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2016 July 17

ABET accreditation

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016, a parent on the [hs2coll] mailing list wrote:

I think the main thing is that the program is ABET certified.

Indeed one of the most frequently asked question by parents of prospective students at UCSC recruiting events is whether our engineering programs are accredited by ABET.

Unfortunately, certification by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. is somewhat overrated. Its importance varies a lot between fields in engineering—in some fields (like civil engineering) it is absolutely essential, while in other fields (like computer science and bioengineering) it is pretty much irrelevant. Fields that expect engineers to have professional licenses are generally more interested in ABET certification.

At a small, little-known school, having ABET accreditation may be some guarantee of  having at least a minimal set of courses, but at a large research university, all it means is that the faculty were willing (or coerced) to slog through endless paperwork. I think that ABET accreditation may actually be a bad sign in newer fields, because faculty are unwilling to tinker with and improve the curriculum if they have to be sure not violate any of the arbitrary criteria of the accreditation process, which tends to be based on 2-decade-old views of what is important.

The ABET certification process is incredibly bureaucratic. It took the computer engineering program at UCSC about 2 faculty-years of effort to do the paperwork the first time they got accreditation, and a quarter to half that every 6 years for renewal.  The Computer Engineering Department at UCSC is considering not renewing their ABET accreditation, because they can’t afford to take that much time away from teaching, and the computer industry cares very little about ABET—they care more about what new employees can do and whether they have up-to-date training, not whether they have met a lot of bureaucratic requirements.

There is some value in the ABET process, as it forces as detailed look at every course in the curriculum, making sure that the faculty have examined the interfaces between classes as well as thorough documentation of each course.  This detailed examination of the curriculum can result in improvements—filling gaps or removing unneeded duplication that faculty were not aware of. But for that desirable outcome, most of the faculty must see the analysis of the curriculum as valuable and be willing to modify their courses to improve the curriculum.  This was the case when the computer engineering department first applied for ABET accreditation and justified the enormous amount of faculty effort.  (Also engineering at UCSC was very new at that time, and ABET accreditation was important for establishing that computer engineering was a real engineering program.)

The bioengineering program has decided not to seek ABET accreditation, because it is far too much paperwork for far too little value—most of our students seek jobs in the biotech industry, who hire mainly biologists and are almost unaware of ABET. In any event, the bioengineering major at UCSC would have to be broken up into 3 or 4 different majors to get ABET accreditation, because each of the concentrations would fall under a different ABET category.

With thirteen different departments providing required courses for the curriculum, most of whom regard the bioengineering program as belonging to someone else (even some of the departments that own the program!), it would be almost impossible to get the level of faculty cooperation and enthusiasm to do a proper analysis of the curriculum. Furthermore, because many of the courses are designed for some other program (biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, electrical engineering, robotics, psychology, … ), improvements in the courses to fit better into the bioengineering curriculum are unlikely to happen.  Thus the accreditation exercise would be unproductive as well as tedious.

That is not to say that our curriculum doesn’t get examined carefully, just that the examination does not involve all the faculty and produce hundreds of pages of documentation, as required by ABET. We are always looking for ways to make our program better, to improve our 4-year graduation rate, and to compensate for changes in content or prerequisites in courses currently required. The 2014–15 catalog introduced a huge overhaul of the bioengineering program, but every year sees some tweaks. (Incidentally, ABET does not approve of such large curricular changes—they value stability over innovation.)

The bottom line is that ABET accreditation is not the guarantee of quality that some parents have been lead to believe it is, and many modern engineering departments might be well advised to forego ABET accreditation.

 

1 Comment »

  1. I think that accreditation is perceived as more important, pre-enrollment, than it actually is for graduates in computer science or software engineering, from reputable research universities.

    Comment by plam — 2016 July 21 @ 08:57 | Reply


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