In this research paper, we examine and discuss factors that most impact student retention at a large Hispanic-serving chemical engineering program situated in a public research university. We also examine how retention has been affected by broad curricular changes implemented within our department over the past four years.
As part of a Revolutionizing Engineering and Computer Science Departments five year grant from the National Science Foundation, our department has changed its chemical engineering curriculum by incorporating Community-, Industry-, Research-, and/or Entrepreneurship-based design challenges through the core curriculum, engaging students in Writing-Across-the-Curriculum (WAC), offering faculty professional development workshops, and implementing a digital badging system to help students take ownership of their competencies. Such fundamental changes to department structure and curriculum elicit many questions about outcomes and student retention. This paper outlines some of the key barriers to successful student retention in our program by identifying conspicuous factors linked to student attrition and retention. This paper also identifies how retention has been affected by broad programmatic changes.
The students in our program are atypically diverse compared to those found at other large Research I universities. According to student surveys and enrollment data, our students are 43% female, 45% are Latinx, 5% are Native American, 28% are first-generation college attendees, 27% are from lower income families, 33% speak a language other than English at home, 52% of students work more than 10 hours per week while in college, and 52% of students’ mothers and 48% of their fathers have not earned a college degree.
Our examination of Enrollment Management retention and attrition data show that students transfer into our program largely from Biochemistry, Biology, and Chemistry programs. When students transfer out, they predominately leave to those three majors as well as engineering majors such as Mechanical and Civil. A promising finding is that over 50% of our four-year graduates are first-generation college students, even though first-generation college attendees represent only around one-third of our students. This result suggests that first generation students are more likely to stay in our chemical engineering program and finish their degree on time, compared to non-first generation students who are more likely to transfer into and out of the program. Another positive finding is that females, Hispanic students, and Asian students are retained at around 40%, the same overall rate as all students combined. This Hispanic student retention rate is higher than the national average of 32% . Students who drop out of our program and the university entirely, are disproportionately male students who attended lower-rated high schools and are usually not first-generation college students. These retention analyses have been instrumental in helping us aim the direction of support and programmatic changes offered to students.
 Lane, J.I. "Understanding the Educational and Career Pathways of Engineers," National Academies Press, 2019.
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