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Socioeconomic Status And The Undergraduate Engineering Experience: Preliminary Findings From Four American Universities

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

SPECIAL SESSION: Describing the Engineering Student Learning Experience Based on CAEE Findings: Part 1

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1091.1 - 13.1091.9



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Paper Authors

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Krista Donaldson Stanford University

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Gary Lichtenstein Stanford University

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Sheri Sheppard Stanford University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Socioeconomic Status and the Undergraduate Engineering Experience: Preliminary Findings from Four American Universities


In this paper, we present preliminary findings relating socioeconomic status (SES) of undergraduate engineering students in the United States to a variety of issues related to their educational experiences, decisions and perceptions. Results from the first deployment of the Academic Pathways of People Learning Engineering Survey (APPLES) suggest that SES plays a role in professional persistence in engineering, confidence in technical skill sets, extracurricular fulfillment, perception of curriculum overload, and general satisfaction with their collegiate experience. SES does not appear to play a role in other areas, such as academic persistence in engineering, academic disengagement or motivations for studying engineering.

We discuss the challenges of defining SES for college students relative to the literature, and propose a simplified approach based on parents’ levels of education and perceptions of family income level. To analyze the APPLES variables, we compared the highest and lowest SES quartiles. Where possible, we contrast our findings to those of non-engineering undergraduate students at American institutions. One of our primary conclusions from this preliminary analysis is that SES should be controlled for studies of engineering students.


Students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) are underrepresented in American higher education, particularly at four-year institutions and in more selective universities1, 2. Researchers have shown that in the four-year period following high school, low SES students are less likely to persist to a bachelor’s degree or have graduate degree aspirations3. Despite the documented impact of SES relative to students’ higher educational outcomes, there has been no examination, to our knowledge, of the role of SES in the undergraduate engineering experience.

The Academic Pathways of People Learning Engineering Survey (APPLES or APPLE survey) is one of several data collection methods of the Academic Pathways Study (APS), under the NSF- funded Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE). APPLES was first deployed at four American institutions in Spring of 2007, sampling over 800 students, the “Broader Core Sample”. After taking the online 10-minute APPLE survey, student subjects are offered a $4 incentive payable through an online financial transaction companyi. APPLES was deployed a second time in Spring 2008 at 21 American institutions to corroborate APS findings on a national levelii, the “Broader National Sample”. This paper discusses the preliminary findings related to SES from the first APPLES deployment only with the Broader Core Sample.

The APPLES instrument has 50 items (many multi-part), including demographic data and 26 variables. These single- and multiple-item variables gather information on student identity, skills and educational experiences4 including, for examples, motivations to study engineering, confidence in technical skills and perceptions of curriculum overload

Donaldson, K., & Lichtenstein, G., & Sheppard, S. (2008, June), Socioeconomic Status And The Undergraduate Engineering Experience: Preliminary Findings From Four American Universities Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3622

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: © 2008 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