Surveying Degree Requirement: How Is That Working Out?

This entry is part 50 of 57 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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Surveying Degree Requirement: How Is That Working Out?” Comments

  1. I think you have echoed what many of us long-time surveyors have been thinking and discussing among our colleagues. The ability to even find a local college that offers a 4-year surveying degree is close to impossible.

    I, too, would be interested to see the benefit that has come from the 4-year degree requirement.

  2. Preach on brother! I have made these exact points many times, but this is the first time I have seen these observations and opinions published. I personally am a crossbreed. I began internship in the field of Surveying prior to any requirements for education. I chose to go to college in order to shorten the internship requirements of experience under an RPLS. Much of my experience had been acquired in the geological exploration field and in construction. I had some encouragement from family to continue building on my 2-year degree and went on and earned my BS in Civil Engineering Degree at Texas A&M, at that time no college in Texas even offered a 4-year degree in Surveying. After graduation I went to work for TxDOT and attained my P.E. license as well as my RPLS license. I left a cushy job with great benefits and retirement plan to start up a “Family Business” centered around land surveying. Point is, I am one of the few fools to choose this route over a much more lucrative career as an Engineer, having the choice. I believe some level of education beyond High School is beneficial to the individual and to the integrity of the field. I also know a lot of good technicians who have received a 2-year technical degree in land surveying and have acquired years more of practical experience under responsible professional supervision, who I feel would be much better candidates for becoming licensed than the college graduate route. Under the current requirements of my state board, they can never become licensed. I agree we need to step back and take a serious look at where we are headed and make some adjustments. I personally would not provide recommendation for a candidate that I did not feel was more qualified than the college graduate system in place now. Thanks for the sounding board.

  3. Great article Mr. Martin. I went back to school to get my masters in Geomatics after 10 years learning on the job and it was far more valuable when I knew how and why to apply principles base on my previous job experience.

  4. When I was taking my surveying courses back in the 90’s, my professor at the time explained that the move by the land surveyors’ associations and their states to change their requirements for licensure to a 4 year degree was inspired by a Florida Supreme Court case. In that case, a surveyor was sued for malpractice and his defense was based on being defined as a “professional” for the purposes of [the] professional malpractice statute. The court said without a 4 year degree that he was not a “professional”. I believe I found that case to be Garden v. Frier (No. 78156, Supreme Court of Florida, July 2, 1992). This link provides a good summary:
    So, it appears that liability, and protection against it, is the checkmate on licensees and their states’ departments of regulation as far as making sure that their “professional” status holds up in a court of law.

  5. This is the “Soap Box” that I have been shouting from for years. Each State could reduce their shortage of skilled surveyors by asking their local Community College’s to establish an Intern Program for Surveyors. The school could teach them math, AutoCAD. Plans, ect. Get them certified in material testing. You in turn would be required to teach them how to work in the field. They could rotate between the job and the classroom. Most states usually have several programs that can help fund the students pay while they are working for you. Each state college and High School Skill Centers have some type of On-the Job Coordinator that are well versed in these programs. If you don’t think this will work, look at the other trades in your town. One will have some type of intern program. If we can’t get the schools to establish a program, we must do it ourselves. This profession is fading fast and the skills are going down the drain.
    I have always said, “You will never find a school that can teach a student how to find a stone with an “X” on it, three feet deep, in the middle of a forest.”

  6. I think the argument is moot at this point.

    A lot of older licensed surveyors “proved up” in what was basically an unregulated apprenticeship program, and then passed some fairly rigorous tests. Most of us are now retired.

    I did a kind of “hybrid” approach to licensing as when I went off to college in 1966, there were no BS in Surveying programs anywhere in the US. As my BA was in History, I found that I had no problem with the math, and that eventually the history came through in correctly retracing old, and very old, boundaries. Those situations come down to research. Do it poorly and you will be learning from judges and lawyers, usually at significant cost.

    As for those who came after me, with degrees in Surveying, I can say that here in Ohio, the results have been good overall.

    Going forward, I am reminded of a visit many years ago from a friend of my wife, a lady MD who was a radiologist. She stated, on arriving at our home that she had seen people like me, surveyors, working along a roadway.

    I had to tell her, in terms that she understood, that the people she saw were technicians, just like her radiology x-ray techs, who would gather data and return it for professional analysis.

    Surveying education is not that hard to find today, and if it requires an out-of-state trip, just join the millions of current college students who already do that.

    • Jim Stafa

      I contend that You don’t find Surveying, it finds you. Yes there are some who are born into surveying, but almost all of us can tell a story of how it hit us. Whether it was trying to find evidence of a long gone line, or finding a stone, or turning that closing angle on a traverse and having it “hit”, there was a magic moment where we decided “I want to do this for a living.”
      I doubt many of us had that “aha!” moment in a classroom.
      Someone once told me that a Surveyor is just a Civil Engineer who loves the outdoors. Though this saying annoys me, it does have some merit. We need to focus our recruitment not in the class room, but in the field. Lets look for the kids in scouting (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire…) Look for people in the Career Centers studying to be Park Rangers or Environmentalists.
      You can teach someone Math and Technology, you can’t teach them how to love working outside.

