PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - MARCH 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 7
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Making Them Want to Stay

By Phillip Wankat & Frank Oreovicz


The obvious way to increase student retention in engineering is to admit better students. Alexander W. Astin's study of graduation rates for the Higher Education Research Institute shows that the correlation between six-year graduation rates and the rate expected based on entering characteristics is 0.81. Thus, 66 percent of the variation in retention rates between institutions is explained by differences in the quality of the entering students. Although this data is for all students, the correlation for engineering students is undoubtedly similar.

Many schools would be happy to admit better students. They can do it by providing generous scholarships to outstanding students, but most schools don't have those kinds of resources. Short of that, there are a number of steps that schools can take to keep students in engineering.

First, they have to take action fairly quickly—many students decide within the first 10 weeks whether they are going to stay at a university. Since living on campus is known to make students feel more connected to a university, some engineering colleges have developed special purpose areas in residence halls, such as a floor for women engineering students. Commuters also appreciate an informal place to meet, with lockers to store books.

Orientation programs can also help first-year students cope with the transition to college. Extensive programs in the summer and during the first semester help engineering schools retain students: teaching them how to study, how to take tests, and how to manage their time.

Honors programs and merit scholarships programs also make students feel special and help them bond with the university. Students in honors programs stay in engineering at higher rates than students with matching characteristics who don't have those kinds of benefits.

Students who get to work individually with professors tend to do better academically. This includes serving as a paid tutor or working on a research project. To affect retention, these activities must occur in the first year or early in the second year.

Engineering departments that enroll first-year students need to make special efforts to retain them, as the largest loss occurs during the first year. Athletics, clubs, informal socials, small first-year seminars, eating meals with professors, and visiting professors' homes should all be part of the freshman experience. Encouraging students to participate in one or two activities and providing them employment on campus can also help keep them in the program.

Students who are academically engaged are more likely to stay. Self-paced instruction, simulations, inductive learning, group competitions, and active learning methods that encourage participation are good activities. Cooperative group learning and group competitions, such as building a bridge or designing a paper airplane, are particularly effective for underrepresented minorities and women students. Allowing students to help decide what to study in class or what format to use for a test can also help make students more enthusiastic.

Clearly, not all students belong in a discipline this academically rigorous. But by providing extra attention, schools could keep those who have the makings of good engineers from dropping out.

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by E-mail at


A CLICK AWAY - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
YOU CALL THIS SCHOOL? - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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REFRACTIONS: Keeping Things in Perspective - By Henry Petroski
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT - Engineers seeking advancement are getting degrees in engineering management. - By Alice Daniel
BOOK NOTES: Getting Smart
TEACHING: Making Them Want to Stay - By Phillip Wankat & Frank Oreovicz
ON CAMPUS: The Write Time and Place - By Robert Gardner
LAST WORD: Inside Washington - By Jim Turner

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