Engineering Student Retention:
Reducing Attrition and Improving Graduation Rates
of Upperclassmen Engineering Students
An Annotated Bibliography
This page provides a bibliography of the literature surrounding the retention of engineering college students (increasing graduation rates, decreasing attrition), with an emphasis on references related to retaining upperclassmen (junior and senior engineering students).
It was written in August 2003.
To date, most published research in this area pertains to retaining freshmen engineering students. A few of those articles have been included here (They are marked as "FRESHMEN"), but the bulk of them have been omitted. Where possible, we selected references that are widely available (posted on line, or present in most major libraries).
We hope the bringing together of these materials will help administrators retain a larger percentage of engineering students, lead to increased sharing of best practices between universities, provide a groundwork for future researchers in this area to build upon and last, but not least, make life a little less stressful for engineering students.
A brief discussion of the literature is provided near the bottom of this page. If anyone is aware of widely available, significant references not listed here, please e-mail us the citations or any comments about this page.
In the interest of time and space, no attempt was made to list complete bibliographical citations. Sufficient information is provided to find each reference, or a direct link is provided.
American Society of Engineering Education ( ASEE ) Papers
The American Society for Engineering Education has published numerous references in this area. Typing the word "retention" in the full text search box near the bottom of their Journal Of Engineering Education page, turns up several references. Most focus on freshmen, but a few cover upperclassmen. The more relevant papers are listed below. This journal is available in most major university libraries.
The Journal Of Engineering Education published a series of 5 articles authored by Richard M. Felder and others in the mid-1990's.
Several papers in on the retention of engineering students have been presented at ASEE/ IEEE Frontiers in Education Conferences.
- Efficacy of Using a Single, Non-Technical Variable to Predict the Academic Success of Freshmen Engineering Students. Vol.91. No.1. Jan. 2003. FRESHMEN.
- An Engineering Student Retention Study. Vol. 86, No. 1, Jan. 1997. Pgs. 7-15. A tool is developed to predict the retention of specific students, allowing those at risk to be identified.
- Retention and Performance of Male and Female Engineering Students: An Examination of Academic and Environmental Variables. Vol.87. No.3. July 1998. Begins on Pg. 297.
- Characteristics of Freshman Engineering Students: Models for Determining Student Attrition in Engineering. April. 1997. Pgs. 139-149. FRESHMEN.
- Retention 101: Where Robots Go .. Students Follow. Journal of Engineering Education. Vol.92. No.1. Jan. 2003. Posted online by one of the authors. FRESHMEN.
- Retention and Performance of Male and Female Engineering Students: An Examination of Academic and Environmental Variables. July 1998. Pgs. 297-304.
- Understanding Freshman Engineering Student Retention Through a Survey. FRESHMEN.
- First Term Probation: Models for Identifying High Risk Students. 30th ASEE/ IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. 2000. Focuses on freshmen students, however several of the concepts might also apply to upperclassmen. FRESHMEN.
- Thinking Inside of the Box: Retention of Women in Engineering. 30th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. 2000. Describes efforts at Penn State to increase retention of women.
- Engineering Retention: National and Institutional Perspectives. Proceedings, 1988 ASEE Annual Conference. ASEE, 1988. Pgs. 843-851.
By W.K. LeBold and S.K. Ward. 1988.
- Developing a Six Sigma Methodology for Improving Retention in Engineering Education. Keith Hargrove and Legand Burge. ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. Article focuses 6 sigma techniques on retaining minority engineering students. Attrition variables are seen as "defects".
- Student Retention Strategies Gender Clustering. ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Washington, D.C., Jun. 1996. Virginia Polytech has voluntarily clustered its Intro to Engineering class sections by gender to allow females to form friendships with other females. FRESHMEN.
- Identifying Factors Influencing Engineering Student Graduation
and Retention: A Longitudinal and Cross-Institutional Study. Proceedings. ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Montreal, Quebec, Jun. 2002. Compares effectiveness of active, cooperative learning environment v. traditional teaching methods.
- Systems Model for Improving Standards and Retention in Engineering Education. ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Albuquerque, NM, Jun. 2001. A four-step procedure is proposed by a professor at Florida A&M / Florida State: problem diagnosis, evaluation and analysis, system model design, and design implementation.
- Women in Engineering at North Carolina State University: An Effort in Recruitment, Retention and Encouragement. Proceedings 29th ASEE / IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, San Juan, PR, Nov. 1999.
Global Journal of Engineering Education Papers
University of Pittsburgh - a center for research in retention
Resources Specific to or Published by Oklahoma Colleges
- OSU's Assessment Program. Oklahoma State University reviews the status of many academic initiatives at OSU (for all colleges, not just Engineering). Their Special Assessment Projects Page references a 1993 CEAT (College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology) Retention Study by David Thompson.
- OSU CEAT Multicultural Engineering Program Retention Program.
- Report from OU Task Force on Student Graduation and Retention. Is not specifically for Engineering College, but covers many variables that effect students across most disciplines.
