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Reimagining engineering diversity: A study of academic advisors’ perspectives on socioeconomic status

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

FPD 6: Transitions and Student Success, Part II

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1031.1 - 23.1031.10



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Paper Authors


Valerie C. Lundy-Wagner New York University

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Valerie Lundy-Wagner is an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow in Higher & Postsecondary Education at New York University in the Steinhardt School for Culture, Education, and Human Development. Her work is generally on bachelor's degree completion, but particularly STEM and engineering education, largely with colleagues at Purdue University.

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Noah Salzman Purdue University, West Lafayette


Matthew W. Ohland Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Matthew W. Ohland is Professor of engineering education at Purdue University. He has degrees from Swarthmore College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Florida. His research on the longitudinal study of engineering students, team assignment, peer evaluation, and active and collaborative teaching methods has been supported by more than $12.4 million from the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation and his team received the William Elgin Wickenden Award for the Best Paper in the Journal of Engineering Education in 2008 and 2011. Ohland is Past Chair of ASEE’s Educational Research and Methods division and a member of the Board of Governors of the IEEE Education Society. He was the 2002-2006 President of Tau Beta Pi.

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Reimagining engineering diversity: A study of academic advisors’ perspectives on socioeconomic statusThe purpose of this study is to qualitatively examine social class in engineering diversity basedon the perspectives of academic advisors. Socioeconomic status (SES) in engineering educationhas been studied minimally, yet can provide insights into numerous ways to better supportundergraduate engineering students. While most universities have diversity initiatives focused onincreasing participation of women and minorities in engineering, they do not have similarprograms to support low-SES students. Programs to increase the participation of women andminorities have existed for approximately fifty years, yet have only modestly increasedrepresentation of these groups. While social class disadvantage is highly correlated toethnicity/race, it exerts a different force based on group membership and institution enrolled,offering a new lens for examining underrepresentation in engineering. Understanding SES isespecially important for first-year engineering students, as students from low-SES backgroundsmay be less prepared both academically and in their ability to successfully navigate theuniversity system.Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction and concept of cultural capital provided the theoreticalframework that guided this research. According to Bourdieu, all individuals possess culturalcapital (i.e., knowledge, cultural awareness, credentials, preferences, skills, abilities, andmannerisms) that are typically acquired through parents. Cultural capital is used as socialcurrency that can be used to an individual’s advantage in particular social settings, likeundergraduate engineering. However, the disadvantages associated with first-generation, low-income, and low-socioeconomic status backgrounds can result in a lower likelihood of havingthe relevant cultural capital necessary for successfully accessing and leveraging institutionalresources and/or agents to promote their own success in engineering.While there has been an increasing interest in social class and SES in engineering education,there is no research on how SES manifests so that institutions can improve how those studentsare served. To explore how institutions recognize and support low-SES engineering students,interviews were conducted with academic advisors from seven large public universities locatedthroughout the United States. Sixteen engineering academic advisors were included in this study,with positions in diversity, academic degree programs, state-sponsored grant programs.Academic advisors were chosen as the informants for this study because they are often the mostconsistent staff member students encounter during their collegiate career. The interviews weresemi-structured, lasted approximately one hour, and were transcribed verbatim. Data analysiswas performed in two stages. First the data were coded focusing specifically on social class (e.g.,participant definitions and perceptions of socioeconomic disadvantage) and elements ofBourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. Second, the data were considered by protocol question,which allowed for a richer sense of the diversity of responses to each question, which permitsalternative themes and subthemes to emerge. To ensure validity, a peer debriefing process wasemployed, where at least two project team members analyzed significant portions of the data foragreement.Three main assertions emerged from the data analysis. First, the advisors interviewed wereunable to articulate a coherent definition of SES. They tended to equate socioeconomic statuswith financial need, and did not readily recognize problems low-SES students might encounterdue to a lack of cultural capital. Second, the advisors often associated socioeconomicdisadvantage with certain ethnic minorities despite having sizable populations of low-SES Whitestudents. Low-SES students are an invisible minority, not readily identifiable via institutionalrecords and instead often relying on self-identification, which can make targeted interventionsfor these students difficult. Finally, the advisors recognized that students coming from low-SESbackgrounds and especially from lower performing schools were less prepared for college and asa result often struggled both academically and socially.This work may be especially helpful for stakeholders seeking to understand why academicallyqualified and privileged minority students struggle in engineering, but also why seeminglyadvantaged non-minorities also face challenges. Furthermore, it may help institutions addresssocioeconomic disadvantage and provide opportunities for support beyond financial aid orminority group programming. By recognizing the effects of SES on students’ experiences inengineering programs, universities may be able to better support the needs of these studentswhich would in turn lead to better retention.

Lundy-Wagner, V. C., & Salzman, N., & Ohland, M. W. (2013, June), Reimagining engineering diversity: A study of academic advisors’ perspectives on socioeconomic status Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22416

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