What Does ABET Accreditation Mean to a Student?
Virtually anyone can open a school. If the school doesn’t meet industry standards, though, a diploma amounts to little more than a piece of paper. That’s why accreditation is important – it demonstrates to students, licensing boards, and employers alike that core competencies are taught and graduates are ready for the professional world. School accreditation means that your degree has meaning – e.g. that your bachelor’s or master’s will be viewed as such by future employers. Program accreditation means that the particular degree program has met the standards for its discipline.
The Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is the accrediting body for U.S. software engineering programs. The organization has a track record for success in setting professional engineering standards. Although accreditation of software engineering programs is relatively new, ABET has been the accreditor for other engineering disciplines for many decades; the organization evaluated its first one in the 1930’s.
Currently there are 21 ABET Accredited Software Engineering programs in the United States.
ABET Software Engineering Standards
ABET accredits both baccalaureate and master’s level programs. The accrediting committee looks at student outcomes and also at the relationship between the school and its students. Student progress must be appropriately monitored, and students must have access to both curriculum and career advising. The program must demonstrate that it has faculty with adequate depth and breadth to cover the material. Laboratories and other facilities must meet quality standards, and the program must have the resources to continue to serve its students.
The program must give students adequate preparation for their post-graduation roles. Math and basic sciences are part of the foundation for success. Thus, the curriculum must include 32 semester hours of math and science, and 48 semester hours of engineering. Real world experience is also vital. Therefore, students are required to complete a senior design project. Baccalaureate level engineering candidates attain outcomes in a variety of areas including the ability to design systems within realistic constraints.
As part of the accreditation process, an evaluation team visits the school, examines course materials and student products, and interviews various stakeholders.
Accreditation and Licensing
How vital is program accreditation? This depends in part on your career goals. If you attend an accredited school, you may be better prepared for a future job market in which there are more legalities and regulations. There is a relationship between accreditation and licensing, though experienced professionals are generally not held to the same educational standards as those just entering a profession.
Most states do not currently license software engineers. Texas is an exception; it has been issuing licenses for more than a decade. Nine other states have recently joined Texas in asking for the development of a licensing examination. Today’s Engineer, a publication of the IEEE-USA, reported in January 2011 that the exam was expected to be in place in 2013. Not all software engineers and developers will need licensing, only those whose works effects “health, safety, and welfare”. Individual states will determine what that means in their jurisdiction. According to Today’s Engineer, this probably will impact mainly those who work with embedded software.
Currently, ABET accreditation is requested in industries where the stakes are very high. The airplane manufacturer Boeing lists ABET accreditation as a preferred, though not required, job qualification. Raytheon, which specializes in providing defense and security solutions, also lists ABET as the preferred accreditation standard. As the number of accredited programs increases, and the number of graduates does, there will likely be more employers requiring this gold standard. This has been the trend in other professions.
Other software engineers may want to take the licensing exam as a badge of accomplishment. Software engineering is a relatively new profession. In a time when licensing is not yet the norm, it can be your best assurance that you’re getting the educational experience you seek. Realize that programs aren’t accredited, though, until after they’ve graduated their first class. Some programs are not currently accredited but taking steps in that direction.