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The STEP Act: Securing the Next Generation of American Engineers

By Patrick E. Meyer

According to some, engineering is the most essential profession in the world. Engineers mold the very foundations of almost every device, mechanism, system and substance on which the world's population relies. Engineers use ideas to create a new, more efficient, faster, cleaner, and affordable reality. Engineers are the lifeblood of the world’s functionality “from leisure activities to medical treatment, mobile communication to modern transport systems” [1].

Engineering is a diverse field encompassing the realms of information technology (including telephony, movies, television, computers, wireless communications, etc.); transportation systems (including energy, efficiency, and environmental issues); structural systems (including bridges, buildings, highways, and efficiency); environmental systems (for example, designing environmentally friendly chemical processes or remediation techniques for biological and hazardous wastes); and, medical devices and products (for example, designing medical imaging equipment, pharmaceutical products, etc.) [2]. Within engineering, countless possible routes of study are available, each of which provides stimulating intellectual challenges with diverse and varied tasks.

Despite the need for a diverse cadres of engineers to maintain a vibrant national economy, some argue that the United States may be facing a serious “engineering gap.” In 2005, the National Academies report Rising above the Gathering Storm indicated that China adds 600,000 new engineers per year to their workforce, India adds 350,000, and the United States adds only 70,000 [3]. Since the release of these statistics, the findings have been analyzed, questioned, debated, and according to some, disproved. For example, see Clayton [4] or Bracey [5], who argue that the Chinese and Indian numbers are inflated or misrepresented. However, whether or not the numbers are perfectly accurate, the number of new engineering graduates in the United States has decreased every year since 1985 [6]. In 1985, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in engineering peaked at 77,572, but by 2002, the number had declined to approximately 60,000. In addition, the number of doctoral degrees awarded annually in engineering peaked at 6,309 in 1996 and has declined since. One must also consider that more than one-quarter of today’s science and engineering workforce is older than 50 and expected to retire in the next 15 years [7].

Unfortunately, gloomy statistics such as those cited above may exacerbate the problem. In combination with statistics regarding increased levels of engineering-related outsourcing, data such as those presented by the National Academies have created a situation where, “The message students are getting is that many engineering jobs will be outsourced and U.S. engineers have a bleak future of higher unemployment and lower remuneration. This could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, as fearful young scholars stick to supposedly ‘outsourcing-proof’ professions” [8]. In other words, students may have the impression that engineering doesn’t hold the rewards, opportunities, and job security that it once did, and they may decide to pursue other academic routes to different careers.

The STEP Act and the Benefits of Engineering

In response to the threat of an engineering shortage in the United States, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) late last year introduced the Strategic Technology/Engineering Program (STEP) Act of 2007 [9, 10]. The STEP Act amends the Higher Education Act of 1965 to authorize the Secretary of Education to award scholarships to students who pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in engineering, technology, applied sciences, mathematics, or similar fields. Furthermore, the STEP Act authorizes the Secretary to provide student loan forgiveness to borrowers under the Federal Family Education Loan and Direct Loan programs who agree to remain employed as engineers for at least eight years and obtain licensure as professional engineers within eight years of obtaining a degree [11, 12].

Specifically, the STEP Act will provide undergraduate scholarships up to $9,000 per year and graduate scholarships up to $15,000 per year. The scholarships will be available to any U.S. citizen enrolled or accepted for enrollment in numerous engineering designations, including: aerospace engineer; agricultural engineer; biomedical engineer; chemical engineer; civil engineer; computer hardware engineer; electrical engineer; electronics engineer; environmental engineer; health and safety engineer; industrial engineer; marine engineer and naval architects; materials engineer; mechanical engineer; mining and geological engineer; nuclear engineer; and petroleum engineer [13]. In addition to the undergraduate and graduate scholarships, the STEP Act will provide loan forgiveness for engineers of up to $150,000 per graduate employed in one of the above fields. To obtain full loan forgiveness, the engineer must be employed as an engineer for eight years after graduation and obtain licensure as a professional engineer in accordance with state requirements within eight years of graduation. Loan forgiveness is paid to the graduate in 10 percent annual increments over the eight years (80 percent) and then the final 20 percent is paid upon obtaining a professional engineer license.

