Asee peer logo

Retention: Quantifying the Apples and Oranges

Download Paper |


2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Persistence and Retention II: Curricular Issues

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1252.1 - 22.1252.16



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Thomas F. Wolff Michigan State University

visit author page

Dr. Thomas F. Wolff is Associate Dean of Engineering for Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University. In this capacity, he is responsible for all activities related to student services (academic administration, advising, career planning, women and diversity programs, etc.) and curricular issues. He is principal investigator on several NSF grants related to retention of engineering students. As a faculty member in civil engineering, he co-teaches a large introductory course in civil engineering. His research and consulting activities have focused on the safety and reliability of hydraulic structures, and he has participated as an expert in three different capacities regarding reviews of levee performance in Hurricane Katrina. He is a three-time recipient of his college’s Withrow Award for Teaching Excellence, a recipient of the Chi Epsilon Regional Teaching Award, and a recipient of the U.S. Army Commander’s Award medal for Public Service. In 2010, he was elected to the National Council of Chi Epsilon, the civil engineering honor society, and serves as National Marshal of that organization.

visit author page


Steven M. Cramer University of Wisconsin, Madison

visit author page

Dr. Steven M. Cramer is the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There he leads undergraduate and graduate programs in the College of Engineering and related support services and activities. He has been part of the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 25 years where he is a member of the Teaching Academy and was awarded the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award. His teaching and research programs are directed at civil engineering materials and structural engineering. He is a registered professional engineering in the State of Wisconsin and a fellow in the American Society of Civil Engineers.

visit author page


Barbara A. Masi Massachusetts Institute of Technology

visit author page

Barbara A. Masi, Ph.D., is the Director of Education Innovation and Assessment in the MIT School of Engineering.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Retention: Quantifying the Apples and OrangesASEE recently formed an Undergraduate Experience Committee under the auspices of theEngineering Dean’s Council. Its mission is to foster discussion, collaboration and action for thebenefit of the undergraduate experience. A high priority topic identified by the committee isretention of engineering students.In recent years, students’ paths to engineering program admission and to graduation havebecome increasingly complex. To address this complexity, institutions have begun to rethinkretention rate calculations for their programs. To date, however, a clear review of the issues,ideas, and methods being tried has been missing. Representatives of the ASEE UndergraduateExperience Committee are involved in addressing this topic by clarifying what retention means,how it is measured and identifying best practices. It becomes clear that quantifying retention in ameaningful manner is a non-trivial problem, due to the variety of ways in which students cometo engineering programs.In this paper, the standard terminology and “outer bound” methods for defining and calculatingretention, including that used for U.S. Department of Education reporting, will be reviewed.Using these approaches as a baseline, the co-authors propose-- through discussions andsurveying of committee colleagues who represent a wide variety of public and private, large andsmall, institutions-- to review the gamut of admission and enrollment management systems, andconsider how retention in engineering might be defined in a manner more meaningful tomeasuring progress than the two simplistic “outer bounds” calculations explained below. Whileit is not likely that a single definition and approach will ever be universally adopted, the authorsintend to propose a taxonomy of definitions and methods that could better serve the assessmentof retention.Today’s accepted approaches include at least two “outer bound” methods. The most familiar is totake a cohort of entering fall freshmen and simply track how many are still in a program invarious years and on through to graduation. This is a common approach to U.S. Department ofEducation reporting, but is known to have limitations as only a portion of entering students arecounted.The second “outer bound” calculation is to compare the sheer numbers of juniors, seniors, orgraduates to the number of freshmen in the corresponding prior year. This measure ignores thefact that these are not all the same people, but is argued to provide some aggregate measure of aninstitution’s effectiveness in producing engineering graduates.Several major weaknesses in the “outer bound” methods are identified in this study. Consideringonly the entering fall freshman cohort accounts for losses from that group, but does not capturethe group of later “joiners.” Depending on the policies and practices of the institution, students“enter” an engineering program, or declare a pre-engineering major, in a number of ways. Theseinclude, but are not limited to, delayed admission, change of major, transfers, and dual majors.Furthermore, among these later joiners, there is again a group retained and a group not retained.Therefore, realistically tracking engineering student retention can become a complicated,unsteady mass balance problem, with students coming and going on a daily basis.For schools with secondary admission systems, there can exist other paths: such as “round trips”in and out of the cohort, where students declare an engineering major, are required to change toanother major when they do not attain secondary admission (access to upper level courses), butmay be admitted at a later date. Finally, students may enter at a variety of starting math courses,and this is known to be a significant factor.Drawing on the results of its survey of ASEE Undergraduate Experience Committee memberinstitutions, this paper summarizes how institutions have addressed the increasingly complexissue of student retention in a summary of emerging definitions, policies, and calculations foraddressing retention rate.

Wolff, T. F., & Cramer, S. M., & Masi, B. A. (2011, June), Retention: Quantifying the Apples and Oranges Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18500

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: © 2011 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