Challenges and Opportunities for Recruiting Students to Undergraduate Civil Engineering Programs

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Society needs more civil engineers, with the projected near-term need for civil engineers greater than any other engineering discipline. Ailing national infrastructure and projected retirement rates have led to job projections suggesting that the near-term need for civil engineering graduates is almost double that of any other engineering discipline. This need, combined with other attractive attributes of civil engineering, should make civil engineering a top engineering major at many undergraduate universities. In spite of the career opportunities readily available to graduating civil engineers, and in spite of the general increasing trend in the number of total undergraduate engineering students, undergraduate civil engineering programs, taken as a whole, have struggled to maintain and grow their numbers. Individually, many undergraduate programs struggle to recruit students to civil engineering, and this poses a major problem not only to individual programs but to the profession itself. We analyzed a set of civil engineering student surveys to determine the factors, attitudes, and experiences that typically lead students to select careers in civil engineering and found several common responses, many of which can be leveraged to promote the discipline. The data suggest that about one half of our students pre-select civil engineering prior to beginning as first-year engineering students, and that the top reasons for their selection of civil engineering include: a passion for building things; a desire to make a difference; flexible career options; and a love for math and science (which presumably is shared by young engineers of all disciplines). We present data from another survey carried out with undergraduate students in other engineering majors, as to why students select other disciplines and how civil engineering is perceived. This survey highlights several perceptions about civil engineering among first-year engineers. These include the misperception of civil engineering as a narrow field focused only around bridges, buildings, and roads, as well as the perception of civil engineers earning low salaries. These student perceptions pose challenges to civil engineering recruiters, but also afford opportunities for clarification and improved recruitment, especially for programs that allow students to select their engineering discipline during their first year of college. We conclude this paper with a set of talking points we have deployed at our own university that directly address the above challenges and opportunities.