It gets harder every year to get into some of the University of Washingtons most in-demand majors, creating a cutthroat system of competition at the flagship university.
By the end of his freshman year at the University of Washington, Jack Kussick believed there was no point in even applying to get into the UWs bioengineering program.
Kussick had sailed through Seattles Roosevelt High with top grades. When he entered the UW, the Seattle native was thinking about a career designing cutting-edge rehabilitation tools that could help wounded veterans get back on their feet, or athletes devastated by injury return to their sports.
But college required an entirely different type of studying. As a freshman, Kussick stumbled in a few classes before he figured out a system that worked for him.
By then, he believed, it was already too late.
In order to be competitive for bioengineering, a counselor told him, hed need to begin making As in nearly every class. Even then, his chances of being admitted were slim.
At a time when students are encouraged to go into careers in science and technology, as well as business, its becoming harder and harder to do so in some majors at the states largest flagship university.
Of the roughly 2,000 students in each class who say they want to major in one of the engineering disciplines, fewer than half will get in. And for the business administration major at the Foster School of Business, the admission rate is 40 percent.
Some faculty say thats created a cutthroat system that forces students to compete against one another at a time when they should be learning how to work together.
In high-demand majors, the university is having to select from a group of students who are amazing, and bright, and capable, and could do well, said Patricia Kramer, an anthropology professor who heads a faculty committee trying to solve the problem.
This isnt weeding out students who are not good, she added.
The pressure to build a perfect transcript also means students sacrifice many other experiences that make up the fabric of a good college experience, said Brian Fabien, the associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Engineering.
Theyre not participating in student organizations, in clubs theyre not doing the things wed like them to do, Fabien said. This is not a good environment for learning.
Theres no easy solution. But the UW will be asking more questions about a students area of interest on its freshman and transfer admissions applications. At some point, that information might be used to decide who becomes a Husky, and who does not.
On the third floor of Loew Hall one day last week, a half-dozen pre-engineering students waited in line for appointments with academic counselors to fine-tune their schedules, or ask for advice. Most were upbeat about their chances of being accepted into engineerings disciplines mechanical, civil and computer engineering, to name a few.
But the reality is that fewer than half will be admitted, Fabien said. Students get several chances to apply, but in the meantime they are in limbo about their major, and some wont know for certain until their third year, which is actually pretty cruel, he said.
Taylor Ishida, a sophomore who wants to major in bioengineering, stays in the library studying until 10 or 11 p.m. every night. Its definitely stressful, knowing the level of competition, she said.
Ishida, who grew up in Oregon, says her academic record is strong, but shes an anxious test-taker, and often wakes up at night worrying about how she did on her last exam. If she doesnt get into the program, shell transfer to another university.
Allen Putich, a first-quarter transfer student who earned his associate degree from Skagit Valley College, knows its hard to get into his intended major, computer science; he spent an entire week studying for his first midterm. He thinks his chances are good, but hes got a backup plan: electrical engineering.
Khanh Le, a sophomore, has been turned down once already trying to get into either industrial or civil engineering, and says shes under a lot of pressure now to get in. Le, who graduated from Mariner High School in Everett, said if she doesnt get in on her second attempt, she may take a year off or transfer elsewhere.
No major is more competitive than computer science only about a third of the students who apply get in. For those students, some help is on the way; the UW has gotten millions from private industry and the state Legislature to construct a new computer science building, which will allow it to double the number of students it can handle in the coming years.
Students who cant get into engineering often choose math, chemistry or physics and that puts stress on those majors, too, Fabien said. Those who dont get into the Foster School, for example, often choose economics as a backup. That major is no shoo-in, either it only admits about two-thirds of applicants.
Engineers are trained to be collaborative, so they can solve problems together. But the hypercompetitive environment at the UW means students are in a race to beat one another. Its exactly the opposite of the skills theyll need in the workplace, Fabien said.
Why cant the UW simply eliminate majors that are falling out of favor, and use the money to hire more engineering professors?
Its not that easy.
Engineers need to learn on expensive and space-consuming equipment, Fabien said. For example, mechanical engineers at the UW work with machining equipment similar to whats used in a Boeing facility.
The engineering college also needs students who can write, and have an understanding of history, political science and the humanities not just good grades in math and science. You cant be a good engineer if you cant communicate, he said.
Kramer said the slowness with which the university builds up, or cuts back, on majors is an important check on chasing the latest fad.
Ten years ago, for example, the university resisted pressure to reduce instruction in Eastern European languages. Now, because of unrest in Ukraine, an understanding of those languages and cultures is in demand, she said.
Before the university starts considering a students area of academic interest in deciding who is admitted, all three campuses would have to approve that change. Kramer expects there will be changes in the way the university makes its choice on offering admission to out-of-state and international students.
For in-state students, in contrast, she thinks the changes will be minor.
Our obligation to Washington state students is really different from the universitys commitment to out-of-state and international students, she said.
But she emphasized that no decisions have been made yet, and that the intent is not to decrease overall chances of admission into the UW for any student, but rather to give students the best chances of being able to gain entry into, and to complete, majors in the field of their interest.
For transfer students, an applicants intended major already has a bearing on whether he or she is admitted. A transfer student who selects only one major on the application, and is not admitted into that major, also is not admitted into the university, she said.
Meanwhile, the College of Engineering has proposed a system in which about 50 percent of engineering-major prospects would be directly admitted to the college at the same time they are admitted to the UW as freshmen or transfer students, although they would still need to apply for their specific major. No decision has been made, but Fabien noted that its a practice already in use at most other major engineering schools. And last year, the UW Student Senate passed a resolution calling for that change.
The trouble with direct admission, Kramer said, is that it can deprive students of the chance to explore different subjects, or pursue careers they might never have heard of in high school.
That can be especially hard on those who come from rural or low-income schools students who may have never met an engineer, or explored a great science lab, she said.
Computer science professor Ed Lazowska said theres no right way to handle the overcrowded-majors issue.
Elite private universities allow students to choose any major they want, Lazowska said, but getting admitted to those universities in the first place is like winning the lottery.
On the other hand, some major public universities give students a relatively free choice of their major, but use weed-out courses extremely difficult prerequisites to reduce the number of students going into certain majors, he said.
Meanwhile, just up the road in Everett, Washington State Universitys new North Puget Sound campus is adding more slots in electrical, mechanical and software engineering. The mechanical engineering program, which can accommodate 40 new students each year, had twice that number of applicants this January.
Kussick, the UW student who thought he would never get into bioengineering, solved his dilemma by transferring to Oregon State University at the start of his sophomore year. He is making As in all his classes Im doing better than Ive ever done at school and was admitted to the pre-bioengineering program. His interests have expanded into robotics, and hes also thinking about medical school or earning a Ph.D.
Kussick is 250 miles from home, and because hes an out-of-state-student, his familys paying about $13,000 more a year in tuition and living expenses than they did while he was at the UW.
But hes happy with his decision to move to Corvallis. Im loving it down here, he said.
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Students frustrated trying to get into UW’s strict engineering program – The Seattle Times
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