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Engineering Students Quit, But Retention Tactics Abound

Engineering Students Quit, But Retention Tactics Abound

About half of those pursuing an engineering major change their field of study or drop out before graduation. And half do so during their first year of college.
The most common statistic cited around the attrition rate for engineering students is that roughly 50 percent change majors or drop out before graduation.

About half of the attrition happens during freshman year.

That’s because students come out of high school excited about wanting to design and build things, only to find themselves disappointed at having to take up to two years of foundational courses before that can happen, explained Risa Robinson, department head for the mechanical engineering department at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

That’s why it’s critical to concentrate on retaining first-year students, she added.

Retention strategy

At RIT, which is above the national average when it comes to freshman and sophomore retention rates, first-year students take four mechanical engineering classes in their first semester. That creates opportunities for students to make supportive connections with the mechanical engineering faculty members who teach those courses.

“Faculty can talk to [students] in hallways and during office hours about engineering projects,” Robinson explained. “It’s to keep them excited about engineering when they may be struggling in their calculus courses. It gets them over the hump.”

Robinson has also noticed that students who naturally performed extremely well in high school sometimes crumble in the face of rigorous college-level engineering courses.

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“When they hit that brick wall—when they’re learning something they have to really work at for the first time—they think they are not cut out for engineering,” she explained. “They don’t have the tenacity to persist.”

Learning style

According to Jacqueline El-Sayed, CEO and executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education, this is at the heart of why engineering students who have grown up asking how things work with a desire to make them better drop out.
“Because they get tracked into this general education that doesn’t cater to their particular kinesthetic style of learning, they may start to lose their belief in themselves,” she said. “Just because they're great at tinkering and building things doesn't mean they're great with memorization and calculations that aren’t applied to something. And it really has little to bear on whether they actually could be a successful engineer.”

Struggling students may find a better fit during the first two years at a small liberal arts college or community college with more wraparound services, added El-Sayed. She pointed to a 2018 National Academy of Engineering report showing that joining an engineering club increases college retention rates.

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Sometimes a more lucrative opportunity comes along.

Because engineers are in such great demand in an ever-changing, highly technical industry, sometimes students, particularly those who’ve already earned an associate degree or skilled trades certification or participated in co-ops or internships, postpone higher education and leave school before finishing their bachelor’s degrees to accept an attractive job offer. 

“However, there are even higher salaries to be gained with even more fun work from finishing a bachelor’s-level degree in engineering if students stick it out,” El-Sayed said.

Jobs requiring engineering degrees consistently dominate lists of careers with high starting salaries.

True situation 

While engineering education retention rates are a concern, the idea that the dropout rate is higher than other majors is a myth, said Matthew Ohland, a professor at Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education in West Lafayette, Ind.

It is a common belief that women drop out at higher rates than men. In fact, female four-year graduation rates were consistently 3 to 5 percentage points higher than the average four-year graduation rates of all students included in an ASEE report on undergraduate retention and time-to-graduation benchmarks.

But with rigorous coursework, financial pressures (Robinson has seen an increase over the last five years in the number of students who don’t buy required textbooks because of the price), family situations, and other reasons engineering students leave the discipline, higher-ed institutions are taking their role as supportive stewards seriously.

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“We create an opportunity for people to come into engineering, and our job is to help them be successful,” Ohland said. “And if there’s something getting in the way, we figure out what it is. And we fix it.”

Engineers satisfied with their careers say asking for help when needed—and persevering when things get tough—yields great rewards.

Among them is getting the chance to work in a creative, challenging environment.

“It’s an opportunity to make an impact on the world with all the contemporary issues we grappling with,” Robinson said. “There’s biotechnology to help with the aging or disabled veterans enjoy a more independent life. There’s climate change, smart cities, sustainable, and affordable transportation. The list goes on and on.”

El-Sayed agreed. “It’s a fun job that makes a positive difference for a better world,” she said.

Robin L. Flanagan is an independent writer in Rochester, N.Y.


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