A term like “retention rate” may seem cold when you
consider the students—and the hopes and dreams—it represents.
However, unless we pay attention to such terms, we may fail our
students and our field.
In my experience there are three ways to ensure that the time
and money we invest in engineering education pay off and that we
produce well-trained engineers who may indeed realize their dreams:
- Recruit students more likely to thrive in the challenging engineering
- Make engineering come alive from the first day of class, with
high-quality, innovative courses, in state-of-the-art facilities,
taught by faculty members who care.
- Create a complete academic experience that offers students
exciting opportunities, useful guidance and a sense of community.
At the Clark School from 1999 to 2006, we have seen these approaches
lead to the following improvements in our retention rates:
Clark School of Engineering Retention
(includes only students retained in engineering)
Period Fall ’99 Fall ’06
One-Year 73.6% 81.9%
Two-Year 54.8% 68.3%
Three-Year 46.4% 63.7%
by building an audience for your program. We partner with near and
distant feeder high schools, using Clark School student ambassadors
to promote engineering as an academic path and career. We offer
summer programs to show high school math and science teachers how
to incorporate engineering concepts into their courses.
The idea that engineering is a way to improve the world is very
powerful. We try to communicate this mission to prospective students
(and their parents and other advisers), so they can commit to facing
the challenges ahead.
It’s vital to back up recruitment with scholarships. The
recent $30 million A. James Clark Scholarship Endowment for Undergraduates
has enabled more students to enter our program, and by reducing
their need for employment, it keeps them more focused on their studies
and more likely to connect emotionally with the school.
For some students, engineering is just not a good fit. That’s
why even at a public institution committed to access for as many
students as possible, we strive to maintain the highest admissions
standards. (Our incoming freshmen 25% and 75% SATs have gone from
1200 and 1370 in fall ’99 to 1280 and 1420 in ’06.)
Rather than admit a student who will struggle unsuccessfully, we
direct that student to another area in which he or she can struggle
No Indifferent Teachers
Create incentives for your most gifted and passionate teachers
to present your most fundamental courses, and provide first-rate
assistants to help run lab activities and manage the classes. This
year we have launched the Keystone program (supported by corporate
partners and individual donors) for this purpose; we are working
to extend Keystone to all of our first- and second-year courses.
Renovate your workshops and computer classrooms. Students will
feel their hard work is significant to the school, and parents will
feel that their children are in good hands. When prospective students
and their parents visit our new Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building,
we see an immediate positive response.
Likewise, the more your dean and department chairs participate
in the educational process, the more your younger students will
feel important. Consider an introductory course taught by the dean—ours
is called “Dialogue With the Dean”—that instills
the “world-changing” mission and presents exciting technologies
and career opportunities.
The Total Package
A resource-rich academic environment, beyond engineering classrooms
and labs, is important for students’ intellectual growth,
career preparation and motivation.
Like many schools, we have developed highly effective internship
and co-op programs to open paths to future employment for our students.
In advising we place freshmen, who are often unsure of their majors,
in our school-based advising program, while higher-level students
work with their departments. We continually develop community-building
activities—picnics, dinners with the dean—at school,
department and student organization levels.
We have also created specialty programs that give students important
opportunities, such as the Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities
(CEOs) living-learning entrepreneurship program and the Inventis
More remains to be done. We are now planning initiatives to support
all students in developing written and oral communication skills
and to engage freshmen in a unifying service activity. Through such
efforts we increase the likelihood that the students we work so
hard to attract and enroll will experience an exceptional educational
program, successfully complete it and find satisfaction in bettering
The writer is professor and dean of the A. James Clark School
of Engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park. The
writer wishes to express his gratitude to Mr. James McMenamin, assistant
dean for communications, for his help in preparing this article.