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Research in Practice

Why They’re Leaving

To retain students, help them feel they “belong.”
By Kelly A. Rodgers and Rose M. Marra

By Kelly A. Rodgers and Rose M. Marra

JEE Selects Illustration by Dale Rawlings

Perhaps because of the overall accountability wave sweeping higher education, there appears to be renewed focus on those vintage buzzwords “retention,” “attrition,” and “persistence.” Institutions are concerned with not only attracting students but also supporting them to degree completion. In few disciplines is this of more critical interest than engineering programs, many of which do not graduate enough students to meet workforce demand. If we are suffering a decrease in interest in engineering, then we must be vigilant in retaining those who do enter — especially women and students from underrepresented ethnic groups who are particularly vulnerable to high attrition rates in engineering programs.

The vulnerability of engineering students, particularly when compared with those in non-STEM-related fields, has been addressed in the literature. Researchers have largely pointed to three factors threatening the retention of students in engineering: engineering “climate,” academic preparation, and students’ self-efficacy and motivation. The suggestion has been that the persistence of our most vulnerable populations, women and underrepresented minority students, may be especially sensitive to these factors.

In our study, we wanted to understand how these factors played into a non-retained student’s decision to either migrate into another major or leave college altogether. Consistent with the research, we identified three factors that influenced students to leave engineering. Two were academic: difficulty of the engineering curriculum and poor teaching/advising. The other was more attitudinal and involved a lack of “belonging.” The roles that these factors played in decisions to leave engineering were both expected and surprising. The higher a student’s GPA, for example, the less curriculum difficulty factored into the decision to leave. For most students, however, the feeling that they didn’t “belong” in engineering was the biggest determining factor. This was especially true for students of color, for whom the lack of belonging and curriculum difficulty were more influential in their decision to leave than they were for Caucasians. In fact, the lack-of-belonging factor was especially key in understanding the failure of some students to persist in engineering despite robust GPAs and positive perception about the difficulty of the curriculum and quality of the teaching and advising. The more students felt they did not belong in engineering, the lower their GPAs were. Not surprisingly, those students who did not feel they belonged in engineering switched to non-technical majors.

The findings relating to students’ perception of teaching and advising were somewhat troublesome. Those who did not feel their high school education had prepared them for engineering courses were more likely to cite poor teaching and advising as influencing their decisions to leave. This relationship became stronger the longer students remained in engineering.

Our findings provide a few points for intervention. Engineering programs need to concern themselves not only with academics but also the social side of the engineering experience. On the academic side, great care needs to be taken with those students who enter engineering with weaker high school preparation than their peers. Programs might also revisit their teaching methods and advisement procedures to ensure that they truly offer students the assistance that they need to be successful. We did not examine the specific aspects of advising and teaching practices that were especially problematic, but this information is important for programs hoping to revisit and revitalize their procedures.

On the social side, inclusiveness should be not only a goal for engineering programs but also a demonstrated priority by creating a variety of welcoming social spaces, especially for women and minority students. Through these methods and with additional research, we can find ways to attract and retain students desiring engineering careers.


Kelly A. Rodgers is an assistant professor of educational psychology at the City University of New York. Rose M. Marra is an associate professor of learning technologies at the University of Missouri’s School of Information Science and Technologies. This is excerpted from “Leaving Engineering: A Multi-Year Single-Institution Study,” in the January 2012 Journal of Engineering Education.




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