Campbell University starts a new engineering program in its effort to become a regional force in higher education.

When 26-year old Baptist minister and North Carolinian James Archibald Campbell founded Buies Creek Academy in 1887, the inaugural class consisted of just 16 students packed into a small church. Today, that academy is Campbell University, and it has 6,000 enrollees and a growing presence in the state.

The private Baptist university, located 45 miles south of Research Triangle Park, has burgeoned in recent years. In 2009, it moved its law school to a renovated 110,000-square foot building in downtown Raleigh to connect students to the state capital’s legal hub. It also created graduate degrees in physician assistant studies and public health, as well as a school of osteopathic medicine that opened in 2013.

“Our recent academic program expansions have allowed us to achieve a Level VI status with our regional accreditor (that designation is given to institutions offering four or more doctoral degrees). Only two other private universities in North Carolina have achieved this status—Duke and Wake Forest. We are moving upward and into a very prestigious class of institutions of higher education!” exclaimed Dr. Mark Hammond, Campbell’s vice president for academic affairs and provost, in a recent interview with the Pope Center.

Now, in what appears to be another effort to move into that “prestigious class,” the board of trustees at Campbell has approved a proposal to add an engineering program, tentatively scheduled to open in fall 2016. Campbell’s website says that it will offer a “single, integrated engineering degree that focuses on sustainability, design, and systems analysis in order to educate and train engineering generalists who will go on to be employed as licensed professional engineers or who will pursue graduate and professional studies.”

If approved by accreditors, Campbell’s program would become the seventh stand-alone engineering program (and just the second private program) in the state. The others are at Duke University, East Carolina University, NC A&T, NC State University, UNC-Charlotte, and Western Carolina University.

In a field dominated by powerhouse engineering programs at schools like NC State and Duke, it would seem that Campbell faces an uphill climb. In an e-mail exchange, I asked Dr. Hammond and Dr. Britt Davis, Campbell’s vice president of institutional advancement, to explain why they think the program will be able to compete with some of North Carolina’s more established and well-regarded programs.

They told me that students seeking a private school with an engineering program and a Christian heritage have limited options and that Campbell can help fill that unique demand. They also said that the university’s close proximity to Research Triangle Park will be a big draw because of cultural, shopping, and career opportunities. Hammond and Davis believe that the school’s student-to-faculty ratio (20:1), as well as the fact that all courses at Campbell are taught by expert professors, not graduate and teaching assistants, will ensure high standards and academic quality.

Given the relatively low tuition at a public university such as NC State (roughly $11,000 per year for in-state students), the $26,550 price tag at Campbell would seem forbidding. But Hammond and Davis claimed that Campbell has the requisite “academic standing” to launch an enticing program because of its “established programs in business, law, medicine, pharmacy, and health sciences.” They explained that 95 percent of Campbell undergraduates receive scholarships or “other aid” (grants/loans) to defray some of the costs of tuition. In light of those factors, said Hammond and Davis, the university will be able to attract more out-of-state students (right now, only 20 percent of Campbell students are out-of-state) and students with “higher-than-average math and analytical skills.”

After the board announced its decision in May, campus officials told local media that the region needs more engineers and that existing programs at other institutions aren’t adequately boosting the supply of graduates. Hammond and Davis anticipate healthy growth in engineering jobs in the country and in North Carolina. They highlighted the relatively low unemployment rate for engineers (nationally, just 3.4 percent in 2012) and said that since some engineering departments in the state enroll less than 20 percent of qualified applicants and don’t have enough seats to accommodate all of the talented applicant pool, Campbell can step in and provide a valuable service to those students and to the regional economy.

The strong confidence that the engineering field is experiencing a shortage of qualified degree holders is not shared by all, however.

While a chorus of politicians, pundits, and higher education commentators rings out a pro-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) refrain, some organizations, such as the Pope Center, have doubted the premise and evidence behind such conventional wisdom for years. And that doubt has been surfacing elsewhere, too.  

Writers such as Michael Teitelbaum, with his recent book Falling Behind: Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent (reviewed here by George Leef), and more recently Danielle Kurtzleben, with her July 7 article “A Huge Debate About the Labor Market Is Driven By a Nonsense Acronym,” have tried to disabuse the public of what they view as blind and unwarranted cheerleading for an increase in the number of STEM graduates.

Employment rates and demand for high-skilled workers vary widely across professions, time, and geographic regions. A recent and comprehensive report from Georgetown University revealed that the unemployment rate for recent engineering graduates is at 7.5 percent. That percentage drops when those graduates go on to earn advanced degrees or gain work experience, but that may not relieve the concerns of prospective engineering students, especially those considering a new and unestablished program such as Campbell’s.

Nevertheless, Campbell remains sure that its program will be successful. Hammond and Davis told me that the university’s new medical school has far exceeded expectations in terms of enrollment, and that it expects the same of its engineering program. Officials project an inaugural class size of 50, and say that new enrollees will more than double by 2020. The program will be phased in: over four years, the university expects to hire ten full-time faculty for the engineering program and three full-time faculty for the college of arts and sciences (for “instructional support in math and physics”). The university will also hire three or four staff members.

By making those private investments, Campbell is showing confidence in its ability to create a successful and attractive engineering program. Once approved by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), Campbell could start the process of carving out a special place in a highly competitive postsecondary field, or it could find that it bit off more than it can chew. It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to predict with any sort of accuracy how the job market or institutions of higher education will evolve, even in the short term. Campus officials and prospective Campbell engineering students will certainly need to be aware of that and as prepared as possible for the fickle environment they’ll face.