Chris Bigelow

Disparate thoughts and musings…

Archive for June, 2009

The Dream of Higher Education: Has It Become Just That – A Dream?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  Perhaps because I have a child starting post secondary education in another year.  Perhaps because I am, as the popular euphemism goes, “in transition.”  College has gotten ridiculously expensive.

Let me back up for a minute.  I attended college at Clarkson University (then known as “Clarkson College of Technology”, or “CCT”).  It was a kinder, gentler time.  And cheaper.  Not that we realized it then.  At the time it seemed like a lot of money to go to college.  My how one’s perspective changes.

Clarkson projected that my freshman year of school would cost something on the order of $5,400.  To a 17 year old that is one mighty large figure.  This number included tuition, room, board, books, and some altogether too meager allowance for laundry and other expenses.  But as numbers go, probably not a bad approximation.  I don’t think their figure included any allowance for travel to and from school.  My freshman year I accomplished that carpooling with an older Clarkson student from my home town in a VW Beetle. And NOT one with a bud vase.   But I digress.

So, back in the day, four years at Clarkson pursuing a “lofty” engineering degree would set you back somewhere between $23,000 and $25,000 (and, no, we did not use slide rules).  I changed majors mid-stream and required one extra semester to line up credits, so my cost was probably another $3,000 higher.  Upon graduation I was fortunate enough to receive two job offers.  Having been dirt poor (trust me – starving artists have nothing on college students) for 4-1/2 years, I accepted the higher offer.

No doubt breaking some social taboo, I will confess that my starting salary out of college was $407 per week.  <tap tap tap>.  That’s $21,164 per year.  So, in rough numbers, a four year (we’ll ignore my extra semester for a moment) engineering degree from a well respected, private institution cost roughly 15% more than my starting salary.  Are you with me so far?

Fast forward to 2009.  I don’t have exact figures but, prior to the nasty recession we are in, starting salaries for graduating engineers were running around $50,000-$55,000 for a manufacturing or mechanical engineer.  Let’s split the difference and call it $52,500 (and before I get inundated with emails let me note that, yes, I realize that there is a difference in starting salaries between, say, a civil engineer and a chemical engineer).

As I mentioned earlier, I have a college bound child.  One more year to go.  Naturally, we are doing the college and major research thing (automotive engineering no less!).   So off I go to various private, engineering school web sites to check their estimated first year total costs.  Ouch! My findings are summarized below:

College cost BMP3

Even if we take the least expensive school (in this example Kettering, and by no means a reflection of it’s reputation), first year expenses have increased 640% ($34,572/$5,400).  Meanwhile, starting salaries have increased roughly 248% ($52,500/$21,164).  What’s wrong with this picture?  A four year engineering degree now costs at least $150,000, or almost three times the first year’s starting salary.  Is it any wonder that students today are graduating with a staggering amount of college loan debt?

And is it any wonder that people are beginning to question the value and payback of a college degree?  Factoid: From 2000 to 2006, there was a 10 percent growth in overall enrollment at two-year institutions, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Education (data from  And I read a fascinating analysis a couple of months ago arguing that there was a strong economic case for becoming a plumber instead of going to college.  Hey – we’ll always need plumbers.  Food for thought…

Project Lead The Way® and the “Indestructible” Bridge

Last Thursday night I had planned on attending my first meetup of the Social Media Club of Rochester.  Until I found out that Avon High was presenting their first annual Project Lead the Way® Technology Fair.  Since my son had several projects that would be on display, the choice was easy – Tech Fair.

First, a little history is in order.  Project Lead The Way® (“PLTW”) is a national program with heavy participation in NY and IN.  Avon High was one of the charter schools first involved in the program, which began with 12 schools in New York State in 1997,  and they have developed a great program.  While there are some different flavors nationally, including biomedical sciences, Avon only offers the engineering option.  During their four years of high school the students take five engineering classes.  Classes include:

  • Introduction to Engineering Design™
  • Principles of Engineering™
  • Digital Electronics™
  • Computer Integrated Manufacturing™
  • Engineering Design and Development™

Avon’s classes were created in conjunction with RIT (every school’s PLTW program is affiliated with a local university or college).  Part of the student’s final exam is created by RIT.  If the student gets a sufficiently good grade, they can receive credit from RIT by paying a $200 fee.  So upon successful completion of the program (and payment of a cumulative $1000 fee) they already have credit for five classes at RIT.  I believe the credits go towards technical electives, but don’t quote me on that.  Credits aside, it is a wonderful introduction to engineering for students who are inclined to go that way.  Long before they leave high school they know if that is the right path for them or not.

Thursday night’s demo was, among the many other displays, supposed to include the destruction of Avon’s second place winning bridge from the Tech Wars competition held earlier in the year at GCC in Batavia.  Many schoolsAvon bridge3-cropped & blurred & re-cropped competed, but only Avon’s bridge survived a maximum 400 pound load (all the weight plates they had available) without collapsing.  The bridge of the team that won held the load for the required minimum time before it, too, became so much kindling .  That team was awarded first because of design efficiency – – their bridge weighed 1 to 1-1/2 pounds less than Avon’s bridge.  But on to the exciting part.

Avon’s PLTW students set the bridge up on the test rig and started loading plates.  400 pounds came and went – no surprise there based upon the Tech Wars performance.  At 505 pounds they ran out of plates and had to go to the weight room for more.  They kept adding plates until running out again at something like 940 pounds.  Two kids went for yet more plates.  They wanted to see if they could reach 1/2 ton.  Ultimately, they stopped adding plates at 1090 pounds due to safety concerns.  That and they had run out of room to load any more onto the guide pipe.  Simply amazing for a wooden bridge with glued joints that itself weighs maybe 9 pounds.

Think this is something that would interest your child?  To learn more about PLTW, please vist  The web site has a section where you can look up which schools offer the program – it’s an easy way to see if your school district does.