National reports have indicated colleges and universities need to increase the number of students graduating with engineering degrees to meet anticipated job openings in the near-term future. Fields like engineering are critical to the nation’s economic strength and competitiveness globally, and engineering expertise is needed to solve society’s most pressing problems. Yet only about 40% of students who aspire to an engineering degree follow the path to complete one, and an even smaller percentage of those students continue into an engineering career.
Underlying students’ motivation to transform their engineering interest into an engineering career is the psychological construct of engineering identity. Engineering identity reflects the extent to which a person identifies with being an engineer. Previous research has focused on experiences or interventions that promote engineering identity, and some qualitative work has suggested students who are retained in engineering experience differences in engineering identity, but little research has tested the relationship between retention and engineering identity, especially modeling change in engineering identity over four years of college.
The data for this study were taken from the 2013 College Senior Survey (CSS), administered to students at the end of their fourth year of college by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Students’ responses to CSS items were then matched to their responses to the Freshman Survey (TFS), also administered by CIRP, at the very beginning of their first year of college. For this study, all students who indicated their intended major as engineering at the start of college constituted the sample, which included 1205 students at 72 universities.
The dependent variable is a dichotomous variable indicating if students marked engineering as their major at the end of the fourth year of college. The main independent variable of interest in this study is engineering identity. Engineering identity was computed using exploratory factor analysis with three items from the CSS indicating the importance to students of becoming an authority in their chosen field, being recognized for contributions to their field, and making theoretical contributions to science.
Hierarchical generalized linear modeling with robust standard errors was used to model engineering retention as the dependent variable was dichotomous in nature and the data were “nested” in structure (students nested within universities). Control variables include a pretest of engineering identity from the TFS, college experiences known to predict retention and other outcomes in engineering, demographic variables, precollege academic preparation, choice of engineering major, academic and social self-concept at college entry, and institutional characteristics. In the final model, engineering identity was a significant predictor of engineering retention, controlling for all other factors including the engineering identity pretest.
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