The 4-Year Degree Debate

Let me state for the record that I am, and have been for some time, on the fence with respect to whether a baccalaureate degree in surveying should be required for licensure. My focus here will not be on the question itself, but on the debate over the question.

It is important that the debate center on the proper issues so that the end result is credible to observers of the process, namely representatives of the public whose property demands most of our attention and young people preparing to enter the profession. And we must be careful that the solutions adopted are accepted by the public as necessary to its well-being. We do not exist in a vacuum. Forgetting that fact risks the fate that befell the health care industry. Consider what happened there: unable to stem spiraling costs year after year, doctors suddenly found themselves replaced in the decision-making role in routine care by insurance company accountants. Physicians, who have a plausible claim to that of being the most respected profession, ignored the rumblings of a dissatisfied public and suffered the consequences as a result.

The Future

It is possible that a 4-year degree will be necessary, perhaps even crucial, to effective surveying practice in the next century. No one has a crystal ball, and thus all predictions about future conditions have some (and perhaps a vast amount of) uncertainty in them. Nevertheless, some indicators have emerged that suggest that in the future degreed people will be more able to satisfy the public’s need for spatial professionals. However, one can argue persuasively, I believe, that surveyors can adequately serve society without an intricate knowledge of how our tools work. One can, after all, be a master chef without understanding the subtleties of oven design.

The educators need to keep back from this particular debate for two reasons. First, because their livelihood depends on a steady stream of students, an obvious conflict of interest occurs when they argue for mandatory education. This is not to say that their arguments would have no merit, but that arguments from such sources are akin to surveyors arguing for mandatory surveys for each transfer of property. One could never be certain whether the arguments stem merely from self-interest rather than the public good. Second, and my intent here is not to disparage anyone, but for the most part educators do not practice surveying (and some never have) and thus generally cannot speak with authority on the particular demands made on surveyors by society. It is possible, for instance, that society’s survey needs do not and will not require the education that 4-year degrees provide. If that turns out to be the case, requiring a degree would transcend society’s interest—triggering a question of whom the requirement would benefit. Some whose counsel I value most are academics, but this question is too important to risk later charges of less-than-pure motives.

The least persuasive (and most commonly heard) arguments concern the matter of respect. Many argue that surveying will never be on equal footing with other professions until a 4-year degree is required for licensure. There is a major flaw in this reasoning: the other professions aren’t on an equal footing with one another to begin with. No one argues that engineers enjoy the same social status as doctors. Lawyers and accountants each suffer under various negative public perceptions. All of these professions require at least a 4-year degree—and some require considerably more. How will we know when we’ve arrived? As someone recently wrote, "It’s important to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."

But there are compelling arguments on the other side as well. I recently browsed through some of the surveying discussion threads at a couple of surveying-related websites. To read the tortured explanations of how folks implement positional tolerance in their control surveys is to conclude that many have no idea what it’s all about—which points to a lack of education. I even ran across a thread that discussed whether to honor called-for, undisturbed monuments or not, the conclusion of which was unclear. These people had "LS" behind their names. Obviously a problem exists; perhaps a mandatory 4-year degree will fix it, and perhaps not. How is it possible that competence has escaped attention in the 4-year degree debate?

The most persuasive arguments, in my opinion, focus on the future role of the surveyor in society. No one who thinks seriously about the future believes that surveyors will be able to survive offering the same services as in the past. Other technologies will provide the same result at a tiny fraction of our price. Design-quality topography will be available over the Internet at nominal cost; on-board GPS will guide construction equipment using 3D DTM files loaded directly from the designer’s workstation—eliminating the need for construction layout. In fact, most of the mechanical processes provided by surveyors will, at some point, be available directly to end users—eliminating any need for our involvement.

Meeting Society’s Needs

Clearly, some tasks will not suffer that fate. Boundary-related issues will remain for our dispatch, despite some predictions to the contrary. However, that family of services will never support the current number of surveyors. Therefore, if we are to survive in numbers even approximating what we have today, we must replace the tasks lost to technology with other tasks that society needs—just as accountants are attempting to replace routine bookkeeping services (lost to personal computers with inexpensive accounting software) with management consulting. It is appropriate, I think, to leverage our skills in one area into meeting society’s needs in another area. The question becomes whether those other services, whatever they might be, will require a 4-year degree for effective performance.

The legal philosopher Irving Kristol once wrote: "Being frustrated is disagreeable, but the real disasters in life begin when you get what you want." This issue has serious consequences. Let’s ensure that the discussion is worthy of the question.

Copyright © 1999 By Joel M. Leininger, LS