Loan and tuition forgiveness as an incentive is not a new concept. However, historically such programs have been limited to students seeking work in teaching, volunteer work, military service, or practicing medicine. For example, AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) offer tuition forgiveness of nearly $5,000 in exchange for volunteer work; the Army National Guard offers up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness in exchange for service; students who become full-time teachers in an elementary or secondary school that serves students from low-income families can have a portion of their Perkins Loan forgiven; and the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services offers loan forgiveness programs to physicians and registered nurses who agree to practice for a set number of years in areas that lack adequate medical care [14]. However, the STEP Act, which offers up to $150,000 forgiveness per student, offers the most attractive monetary rewards by far. Thus, established incentive programs aimed at recruiting greater numbers of teachers, volunteers, and medical professionals will now be in direct competition with the STEP Act for students interested in a tuition/loan forgiveness program.

It may be argued that the STEP Act offers incentives even more attractive than any existing programs due to the non-monetary benefits inherent in the realm of engineering. Engineering has immense rewards and opportunities which may not be realized in other fields. In his book Studying Engineering, Dr. Raymond Landis outlines ten rewards and opportunities that an engineering career offers [adapted from 15]:

  1. Job Satisfaction
    It is important to find a career that provides you with enjoyment and satisfaction. Engineering can provide this, for numerous reasons, some of which are listed below.

  2. Variety of Career Opportunities
    As discussed above, the engineering profession is extremely diverse. Whether you are imaginative and creative, enjoy working in laboratories and completing experiments, or are organized and persuasive, there are a number of options in the engineering realm.

  3. Challenging Work
    Engineering provides a challenging, fast-paced career path in a world of otherwise ho-hum job opportunities.

  4. Intellectual Development
    An engineering education will “exercise” your brain, developing your ability to think logically and to solve problems.

  5. Potential to Benefit Society
    Engineers benefit society through the systems they design and that we all live and work in. Some engineering paths tackle the most pressing problems facing society today, such as finding new sources of energy and alleviating the world’s hunger problems.

  6. Financial Security
    Engineers are well paid; engineering graduates receive the highest starting salary of any discipline (more on this below).

  7. Prestige
    Engineers play a primary role in sustaining our nation’s international competitiveness, maintaining our standard of living, ensuring national security, and carrying out other high-prestige responsibilities.

  8. Professional Environment
    An engineer’s work environment is sophisticated, influential and cutting-edge. Engineers are treated with respect and have a certain amount of freedom to choose their own work direction. Growth opportunities in engineering abound, with most new graduates quickly climbing the ladder.

  9. Technological and Scientific Discovery
    Engineers work on the cutting edge of what is new and exciting. Engineers regularly discover new realities and break through scientific barriers, furthering the extent of human knowledge.

  10. Creative Thinking
    Engineers exercise creative thinking every day; creativity is inherent in the profession. Engineers must employ conscious and subconscious mental processing as well as divergent and convergent thinking.

If the abovementioned rewards and benefits are not enough to entice a prospective student into an engineering field, there’s always the convincing factor of a high salary. Although a probable high salary should not be the only reason for entering an engineering field, for engineers it is a definite bonus. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average starting salary in 2007 for new engineer graduates holding a bachelor’s degree ranged from about $48,000 to about $61,000 depending on the specialty and degree. For a master’s degree, the starting salary range was $48,000 to $69,000. And for a Ph.D., the starting salary range was $62,000 to $92,000 [16]. In combination with the prospect of scholarships and tuition forgiveness proposed under the STEP Act, pursuing an engineering degree is bound to be a lucrative venture.

Final Thoughts

“Engineers apply the principles of science and mathematics to develop economical solutions to technical problems. Their work is the link between scientific discoveries and the commercial applications that meet societal and consumer needs” [17]. In this way, engineers serve as a vital bond between discovery and application and thus serve as a primary and non-substitutable foundational component of the world economy. China may be producing 600,000 new engineers per year, or they may be producing half that number. Either way, it is entirely conceivable that rapidly developing nations such as China may gain a competitive advantage over the United States if it does not continue to produce a large number of well-trained, motivated and knowledgeable engineers in a wide array of engineering specialties and disciplines.

