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By Michelle M. Camacho, Matthew W. Ohland, and Susan M. Lord
JEE Selects

Success by Race and Gender

Sharp differences emerge after eight semesters.

While researchers in engineering education have long been interested in understanding who persists in undergraduate engineering and who migrates out, we now know that some measures produce more nuanced information than others. Persistence varies by race and gender, and how we measure persistence matters in understanding this variation.

Generally, researchers who study academic persistence rely on one of two measures. “Six-year graduation” is a strict measure of chronological time to graduation. “Eight- semester persistence” measures either chronological time or actual enrollment. Time to graduation can fluctuate by major, by individual, and by institutional policy. Since both metrics correlate highly when the behavior of all women and all men at an institution is considered, persistence to eight semesters has been assumed to be a good substitute for graduation.

Using a longitudinal and multi-institution data set with a large enough population to disaggregate by gender and race/ethnicity, we found that these two metrics result in different outcomes. While various studies have concluded that women in nearly all racial groups (who matriculate into engineering) persist to the eighth semester at rates comparable to men, we found that it’s not quite so simple. A great deal of variation exists by institution. More important, drawing conclusions based on what women do in the aggregate hides variation by ethnicity.

Making general claims about persistence is tricky because most studies of persistence among engineering majors draw on the behavior of the majority of the population, which is a predominantly white, male population. We argue that an inherent “systematic majority measurement bias” exists when a metric of eight-semester persistence is used alone to understand persistence. This bias causes an underreporting of the variability of both metrics and an over-reporting of the correlation of eight-semester persistence and six-year graduation. As a result, the persistence of underrepresented groups is likely to be misinterpreted.

We also developed a way of displaying both eight-semester persistence and six-year graduation in a graph that yields quantitative information about persistence and qualitative information about the experience of disaggregated racial and ethnic groups. Among whites and Asians, who are not underrepresented, race transcends institution. Among black women in engineering, institution is highly predictive of success. Among black men, persistence to the eighth semester is similar to majority groups, yet we lose a significant number of black male students after the eighth semester — they do not graduate in six years. A nuanced analysis of persistence that disaggregates by race, ethnicity and gender produces such striking findings that they can be used for targeted research and interventions.

Even if institutional variation did not confound the measure of persistence, disaggregation is still imperative because not all populations respond the same way to the same conditions due to a host of both individual and institutional social and cultural factors. Trajectories of persistence are nonlinear, gendered, and racialized. We conclude that a six-year graduation metric is more robust than an eight-semester metric and that multiple measures may be needed to describe outcomes in diverse populations. Finally, future research will do well to explore the complex relationship between institutional culture and policies as they relate to persistence, particularly among underrepresented groups.


Michelle M. Camacho is associate professor in the Sociology Department and affiliate faculty in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of San Diego. Matthew W. Ohland is associate professor in Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education. Susan M. Lord is professor and coordinator of electrical engineering at the University of San Diego. This is adapted from “Race, Gender, and Measures of Success in Engineering Education,” in the April 2011 Journal of Engineering Education, written with co-authors Catherine E. Brawner, president of Research Triangle Educational Consultants, Russell A. Long, director of project assessment in Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education, Richard A. Layton, director of the Center for the Practice and Scholarship of Education and associate professor of mechanical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and Mara H. Wasburn, recently deceased, who was professor of organizational leadership in Purdue University’s college of technology.




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