Engineering Dropouts: Another Myth

June 16, 2014

Many high-tech-industry observers have theorized that engineering schools struggle to keep students, especially women, in the engineering pipeline. Some observers go so far as to blame an engineering shortage in the U.S. on this poor retention rate. Recent research, some of which appeared in the Journal of Engineering Education and The Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Education, seems to refute this theory.

The research found that although retention at some engineering colleges is low, it is not significantly lower than retention rates in other fields. The study looked at 70,000 engineering students at nine colleges, and found retention rates (for eight semesters) ranged from 37 to 66%.

Women are a minority in engineering schools, making up only 20% of engineering grads. In contrast, women earn over half of the bachelor degrees in agricultural, biological, chemical, and social sciences. But women aren’t bailing out of engineering once they get a taste of it in college. In fact, the studies found that a female freshman in engineering is just as likely as a male freshman to complete the course of study.

The research did uncover one possible reason the number of engineers graduating isn’t as high as some would like: Students who began college in other majors are highly unlikely to migrate to engineering. For example, of the students graduating with a science degree, only 60% began college pursuing the degree they ended up earning. In contrast, 93% of the engineering grads began college going for the degree they eventually received.

Some educators suggest that colleges abolish policies that discourage students from transferring into engineering. For instance, at many universities, engineers take one set of calculus courses while other students, such as biology and business majors, take another set of less-rigorous courses. If biology or business students want to switch tracks and go into engineering after their freshman or sophomore year, they face the unhappy prospect of having to retake calculus, an obstacle which might dissuade them.

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