The STEP Act was introduced on 24 September 2007 and referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor on 23 October 2007. In mid-December 2007, the bill received three cosponsors (Boyda, Schwartz, and Walsh). As of mid-January 2008, the STEP Act had not been voted on by the House, but it was certainly well on its way to becoming law. The STEP Act will assist in ensuring the competitive advantage of American engineering by making engineering fields more appealing to new college students. In doing so, the Act will strengthen the American work force, economy, and international standing for decades to come.


[1] "Why Study Engineering?" 9 July 2007, Transworldeducation.com, 9 July 2007, Available www.transworldeducation.com/engineering.htm.

[2] "Why Study Engineering?" nd.edu., University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana,  Retrieved 5 January, 2008, Available www.nd.edu/~engineer/why/why.htm.

[3] Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Future, 2007, National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., Available www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11463

[4] M. Clayton (2005), "Does the U.S. face an engineering gap?" Christian Science Monitor, Retrieved 6 January 2008, from www.csmonitor.com/2005/1220/p01s01-ussc.htm

[5] G.W. Bracey (2006), "Heard the One About the 600,000 Chinese Engineers?" Washington, D.C., Washington Post, Retrieved 6 January 2008, Available www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/19/AR2006051901760.html

[6] E. Cleaver, H.R. 3634: Strategic Technology/Engineering Program Act of 2007, 110th Congress: 1st Session, Washington, D.C., Available http://thomas.loc.gov/home/gpoxmlc110/h3634_ih.xml.

[7] "Missouri Rep. To Introduce Landmark Bill For Engineering Students" [Electronic Version] ACEC Last Word, XXVIII, 20 September 2007, Retrieved 5 January 2008, Available www.acec.org/publications/lastword2007/lw092007.htm.

[8] V. Wadhwa. "About that Engineering Gap..." Business Week, 13 December 2005, Retrieved 6 January 2008, Available www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/dec2005/sb20051212_623922.htm

[9] "Missouri Rep. To Introduce Landmark Bill For Engineering Students" [Electronic Version] ACEC Last Word, XXVIII, 20 September 2007, Retrieved 5 January 2008, Available www.acec.org/publications/lastword2007/lw092007.htm.

[10] "Missouri Congressman Cleaver Introduces Landmark Education Bill For Engineering Students," Business Wire, 26 September 2007, Retrieved 5 January 2008, Available www.businesswire.com/portal/site/google/index.jsp?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20070926006321&newsLang=en.

[11] "Congressman Introduces ACEC-Backed Engineering Education Bill" [Electronic Version] ACEC Last Word, XXVIII, 05 October 2007, Retrieved 5 January 2008 from www.acec.org/publications/lastword2007/lw100507.htm.

[12] "H.R.3634 - Strategic Technology/Engineering Program Act of 2007," OpenCongress.org, Retrieved 5 January, 2008, Available www.opencongress.org/bill/110-h3634/show.

[13] E. Cleaver, H.R. 3634: Strategic Technology/Engineering Program Act of 2007, 110th Congress: 1st Session, Washington, D.C., Available http://thomas.loc.gov/home/gpoxmlc110/h3634_ih.xml.

[14] Loan Forgiveness FinAid.org, Retrieved 5 January 2008, Available www.finaid.org/loans/forgiveness.phtml.

[15] M. Karen, "Why Study Engineering: The Top 10 Benefits," James Cook University, 2005, Retrieved 5 January 2008, from www.eng.jcu.edu.au/Prospective%20Students/Careers/why.shtml.

[16] Occupational Outlook Handbook: Engineers, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, D.C., Retrieved 5 January, 2008, Available www.bls.gov/oco/ocos027.htm.

[17] Ibid.




Patrick E. Meyer is IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Students' Voice Editor, and a doctoral student at the University of Delaware. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org. Opinions expressed are the author's.

Copyright © 2008 IEEE

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