Engineering Student Retention:
Reducing Attrition and Improving Graduation Rates
of Upperclassmen Engineering Students

An Annotated Bibliography

By Polson Enterprises
Research Services

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.

Global Journal of Engineering Education Papers

University of Pittsburgh - a center for research in retention

Resources Specific to or Published by Oklahoma Colleges

Papers and Books from Other Sources

Similar Problems in the United Kingdom (UK)

Miscellaneous Sources for Allied Information

Works in Progress


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.

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.

A University of Pittsburgh study, Engineering Student Attitude Assessment, reports preliminary findings suggesting:

"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 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:
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: 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.

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:

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.

engineering student(s)
graduation rate(s)
risk factor(s)
change major(s)
change colleges
exit interview
risk assessment
Upperclassmen ( is also often spelled upper classmen )
STM (sciences, technologies, mathematics)
freshmen, women, minority or other segments you are interested in


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