ABET criteria

b)      A process based on the needs of the program’s various constituencies in which the objectives are determined and periodically evaluated

c)      A curriculum and process that ensures the achievement of these objectives

d)      A system of ongoing evaluation that demonstrates achievement of these objectives and uses the results to improve the effectiveness of the program

The professional component requirements specify subject areas, but do not prescribe specific courses. The professional component must include:  

a)      One year of a combination of college level mathematics and basic sciences (some with experimental experience) appropriate to the discipline

b)      One and one-half years of engineering topics, to include engineering sciences and engineering design appropriate to the student’s field of study

c)      A general education component that complements the technical content of the curriculum and is consistent with the program and institution objectives

Students must be prepared for engineering practice through the curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier coursework and incorporating engineering standards and realistic constraints that include most of the following considerations: economic, environmental, sustainability, manufacturability, ethical, health and safety, social, and political.

In addition, engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have:

a)      An ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering

b)      An ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data

c)      An ability to design a system, component , or process to meet desired needs

d)      An ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams

e)      An ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems

f)       An understanding of professional and ethical responsibility

g)      An ability to communicate effectively

h)      The broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context

i)        A recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning

j)        A knowledge of contemporary issues

k)      An ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice

EC2000 also has briefly stated requirements for student quality, faculty qualifications, facilities, and institutional support.


International cooperation

Engineering is a global profession, with transnational and multinational corporations employing engineers around the world. This has led to the need for mutual recognition of educational credentials across national borders, as well as mechanisms for cross-border practice of engineers.

In 1989, representatives from engineering education accrediting organizations in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom signed an agreement known as the Washington Accord. The Washington Accord recognizes the substantial equivalency of accreditation systems to assess that the graduates of accredited programs are prepared to practice engineering at the professional level. It provides a mechanism for the mutual recognition of basic engineering education among the signatory countries. Each country is responsible for its own accreditation standards and evaluation system, then lists of accredited programs are provided to other signatory countries. Each country accreditation system is encouraged to recommend to its respective licensing bodies that the graduates of a program accredited by one of the signatories be accorded the same privileges as graduates from accredited programs in the home country.

The original six countries of the Washington Accord have established mechanisms for other countries to join the Accord, and to date Hong Kong and South Africa have petitioned to join, with Hong Kong now fully approved for membership. Accrediting organizations in Mexico, France, Russia and New Guinea are currently seeking signatory status.

With an educational equivalency mechanism in place, the Washington Accord, discussions have developed about the possibility of building engineering practitioner mobility agreements on top of that mechanism. It was decided by Accord members that it would not move to the practice level, but the signatories endorsed the concept of a new, separate organization to examine mobility issues. As a result, representatives from Accord countries have established the Engineers Mobility Forum. To date, agreements on cross-border practice have proven elusive. 

In North America, the 1995 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provided a stimulus to develop an engineering mobility agreement between the countries of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The United States has been represented in negotiations about cross-border practice of engineers by the United States Council for International Practice (USCIEP), comprised of representatives of ABET, the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Consulting Engineers Council, and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. The latter group, NCEES, represents the 55 separate jurisdictions in the US which govern engineering practice at the state level. After several years of negotiations, an agreement for open cross-border practice among these three North American countries still has not been accomplished, largely because of reservations on the part of NCEES member registration boards.


Engineering education in the United States is alive and well. It has recently been through an effective review and reform process which has led to improved curricula, stimulated by the Coalitions program of the National Science Foundation. Its quality assurance system, conducted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, has recently updated its criteria and processes, and EC2000 appears well on its way to guaranteeing the quality of engineering graduates for the 21st Century.

With the driving force of globalization of the engineering profession, mechanisms have been developed for mutual recognition of educational credentials across national borders. The recognition of professional credentials for the cross-border practice of engineering, however, is proving more difficult to achieve.



Winfred M. Phillips, George D. Peterson, and Kathryn B. Aberle, “Quality Assurance for Engineering Education in a Changing World”, The International Journal of Engineering Education, vol 16, no 2, 2000, p.97-103.

Engineering Criteria 2000, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, available at

National Science Foundation Coalitions program descriptions available at


Curriculum vita

Russel C. Jones is a private consultant, working through World Expertise LLC to offer services in engineering education in the international arena. He previously served as Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers. Prior to that, he had a long career in education: faculty member at MIT, department chair in civil engineering at Ohio State University, dean of engineering at University of Massachusetts, academic vice president at Boston University, and President at University of Delaware.