‘At-Risk’ or Ill-served?
Analysis of a large-scale survey upsets some notions of why students leave engineering.
By Elizabeth Litzler and Jacob Young
The drive for improved retention of engineering undergraduates demands a better grasp of why some of them leave the field. To understand the risk of attrition more clearly, we chose to deviate from conventional measures and instead used quantitative survey responses from more than 9,000 undergraduates at 21 engineering schools to examine qualitative differences among students. We grouped students using a novel method and multiple measures and examined how individual characteristics and student experiences and perceptions caused them to fall into one or another group. Our study revealed the dire consequences of a poor educational climate and negative student experiences in the first year and produced insights that can help researchers and practitioners think anew about attrition.
Using latent class analysis, we found that students fell into one of three groups: Committed (52 percent of the sample), characterized by their strong commitment to engineering as a major and intention to complete the degree; Committed With Ambivalence (41 percent), who were more ambivalent about engineering but still intended to graduate with an engineering degree; and At Risk of Attrition (7 percent), characterized by even greater ambivalence about their engineering major and a weaker commitment to graduating with an engineering degree.
We used a multinomial regression model to examine the relationship between a variety of covariates and membership in each commitment group. Consistent with prior research, students with the lowest risk of attrition were more likely than students in the other groups to feel a sense of community and collaboration with their peers, have higher academic confidence, experience high-quality teaching from professors, and feel more strongly that engineers contribute to society. Those who were less confident, who experienced negative interactions with peers and instructors, and who held negative perceptions of engineering as a field were less likely to be committed.
But our study provided new findings about race, perceptions of work-family balance, transfer, grades, and the effect of feeling overwhelmed by homework. For instance, students from racial and ethnic backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in science and engineering were no more likely than overrepresented students to be at risk of attrition. Taking covariates into account, we found that the differences between African-Americans and whites – and between males and females – mainly reflected differences in student experiences and perceptions.
Freshmen are much more likely to be in the At Risk of Attrition group than in the Committed group. They are highly susceptible to the environment around them, and experiences in the first year may lead them straight into non-engineering majors. Transfer students enter engineering programs with a high level of commitment to graduation and desire to be in the major, validating the view that they represent an important source of diversity. The relationship of GPA to the risk of attrition is revealing: Students with higher GPAs are more likely to be in Committed With Ambivalence and At Risk of Attrition groups. And while conventional wisdom suggests that overwhelmed students would be most likely to leave engineering, the study suggests that these students are also the most committed.
Our results provide further evidence of the need to update the engineering curriculum, and underscore the important role of faculty in creating respectful environments and providing high-quality instruction. Engineering colleges and departments play a key role in the quality of the student experience and ultimately in the retention of engineering students.
Elizabeth Litzler is director for research at the University of Washington’s Center for Workforce Development. Jacob Young is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. Their study used data from the UW center’s Project to Assess Climate in Engineering, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This article was adapted from “Understanding the Risk of Attrition in Undergraduate Engineering” in the April, 2012 Journal of Engineering Education.