Those seeking careers in the car industry spend hours agonizing about their choices when it comes to colleges and universities. Unfortunately, many fail to realize that what students do outside of class will be at least as important as where classes are held.
As you progress further in your career, you will find that managers will care less about where you went to school and much more about what you can do for them. Car companies, their suppliers and automotive-related industries need people with both practical experience and a passion for things motorized. Those who work on their school's SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Supermileage team, help restore a muscle car, volunteer for a local race team or compete in autocross events will likely have more success than those who attend MIT but can't identify a ratchet in a lineup of kitchen tools.
"One of the finest automotive engineers I worked with had a degree in Materials Sciences — and unspectacular grades — from the Colorado School of Mines," said a retired engineer and vehicle program manager from a top car company. "Likewise, the auto industry is littered with the failed careers of engineering graduates from far more prestigious automotive schools."
To come up with this list of the top 10 automotive colleges and universities, we interviewed representatives of several car companies, studied results from vehicle-building competitions and considered our own experience. The institutions listed barely scratch the surface of schools that offer excellent automotive programs. Certainly any of the more than 75 U.S. colleges and universities that have active programs in Formula SAE (FSAE), Supermileage or Clean Snowmobile competitions would be a good choice.
Also consider schools that have competed in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Grand Challenge to produce driverless, self-guided vehicles and the Automotive X Prize, a competition to build clean, fast and fuel-efficient cars. Look for schools that have recently scored top finishes in the competitions, such as North Carolina State, the University of Florida and the University of Kansas.
Canada, along with many other countries, has colleges and universities that produce top-quality graduates for the automotive industry. These include McGill in Montreal, the University of Toronto and Université Laval in Quebec. Those interested in racing should check out programs such as the University of North Carolina at Charlotte's motorsports engineering program.
We focused on automotive engineering programs. Those more interested in design — which used to be called "styling" — will want to look at Pasadena, California's Art Center, Detroit's College of Creative Studies and others.
Here are our picks for the top automotive colleges and universities.
It's a toss-up as to whether Michigan, Michigan State or Michigan Tech will produce the best automotive engineers in the future. Alumni from all three can be found at most automotive-related companies. Potential students will have to decide which best fits their needs, but any of these three have to be considered a top choice.
Purdue has long produced top engineers for Detroit and its suppliers. IUPUI boasts a motorsports engineering program. Ryan Newman, one of the very few NASCAR drivers who graduated from college, holds an engineering degree from Purdue.
The Ithaca, New York, institution is not a traditional automotive school, but any university that has eight FSAE championships to its credit has to be on this list. In addition, Cornell is one of the few colleges to enter both the Automotive X Prize competition and the DARPA driverless vehicle event.
Despite having fewer than 3,000 students, Kettering University produces far more than its share of industry personnel. Located in Flint, Michigan, the school formerly known as General Motors Institute offers degrees in management as well as engineering.
At least as heated as the debate among Michigan-based schools is that involving UT Austin, UT Arlington and Texas A&M. The three have combined for more than a dozen wins in FSAE, FSAE West and FSAE Japan competition, so you'll have to make your own choice among them.
Virginia Tech regularly produces a competitive FSAE team — it has one championship — and scored a 3rd-place finish in the 2007 DARPA competition. Also, its campus is close to the center of the U.S. racing industry in North Carolina. In addition, I've personally worked with several Hokie engineers who are some of the best drivers you've never heard of.
It was a challenge to pick from among Cal Davis, Cal Berkeley, Stanford and Cal Tech, as all have programs that seek to find the future of personal transportation. Most enter more than one of the touchstone competitions. However, our experts said Cal Davis students typically possessed more practical experience.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona also have programs that are worthy of consideration. The former's College of Engineering has produced a winning Supermileage team. The latter has placed in the prestigious Formula SAE Collegiate Design Series.
By itself, the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) would make Clemson a contender for this list. In addition, the South Carolina school has a strong vehicle dynamics program and is located within 160 miles of almost every NASCAR shop.
Based in the middle of booming Atlanta, Georgia Tech has long been an automotive powerhouse with a strong FSAE team. In addition it has a respected design school. Not insignificantly, its mascot is a 1930 Ford Model A Sports coupe.
College is but one step on the road toward success. Where you go to school and what you do there can help or hurt your career. However, what you do when class is not in session is at least as important.