  7. I am sure this is a topic that will not end anytime soon. I mostly hear the arguments from the side of surveyors that do not believe this is a good idea. I received my license prior to the 4-year degree requirement. I do not think retracting that requirement is a good idea.

    I keep hearing complaints that surveyors are not respected like they used to be. (Sure sounds like a lot of ego there.) Should there be any surprise in that? How many of the general public have any idea what we do? Have you asked? Many of my responses to this question tells me we are an unknown profession, despite our growing importance in the business and regulation community. I get a lot of “I don’t know” or “are you the guys in the street with the cameras?” or “what is that?” or remarks about us taking opinion surveys. This is not an enlightened public. And whose fault is that? We think we can walk into a high school and interest the students in our chosen profession. News Flash! That is way too late to make any type or impression. They have already decided their career path. We need to educate the elementary students in what is a growing profession. We are the fallen tree in the forest no one hears.

    Yes, the surveyor used to be among the smartest people in town. It is not the 1800’s anymore. The environment where we exist in is much more diverse than it was then. The job opportunities outside of surveying are pretty vast. And most people know what other professions do. They know what a banker does; they know what an engineer does; they know what an accountant does; etc. They do not know what a surveyor does.

    As far as earning potential, I recently spoke to an engineer about business. He told me how hard it was for them to find licensed surveyors. He also told me his company is paying more for a recently registered surveyor than a PE.

    So we want to make more money and be better respected in the community. Got it. And how are we attempting to accomplish this? I think the 4-year degree requirement is a good step in that direction. I am not saying this is telling, but, years ago the “public relations” committee of our local chapter put out its newsletter. Of course, this document never saw any eyes of the public – just fellow surveyors. That’s how we surveyors inform the public (we don’t.) As I read the newsletter I was astounded. Thank goodness this was not shared with the general public. There was not a complete sentence until the third “sentence”. I am not saying a college degree is required to write a sentence, but, that was not an impressive document.

    So you want the public to know and appreciate what we do. You want the respect and recognition you think we deserve. You want to be known as a seasoned professional. But you want to get rid of the one thing professions have in common – a 4-year college degree. Let me know how that works out for you.

  8. Ill try to keep this short. Enjoyed the article and I have opinions about this subject too…
    I once tried to get my license in another state with a 4yr Surveying degree requirement…
    Currently was living and working there in Surveying, under a fantastic boss, great job
    I had a 4yr degree in Business Finance
    2yr Surveying degree
    LSI, experience, was licensed in another state, a flattering long list of PLS willing to sign off on me
    Answer from board was an emphatic NO..have to go back to school. period.
    I could not afford to do so, so left the state…long story but it left a bad taste for sure.
    Frustrated you bet
    Sorry for the rant…thought I would share.

  9. Nailed it…we’d love to get Mr. Martin on a future episode of The Geoholics Podcast to discuss this topic!

  10. I enjoyed your article about degreed registration.
    I am in the same boat as you with how I attained my licenses in two different states. I worked both for a private land surveyor and a government agency at the same time one full-time the other part-time. Combined they provided me with much of the education and experience that I needed to for my registrations. I must also say that I was a member in our state association of land surveyors and attended all of the seminars and workshops that were provided by same. I worked for the governmental agency for 42 years and retired. I am still active in the survey field by volunteering for a land trust.
    Keep up the good work in stirring the pot.

  11. It is good to raise questions about developing surveyors who are prepared to meet the challenges of surveying practice now and in the future. Thanks to the internet and search engines, it is possible to develop facts related to many of the question raised in this article. For example, discussions about land surveyors and formal education can be traced back to ACSM around the time the civil engineers decided land surveying was a distinct practice that should be regulated. As civil engineers got out of the practice of land surveying, they encouraged surveyors to takes steps to preserve their professional stature. Land Surveyors have been debating the pros and cons of formal education for almost 60 years. This is long enough for a generation of surveyors to have come and gone. Perhaps it is worth pondering how this debate has shaped the current state of affairs in the profession.

    During my career, lots of surveyors left the profession because the periodic economic recessions made their livelihoods unstable. At one point in the turmoil of the last recession I recall a group of younger surveyors advocating the old guys ought to retire so they could stay employed. Thanks to a 10 year economic expansion there are now shortages of surveyors in many parts of the county. One thing I am confident of is that it is not getting any easier to develop a person in to surveyor who is capable of doing what needs to be done. But this is hardly a new problem in the long history of surveying. For example, the ancient Romans harnessed the power of surveying to expand the empire and actively educated surveyors. Perhaps an unintended consequence of this enterprise was the surveyor gained stature in society.

