THE highly publicized decline in young American engineers appears to be ending, buoying hopes that the nation won't lose its technological edge. After a four-year drop, the number of undergraduate engineering students in the United States stabilized last year and may increase this year. Many of the top engineering schools are seeing an unexpected increase in applicants for the fall.
An informal Monitor survey of more than one dozen universities found nine with a rising number of applications, two holding steady, and one declining. This rise is taking place even though the total number of college freshmen is declining.
The finding is important because technology and science experts have worried that the US was producing too few engineers to meet its future needs.
"Something is clearly going on, but we're not sure what," says Diane Shinberg, educational survey manager of the Engineering Manpower Commission. "We had expected the numbers to continue to decline and they didn't."
The commission, which provides statistics on the engineering work force, found that overall enrollment of undergraduate engineers went up very slightly last year - from 338,529 in 1989 to 338,842 in 1990. That ended a steady decline that started in 1986, when total enrollments stood at 369,520.
The number of freshmen entering engineering programs continued to decline last year - by 1.1 percent. But that was less than the commission had expected. The number could turn up this year, since applications are up.
The rise in applications is broad and deep. It is taking place at small and large schools, state universities and private colleges.
Purdue University's engineering school received a record 6,250 applications for the 1991 fall semester. Texas A&M got so many applicants for engineering it stopped accepting them March 1 - its earliest cutoff date ever.
Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., is up 7.5 percent for the fall; Cooper Union in New York City, up 14 percent; Georgia Tech, up 18.5 percent; Michigan State University, up 20 percent. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., also report increases.
A few schools held steady, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Caltech is showing a slight increase in applicants. Among those surveyed by the Monitor, only Penn State University showed a decrease.
The rise in applications flies in the face of the overall decline in college students. There are 1 million fewer 18-year-olds this year according to US Census projections than in 1979 - the peak year, with 4.3 million. The pool of 18-year-olds should reach a low of 3.2 million in 1993 before rising again.
This phenomenon of rising applications is so new that most admissions directors and engineering deans were surprised by it. Many are hesitant to forecast a turnaround just yet.
"It would be a dramatic change," says George Van Dusen, assistant dean at Michigan State University's engineering college.
One possible explanation is that the students are applying to many schools simultaneously, says Phil Wankat, head of Purdue's freshman engineering department. He says the engineering school's in-state applications stayed level while out-of-state applications went up.
Officials at other universities suggest that there are more students interested in engineering. But they say the turnaround may be short term.
"It could be related to the recession, where parents and students realize that it's going to be harder to get jobs out there," says Paul Christiano, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Engineering traditionally has provided larger salaries and better-than-average job security. A recent survey of US employers found that engineering and computer-science graduates this year will command the highest entry-level salaries.
Some engineering specialties are going through difficult times as defense- and computer-related companies retrench. But other specialties, such as civil and environmental engineering, are becoming suddenly popular.
"I don't think we are going to see the trough that we thought," says Barbara Arena of Lehigh's engineering school. "People are really going out and they're talking up engineering."
Schools such as Lehigh have increased their financial-aid packages. Engineering schools around the country have started programs in junior-high and high schools to attract female and minority students.
Some schools are even trying to change themselves to attract more students. Cornell's engineering school is hiring its first-ever coordinator of women for next fall. And Georgia Tech, instead of its traditional sink-or-swim approach, is trying to ensure success for the most students possible, says Jim Langley, the university's vice president for external affairs.
So, a turnaround? The preliminary evidence suggests one is under way.
"If we are not able to say that, I fear that we are going to be in big trouble" in a few years, says Mr. Christiano of Carnegie Mellon. "It implies that our economy will have shrunk."