Engineering Dropouts: Another Myth

Many high-tech-industry observers have theorized that engineering schools struggle to keep students, especially women, in the engineering pipeline. Some observers go so far as to blame an engineering shortage in the U.S. on this poor retention rate. Recent research, some of which appeared in the Journal of Engineering Education and The Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Education, seems to refute this theory.

The research found that although retention at some engineering colleges is low, it is not significantly lower than retention rates in other fields. The study looked at 70,000 engineering students at nine colleges, and found retention rates (for eight semesters) ranged from 37 to 66%.

Women are a minority in engineering schools, making up only 20% of engineering grads. In contrast, women earn over half of the bachelor degrees in agricultural, biological, chemical, and social sciences. But women aren’t bailing out of engineering once they get a taste of it in college. In fact, the studies found that a female freshman in engineering is just as likely as a male freshman to complete the course of study.

The research did uncover one possible reason the number of engineers graduating isn’t as high as some would like: Students who began college in other majors are highly unlikely to migrate to engineering. For example, of the students graduating with a science degree, only 60% began college pursuing the degree they ended up earning. In contrast, 93% of the engineering grads began college going for the degree they eventually received.

Some educators suggest that colleges abolish policies that discourage students from transferring into engineering. For instance, at many universities, engineers take one set of calculus courses while other students, such as biology and business majors, take another set of less-rigorous courses. If biology or business students want to switch tracks and go into engineering after their freshman or sophomore year, they face the unhappy prospect of having to retake calculus, an obstacle which might dissuade them.

Discuss this Blog Entry 7

Keith Hekman (not verified)
on Jun 19, 2014

One issue is prerequisites. Since engineering builds upon itself, there are four years of prerequisites. This means if students are at all thinking of engineering, they are encouraged start in engineering, which leads to a lower retention rate, as students had other interests as well, but knew they could change later, but couldn't change into engineering.

Justin Posey (not verified)
on Jun 20, 2014

As a current mid-life engineering student (currently in an engineering position, pursuing the BSME to match my field) I can relate to Kieth's comment about prerequisites. Even though I've taken around three years of college level courses (2 years auto tech, 1.5 year business) only 4 of my 80 something credit hours transfered toward my engineering degree. There is little to no effort to give credit for real world engineering experience. It is just like starting over again, so why would a college student 1 or 2 years in want to reverse to switch to engineering without a definite passion for the field.

Anon112345 (not verified)
on Jun 21, 2014

If retaking calculus dissuades someone from engineering, it is probably good for them to not take engineering.

on Jun 23, 2014

It usually is not the issue of being able to understand the more advanced calculus but rather the time needed to take the course and to get in synch with all the other courses. Restart at the wrong time and you may waste an entire year getting in sync.

Eric Larson (not verified)
on Jul 1, 2014

I took part in two Co-Op / Internships while pursuing my degree. Because I went to a smaller school and certain pre-req courses were only offered in one ( spring or fall) semester it added 3 years to finish my degree. It was worth it to have experience on the resume and I also graduated Dept free. But it highlights how far behind you can be by missing some key classes.

CapeCode (not verified)
on Jul 1, 2014

Try and find a qualified Electrical Engineer to hire
with experience in Analogue, Digital, PLD's, microcontrollers or DSP, communications protocols, wireless etc. That's why no one wants to really do this.
Along with the mediocre pay. Lack of respect in the trade from top brass who pay most of their time with Accounting weenies that book juggle for linearity etc.

Tweet (not verified)
on Jul 1, 2014

Interesting. I just got the alum magazine from my alma mater with a big article on how they just won an $830k grant for implementing engineering classes structured like Bucknell's system to improve retention rate and to encourage women and minority students. I think the commenters are spot on though: I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was 17. I did know that as an old man I might still be able to write the great American novel but it would be less likely that I could rekindle a serious pursuit of science. Strike while the iron is hot.

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Stephen Mraz

Steve serves as Senior Editor of Machine Design.  He has 23 years of service and has a B.S. Biomedical Engineering from CWRU. Steve was a E-2C Hawkeye Naval Flight Officer in the U.S. Navy. He...
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