    A while back I drafted a series of articles on the economics of surveying over a 40 year period. One of the issues I explored was the conversion of wages into revenue in the AEC industry. The census data was used as resource. The data suggested surveyors might not be as productive as other occupations in the industry in terms of revenue generated per wages paid. There are a number of ways this can happen and I explored a few. I left plenty of issues on the table for others to investigate. There are no simple solutions to sustaining a profession in a healthy condition over the long run, although the hard work of self-renewal offers a way forward. If we want a better profession, we have to be willing to resolve its problems when the time is right.

  12. This is a well written article about an issue that all surveyors wonder about. I live and work in a state that requires a 4 year degree in surveying or a “related science.” I have been in surveying for 15 years, and became licensed last year. I earned a BS in ‘University Studies’ (along with surveying, math, science courses to satisfy the “related science” requirement) over a period of about 10 years. Like stated in the article, I “learned how to learn” going to college and obtaining my 4 year degree. I think I’m a better surveyor, communicator, and businessman because of it. Do I think I’m smarter or a better surveyor than someone who did not achieve a 4 year degree? NO. My on the job experience taught me far more than my formal education in subjects such as boundary analysis.

    I think the push for 4 year degrees has more to do with avoiding the deregulation of our profession. Many states are actively deregulating professions such as barbers, cosmetologists, etc and land surveying has been mentioned in many of these conversations. Many believe a new “standard” of being a profession is the 4 year degree, and if that is eliminated from the requirements then our great profession might be deregulated. This would result in surveying being a trade. Obviously, we all know that land surveyors are instrumental in protecting the public and should remain a regulated profession.

    I think the surveying profession is in an interesting position right now. With the glaring shortage of up-and-coming licensees, how do we bring young people into our profession? I think there should be alternative routes to becoming licensed other than a full 4 year degree, but becoming too lax on requirements might lead to further deregulation efforts by states. Another, and perhaps even more serious problem we face is bringing in and training young field personnel. With the advances in technology and the normalcy of the one-man crew, advancing young field staff has proven difficult. I think the best we can do is stay involved in our local surveyor associations and NSPS activities.

  13. Well stated Mr. Martin.

    Having the stance of a life-long learner is likely one of the biggest determiners of a person’s overall success. Therein lies the dilemma for our profession.

    When I was President of the Maryland Society of Surveyors I begrudgingly supported a degree bill. My reasons then have not changed now.

    Very few surveyors are life-long students. The profession is awash with geodesy, laser scanning, and UAS-based photogrammetry. GIS is perceived as more of a threat than the beneficial tool it is. Deep analytics fueled by artificial intelligence is a major rising threat in the next two decades. With all of that stated, I find far too few surveyors able to hold a lucid conversation on all of those topics.

    This is the prime reason I support a required education. I have no degree, but I recognize my fortunes to know the right people at the right time to take my career to the next step. Not everyone is so lucky. But, a degree alone will not address these issues.

    I am part of the advisory board for a college land surveying program. The program is severely restricted from being effective for teaching the future surveyor.

    I mean no disrespect to the dedicated team of part-time professors. They are knowledgeable and offer their valuable time to prepare the next generation of licensees. In this regard, they are even successful. However, teaching someone to get their license and teaching someone to be relevant for the next 10-20 years are different tasks.

    The program is squeezed on two primary fronts.

    First, government-mandated requirements seriously restrict the program’s flexibility. Once the core, required classes are in place there is room for little else.

    Second, if the ability to introduce a series of classes on emerging technologies were possible, you still need qualified instructors. There are so few surveyors working on the forefront of geospatial technology that they are often overworked and have time for little else.

    All of this harkens back to an op-ed of my own in the February 2017 edition of xyHt. We will not be able to stop technological innovation. The majority of the surveyors I come into contact with are not preparing the next generation to deal with these technologies. Forced education may be their best hope and I’ve identified the considerable challenges there.

    Our storied profession is on borrowed time. Nostalgia is our worst enemy. An advanced education will likely be the only path to relevance for the remaining few.

    • Steven S wolinski

      Mr.Shaw I would like to know if I could ask you a few questions about Surveyor s in Md.?I live in Md and am having a few issues with my Surveyor who I made a mistake in paying upfront for a job.My email if you don’t mind contacting me is Thank You!

  14. As long as the surveying community is content with not requiring a degree land surveying will continue to be underpaid and not perceived as a profession.

  15. The requirement of a 4 year degree amongst states is exaggerated in your column. You stated that half the states require one and that is not factually accurate. Currently 15 states require a 4 year degree, 8 require a 2 year degree and the rest allow a licensure path through experience only.

    The question of should education be required comes down to whether surveyors want to be considered a profession. Can a paralegal become a lawyer, a medical assistant become a nurse, a nurse become a doctor or a civil engineering technician become a civil engineer without a degree. That is what you are proposing by allowing field technicians to become a professional land surveyor without a degree.

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