Surveying Degree Requirement: How Is That Working Out?

This entry is part 50 of 67 in the series Field Notes

As we come to the end of another decade, I decided I would really stir it up for this edition of Field Notes. Sometimes you just have to whack the hornet’s nest, then take cover and see what happens.

I am not a trained journalist. If I were, I would have done extensive research on this topic so I could supply statistics, anecdotal evidence, and convincing information to support my position. Instead, I am writing this from the gut, because everyone knows that one thing surveyors aren’t short of is opinions. This is mine.

At some point in the past couple of decades a movement started to enact four-year degree requirements to become a licensed professional land surveyor at the state level. I am not sure of the origin of this movement or how it gained enough traction to become law. Was it lobbyists for academic institutions offering surveying-related degrees? Did it come from the engineering side of our profession? Was it initiated by state boards in an effort to improve the quality of practitioners and reduce enforcement actions? I don’t know. What I do know is that it wasn’t done to increase the numbers of young people pursuing our noble profession.

Yes, I am biased. I navigated the path to licensure via the on-the-job training route. It worked well, as I held my California license at the age of 27 with only an AA degree in general life experiences. In my 43 years in this line of work, 33 of them licensed, I have crossed paths with countless outstanding surveyors, the majority who traveled the same path that I did. I have also encountered some whom I wondered about. As time has gone on, I have crossed paths more and more with those holding four-year degrees. Honestly, I haven’t been able to tell the difference, except the ones with degrees are often quick to let you know it.

Truthfully, when I first contemplated writing this article I did do some research. I reached out to colleagues positioned to know about how this degree movement rolled out across the country. It turns out that it is a complex matrix, from strict four-year degrees in an ABET accredited program, to a four-year degree in a related subject, to a four-year degree of any kind. There are also two-year degree options. In all cases, I believe, some level of post-degree experience is required to sit for the state examination. I believe the number of states requiring some level of four-year degree is more than half. Fortunately, I don’t work in one of them.

So, what have been the realized benefits? Are enforcement actions down? Are examination passage rates up? Are the degree-holding licensees smarter than their OJT predecessors? Are they more prepared to successfully operate a business? Is enrollment up at the limited academic institutions offering an ABET-accredited degree in surveying (often called something else)? Have charge-out rates increased directly because staff have degrees in addition to licenses? Do degreed, licensed surveyors earn more than their non-degreed counterparts?

The negatives? Well, engineers, on average, earn more than surveyors do, so why would a young person choose to pursue a four-year, math-intensive degree in surveying when they can make more money as an engineer? Most graduates exit with a mound of debt. Simply from a financial aspect, why would they choose surveying and take longer to pay that debt off?

Is the number of examinees going down measurably in states that have enacted this requirement? Yes, they have. Is that good for the sustainability of our aging profession? I think not.

Learning theory from a professor who has never practiced land surveying one day in their life could possibly provide some positive foundation, I suppose. My guess is that the degreed practitioners would run circles around me discussing the fundamentals of error analysis. But I assert I would do the same to them with regards to applying those concepts to boundary determination, because it is so much more than pure math. You can’t learn that in a classroom. I am sorry, you just can’t.

One of the most respected surveyors I have had the privilege of knowing went back to get his four-year degree several years after he earned his license. Clearly, for him, he saw value there. I haven’t asked him, but I suspect that he would tell me that it made him a better surveyor, and that is likely true. But I surmise that is because he was already a seasoned professional, and studying theory from that perspective was much different than being fresh out of high school. He already knew what nuggets to mine to augment his knowledge base. His fellow classmates had no perspective to evaluate what was simply an academic exercise and what would be of value as a practicing land surveyor. He is the exception, for sure.

What I will say is that education is, or should be, a never-ending process. Learning excellent writing/communication skills and business acumen is more valuable to the success of the surveying professional than all of the theory in the world, in my opinion. Learning how to learn comes from formal education, which is a good thing. I still learn something new almost every day at this juncture of my career because I seek growth and knowledge. We should never stop learning. But we don’t need to go to a university for that. I am proof, as are many of my respected peers. Requiring extensive experience at the appropriate levels, having people who serve as references take their role seriously before attesting to someone’s competency to sit for the exam, and a fair, tough examination will guard the licensure gate for us.

I encourage professional state associations in states that have a degree requirement to take a look at what the results have been. Has it helped or harmed? Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Are there enough degreed programs to even feed our profession in ample numbers to sustain it? Should some changes be made before it is too late and we are replaced by something filling the vacuum out of necessity?

These are the thoughts of this long-in-the-tooth proud surveyor. 

Field Notes

This article appeared in xyHt‘s e-newsletter, Field Notes. We email it once a month, and it covers a variety of land surveying topics in a conversational tone. You’re welcome to subscribe to the e-newsletter here. (You’ll also receive the Pangaea newsletter with your subscription.)


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