The Rensselaer Institute awarded the first civil engineering degree in the United States in 1835. Four students were granted the CE degree that year: William Clement, Jacob Eddy, Edward Suffern and Amos Westcott. The degree could be earned in one year (or six months, if the student already had a college degree). Amos Eaton made a point of differentiating the rigor of the Rensselaer course from other institutions that claimed to "manufacture engineers." The course of instruction quickly grew into the primary degree program at Rensselaer. The CE degree was virtually the only degree granted from 1850 to 1911 (occasionally a Bachelor of Science degree was granted and a degree in Mining Engineering was awarded from 1868 to 1871). The course was extended to three years in 1850 and then to four years in 1861.

Early civil engineering graduates pursued a variety of careers. In addition to obvious careers in architecture and railroad or bridge engineering, some were lawyers, doctors, agriculturists, manufacturers, chemists, and members of the clergy. The first civil engineers were travelers; many of them went far and wide to engage in their work. Some traveled west as the United States expanded and opportunities for geographical surveys, railroad building and teaching arose. Other graduates were among the first American engineers to work in South America. Rensselaer graduates were among the most educated and skilled civil engineers of the nineteenth century. They were innovators who had a huge impact on infrastructure, manufacturing, education and much more. They literally changed the world!