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Identifying Factors Affecting Persistence Rates Among Undergraduate Engineering Students From Underrepresented Populations At The University Of Virginia

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Factors Affecting Minority Engineering Students

Tagged Division

Minorities in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.817.1 - 12.817.8



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Paper Authors

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Carolyn Vallas University of Virginia


Susan Donohue University of Virginia

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Susan Donohue is adjunct faculty in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. She will serve as an AGEP Postdoctoral Engineering Education Researcher (PEER) through the Center of Advancement in Engineering Education Research (CASEE), the National Academy of Engineering starting in May, 2007. She received the B.A. degree in political science from Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the M.E. and Ph.D. degrees in systems engineering from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Her academic honors include memberships in Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Sigma Nu, and Omega Rho. Her professional affiliations include IEEE and ASEE. Her main research interests include knowledge engineering and retention/persistence issues.

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Identifying Factors Affecting Persistence Rates Among Undergraduate Engineering Students from Underrepresented Populations Abstract

The literature abounds with descriptions of factors affecting persistence rates both positively and negatively among undergraduate engineering students from underrepresented populations. For the purposes of this study, the relevant underrepresented populations are African American, Hispanic American, and Native American. Some of these factors universally affect all students, and others are specific to a school of engineering’s culture. We propose a survey to identify the factors most significantly affecting persistence rates at the School of Engineering at the University of Virginia (U.Va. SEAS), the developmental form of which is presented in this paper, as the first step in creating retention programs that will work effectively in our institutional culture.

Keywords: Persistence, retention, underrepresented populations in engineering


Research into the factors affecting persistence among undergraduate engineering students from underrepresented populations addresses a critical need. There is a well documented gap between the demand for technically educated professionals needed to maintain the United States’ competitiveness in science and engineering and the supply graduating from U.S. schools and colleges of engineering.1 Overall, domestic demand for engineers and computer scientists is predicted to rise by 36% by 2010, yet the number of engineering baccalaureate degrees granted by colleges and universities in the U.S. was off in 2004 by 20% from the peak number in 1985. And the national retention rate in engineering, as of 2006, is 48%, a rate that has remained relatively flat for over a decade.2 No student population demographic can be neglected in the effort to close the supply-demand gap. Historically, certain populations – African American, Hispanic American, and Native American – are underrepresented in engineering in proportion to their numbers in the general population due to many cultural, social, and academic factors. (see, for example,3) These populations also represent “the largest untapped resources available to help maintain and/or increase engineering enrollments”4 although they, regrettably, enroll in engineering studies in smaller numbers and leave in larger numbers than students from other populations.5 Consider, too, the fact that it is more cost effective to retain undergraduate engineering students than to recruit them.6 It is therefore imperative to identify and incorporate the factors most affecting persistence – both “leaving” and “staying” factors – among students from underrepresented populations into retention initiatives in order to increase the probability of the initiatives’ success.

There are several ways to elicit information regarding the factors most significantly affecting persistence rates: observation, interviews, focus groups, and surveys. We choose to start with a survey for several reasons. First, a survey is the most efficient means for quickly collecting a standardized set of data that can be used to structure future research efforts. Second, the survey will purposefully support a mixed methods (a combination of quantitative and qualitative

Vallas, C., & Donohue, S. (2007, June), Identifying Factors Affecting Persistence Rates Among Undergraduate Engineering Students From Underrepresented Populations At The University Of Virginia Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2925

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