By Ken Balkey
It’s commonly understood that those who aspire to an engineering career need generous measures of both drive and intellectual capability. Engineering school is hard, and rare is the student who can glide through it without breaking a sweat.
But while those two traits are certainly necessary, for most future engineers they are not sufficient. Engineering school, at least in the United States, is expensive—as much as $200,000 or more for a four-year degree, and half that again for a Master’s. So to brains and motivation add this third required ingredient: money.
For that small slice of the student population fortunate enough to have access to personal or family resources, the high cost of an engineering education is less of a barrier. For the rest, however, tuition is a significant hurdle that for many can be all but insurmountable. It certainly was for me.
One way to lower that barrier and increase access to the engineering profession is through scholarships. When I was in school, my dad had just lost his job and our family was devoting every available dollar to launching his own business. Were it not for the financial assistance I received in the form of an athletic scholarship, I may never have been able to finish school and earn my engineering degrees.
Last year, ASME awarded 152 scholarships to deserving engineering students, totaling more than $500,000. And while our membership can take justifiable pride in that generosity, it’s really just a drop in the bucket. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, there were just over 35,000 Bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering awarded in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Multiply that by four and you have a rough approximation of the total number of undergraduate ME students in the United States. (ASME also awards scholarships to international students.) Against that backdrop, the enormity of the funding challenge becomes clear.
For more years than I care to count, I’ve been a member of the ASME Standards and Certification sector. It is vitally important work, and I take great satisfaction in doing it. Over the last few years, we lost three wonderful S&C members in whose memories their families, fellow standards committee members, and friends endowed generous ASME scholarships. These are fitting memorials to these fine engineers. While students are gratified to receive ASME scholarships in their names, surviving family members are also deeply moved each year by seeing their loved one’s impact continue.
But this experience got me thinking: why not encourage S&C members—or small groups within S&C, such as standards committees—to establish scholarships now, while they’re still around to see their gifts bear fruit? That’s what my wife, Ruth Anne, and I did last year with the backing of our two adult children. So did longtime ASME staff member Gerry Eisenberg. And so far, one other member of S&C has agreed to follow suit. As we spread this important message, it’s easy to imagine doubling ASME’s annual scholarship awards to $1 million, and within a few years maybe even doubling it again.
For Ruth Anne and me, the goal in establishing the scholarship was to “pay forward” the help I received as a young engineering student, to give back to a profession that has been so good to us over the years. From ASME’s perspective, scholarships are one of the most effective ways to accomplish a core goal: increasing equity in engineering. By awarding approximately half of all scholarships to women and others who are underrepresented in the engineering field, ASME is working hard to make our profession more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
Increasing access to technical jobs is critical to building tomorrow’s more diverse, empowered, and multidisciplinary engineering workforce. More diversity brings more varied perspectives to the table. Scholarships, along with ASME’s other equity-enhancing programs, are key to opening the door of opportunity to every potential engineer with the desire to serve the greater good.
Ken Balkey retired as consulting engineer at Westinghouse and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. He currently serves on the ASME Philanthropy Committee. ASME scholarships are funded through the ASME Foundation. Find out more at www.asmefoundation.org.