- OU received an NSF award to study Minority SMET Retention. 2002. SMET= Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology
- Recent paper related to above study:
Sputnik, STEM, and Success? David L. Tan. University of Oklahoma. 2003. (analysis of minority retention including qualitative interviews on pgs 9-10). STEM= Science, Technology, Engineering, Math
Papers and Books from Other Sources
Similar Problems in the United Kingdom (UK)
Miscellaneous Sources for Allied Information
Works in Progress
- The National Academy of Engineering has formulated a strategy an for diversity which includes "Identify engineering programs that do a good job in retaining students, and prepare a "Best Practices" handbook."
Brief Discussion of the Literature and General Comments
Hundreds of studies have been conducted on:
Most of these studies have focused on freshman students. This bibliography lists a few of those studies, while attempting to focus on studies more relevant to retaining upperclassmen retention (junior and senior engineering students). Although many problems remain, the issues surrounding freshmen student retention are fairly well documented, while the issues surrounding the retention of upperclassmen remain less studied. While it might be assumed many issues surrounding retention of freshman probably also apply to upperclassmen, additional issues probably surface.
- The retention of Engineering students
- Retaining students in nearby majors, Science, Technical and Mathematics (STM) students
- Teaching methods that might reduce the attrition of engineering students
- Assessing students to determine their risk of leaving the engineering
- Retention of specific populations of engineering students
- Women / female students
- Minority students
- Black / African American students
- Hispanic students
- Native American students
- Rural students
- Adult education students (adults going back to school)
- Part time students
- International students
- Asian students
For example, juniors and seniors are usually at least two years older than freshmen. This places them further along the continuum toward:
These types of experiences and changes probably come into play in their decisions to stay or go more strongly as they enter higher level course work than back when they were freshmen.
- Having children
- Trying to pay off a vehicle
- More advanced class work (more difficult)
- Taking on a part time job around town
- Beginning to think about a full time job or possible military service
- Tuition costs have probably risen since they were freshmen
- Many of the technologies they became familiar with in high school and possibly even as freshmen are beginning to be replaced by new ones. They begin to realize this profession will require a lifetime of learning.
- They become confuses by the many opportunities for specialization
- Many begin to have engineering work experiences (company-school projects, summer employment, internships), which are not always positive experiences.
- Their parents are usually at least two years older (greater probability of health problems)
- They are becoming more independent
- Major changes in the overall economy many have changed their economic support structure since they were freshmen.
A University of Pittsburgh study, Engineering Student Attitude Assessment, reports preliminary findings suggesting:
A study at Iowa State University, "An Engineering Student Retention Study" by Cheryl Moller-Wong and Arvid Eide, printed in the Journal of Engineering Educations in Jan. 1997, organized attrition factors into five categories:
"student attitudes may vary significantly from institution to
institution depending on the geographic location of the student, the type of institution
he/she is attending, the knowledge base of the students, etc. These variations in student
attitudes across institutions may result in different relationships with respect to both
attrition and success in engineering".
A Longitudinal Study of Undergraduate Women in Engineering and Science by Suzanne Brainard and Linda Carlin at the University of Washington reports the results of reported perceived barriers on page 6. These chart indicates the percentage of women by year in their college experience reporting specific barriers of:
- Background (existed for the student prior to their enrollment)
- Organizational (admissions, scheduling, financial aid, academic and social services)
- Academic and Social Integration (social life, friends, contact with faculty members, appropriate study skills)
- Attitude and Motivation (self confidence, sense of development, individual stress, desire)
- Institutional Fit (family traditions or peer pressure or perception of need to obtain a degree from a specific institution to be successful)
Brainard and Cain provide insight into barriers faced by women at their institutions. These barriers may also exist with other populations (especially other minority populations) at other institutions. Most of the variables increase in intensity through time. The fact these barriers are getting higher with time, may be why more researchers are now concerned with retaining upperclassmen. Students may be able to "leap" the barriers at lower intensity as freshmen, but not be able to "jump" them as they increase in height over four or more years. Plus they may be tired from the race.
- Lack of self-confidence
- Feeling isolated
- Lack of interest
- Financial problems
- Not being accepted into a department
- Feeling intimidated
- Poor advising
A University of Pittsburgh report, Engineering Attrition: Student Characteristics and Educational Initiatives indicates they conducted exit interviews to those leaving the college.
(see Table 4 on Page 5). Reasons indicated by 61 students leaving between COMPLETING their freshman year and graduation were:
- Came to dislike engineering / studying engineering 57%
- Lost interest / developed new interests 79%
- Academic problem 33%
- Personal and Financial Reasons 0%
A MathSoft Survey of about 4700 professors and related fields, Analysis of Higher Education Survey and Higher Education Survey, asked "What do you think is the most common cause for a student dropping an engineering major?" They responded:
Difficulty mastering math 43%
Poor study habits, social distractions 34%
Difficulty mastering subject matter other than math 10%
Reasons not rooted in academics, but simply personal choice 8%
Not sure / Do not know 4%
None of the above 2%
The NSF graduate student attrition study, Summary of Workshop on Graduate Student Attrition might hold some interesting clues as problems of upperclassmen probably lay in the overlap and transition between freshmen problems and graduate student problems.
Search Terms / Search Words
For those wishing to search for additional references, we found the following search terms helpful. You might consider starting with some of them.
Upperclassmen ( is also often spelled upper classmen )
STM (sciences, technologies, mathematics)
freshmen, women, minority or other segments you are interested in