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Developing a Strategy to Include Financially Disadvantaged Undergraduate Students into Graduate Engineering Programs

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2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity)


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

February 20, 2022

Start Date

February 20, 2022

End Date

July 20, 2022

Conference Session

Technical Session 4 - Paper 4: Developing a Strategy to Include Financially Disadvantaged Undergraduate Students into Graduate Engineering Programs

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions

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Paper Authors


Sanjivan Manoharan Grand Valley State University

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Sanjivan Manoharan is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering at Grand Valley State University. His research areas include engineering education, nucleate pool boiling, aerodynamics, and turbomachinery.

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Shabbir Choudhuri Grand Valley State University

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Dr. Choudhuri worked as a Senior Research Engineer at Technical Service Division of Caterpillar Inc. for two years. He developed Virtual Manufacturing (VM) strategy and tools for the corporation. He also worked as a consultant in office automation for five years at Microlink Computer Services, Bangladesh. Dr. Choudhuri also taught undergraduate courses in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Bangladesh Institute of Technology for five years.

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Brian Krug Grand Valley State University

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I have spent 24 years as an electrical engineer in both the telecom industry aerospace industry. Before joining the School of Engineering here at GVSU, I worked for Teradyne and Tellabs in Chicago and at Eaton Aerospace, GE aviation and Parker Aerospace in west Michigan. My research interests include sensors, embedded systems, control and power theory. My most recent work involved developing a new inertial sensor using magnetic nanoparticles. I am also working with mentoring programs to help students excel in engineering.

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Paul D. Plotkowski Grand Valley State University

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Paul Plotkowski is the founding Dean of the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing and Professor of Engineering at Grand Valley State University. Over the past 30 years he has led the development of an emerging engineering program into a comprehensive college that now offers 11 BS and 4 MS degrees to a population of over 2,000 students. He holds BSE, MSE and Ph.D. degrees from Oakland University.

Dr. Plotkowski is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He received the ASME Dedicated Service award, the Tau Beta Pi Distinguished Alumni award, and other notable awards, including the Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer Award from SME, the Outstanding Teaching award from Pi Tau Sigma, and the Chairman’s Award for Outstanding Contributions to Experiential Education from the Cooperative and Experiential Education Division of ASEE. He is former vice president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and serves as an ABET evaluator for interdisciplinary, mechanical and manufacturing engineering programs.

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The impact of diversity on learning and democracy outcomes of a college education is well documented and supported by numerous analyses. Longitudinal analysis of nationwide single and multi-institutional data shows the positive relationship between learning outcomes and a diverse student population. Various position papers and empirical studies have raised awareness about the importance of diversity in higher education within the academic community and policy makers over the past half century. However, lack of participation by underrepresented students in higher education remains a chronic and multidimensional problem.

Mitigating any particular factor and expecting broad based impact has not worked and will not work. The U.S. Department of education, in a key 2016 report, proclaimed that increasing diversity in higher education is an integral part in enhancing the global competitiveness of the nation. The same report suggested some proven, over-arching principles for institutions of higher education to increase diversity, viz.: institutional commitment, diversity at all levels, outreach and recruitment, support services for students, and an inclusive campus environment. While some of these principles can only be addressed at the institutional level, a department or college can adopt scaled versions of theses principles and influence the policies at the institutional level.

This paper discusses the long-term preparation and journey of a school of engineering towards development of strategies for improving equity, inclusion, and diversity in the graduate programs in engineering. This paper looks into the institution’s commitment and diversity at all levels with historical data from the school of engineering and the University. For the remaining three principles: outreach and recruitment, support services, and inclusive environment, the authors investigated the existing barriers and ways to address them. In the process, this group of researchers articulated some critical issues that prevent diverse and economically disadvantaged undergraduate students from seeking a graduate degree in engineering.

Recent data shows that low-income and minority students make up about only 8% of the graduate student population nationwide. At our university, only 8.3% of graduate engineering students are low-income, which aligns with the national statistics. Hence, a vicious loop exists where low income prevents potential students from pursuing graduate education and essentially securing greater career and earning potential. Furthermore, at our institution, the gender diversity in the Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) program is low with only 15% of the students being female.

Research indicates that the average attrition rate in graduate schools in the United States is around 50%, and only 41% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students graduate within the first two years of starting their Master’s degree. While these statistics clearly indicate that participation of marginalized students and attrition rate in the graduate school need to be improved, it is crucial to understand the underlying factors that drive these concerning statistics. Addressing these factors will improve diversity and success rates in the graduate schools thereby resulting in an educated, well-trained workforce which is critical in driving innovation and competition in the global economy.

Based on evidence-based literature and evaluation of anecdotal local situations, the authors have identified the following major reasons preventing students from pursuing a graduate degree: lack of financial support and resources, fear of the unknown, imposter syndrome, and family pressure to start earning as soon as possible. Each of these areas requires a targeted approach to alleviate these barriers and consequently improve the existing situation.

It has been shown that financially disadvantaged students tend to drop out of graduate programs at a higher rate, resulting in high attrition numbers. Also, low-income students have limited access to resources such as educated members in their immediate family circle, knowledge of graduate school application procedures, and funding opportunities. These issues can be addressed through financial support via scholarships and dedicated program-level resources such as advisors and other high-impact structures. Imposter syndrome occurs when students doubt their competency and self-worth, thus resulting in low self-efficacy. Therefore, improving self-efficacy will help the student be more persistent in graduate school due to improved confidence which will in turn improve graduation rates. This can be achieved through vicarious experiences and verbal persuasion via direct faculty mentoring and also through peer mentoring. Peer mentoring has been shown to improve one’s confidence and self-worth which in turn helps address the imposter syndrome.

Fear of the unknown results when students are unsure of certain factors such as level of academic difficulty, ability to cope with stress, fear of losing their undergraduate circle of friends, and an inability to balance academic life with personal life. This barrier can be alleviated through faculty and peer mentoring, cohort immersion, and targeted seminars which help students be more aware of their opportunities and responsibilities in graduate school.

Finally, the family pressure to earn as soon as possible can be improved upon by developing a curriculum to help the student complete both the BSE (Bachelor of Science in Engineering) and MSE degrees in a compressed timeline. This accelerated route allows students to graduate with both degrees and enter the workforce earlier while minimizing cost and maximizing career earnings. Realizing this, a GVSU team comprised of administrators and faculty members sought to build a comprehensive program that incorporates all of the aforementioned structures and others. This paper describes the development strategy of such a program that culminated with an NSF (National Science Foundation) award.

Manoharan, S., & Choudhuri, S., & Krug, B., & Plotkowski, P. D. (2022, February), Developing a Strategy to Include Financially Disadvantaged Undergraduate Students into Graduate Engineering Programs Paper presented at 2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity) , New Orleans, Louisiana.

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2022 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015