The Use of Discriminant Analysis to Investigate the Influence of Non-Cognitive Factors on Engineering School Persistence

Article excerpt


This study identified post-enrollment attitudes and perceptions that influence students' decisions to remain in an engineering curriculum. Non-cognitive factors including expectations and perception of the engineering profession, assessment of personal attributes, and subject-matter confidence were investigated. Discriminant analysis functions were developed to distinguish among three mutually exclusive groups: those who remained in the engineering school, those who remained at the university in a different school, and those who left the university altogether. Self-reported confidence in college-level math/science ability and the belief that an engineering degree enhances career security at a respectable salary were found to be significant predictors of both short-term and long-term persistence in engineering.

Keywords: engineering freshmen, longitudinal study, discriminant analysis


Researchers have expounded numerous explanations for the high dropout rate experienced by four-year undergraduate institutions [1-6]. The prevailing general theory of student persistence is based on Tinto's Interactionalist Theory which postulates that persistence is a function of student attributes as well as institutional fit. Although multi-institutional studies of persistence can help identify trends, single-institution studies are needed to understand the phenomenon of persistence which reflects an individual's decision to stay or leave a particular institution [1].

The lack of student persistence toward a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree has been the focus of several important national studies [7-12]. One study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) indicates the STEM persistence-to-graduation rate is 41 percent [7]. Many STEM students decide to leave before the end of the freshman year; for others, however, the decision is made much later in their college career [8]. A recent multi-institutional study by Zhang et al. [12] supported the use of two cognitive variables (high school grade point average and SAT math scores) to predict engineering student graduation. The authors observed that these cognitive factors explained only a small percentage of the variability in college student persistence and that other factors needed to be investigated. In an older single-institution study, Levin and Wyckoff [13] investigated the predictive ability of a combination of cognitive and non-cognitive factors. They found that several non-cognitive variables, combined with high school grade point average and SAT scores, were predictive of freshman year persistence. However, models based on post-enrollment data for the first and second years of college were composed entirely of cognitive variables (science and math grades). The authors concluded that effective persistence models change as the engineering student progresses through the college curriculum. Based on a cross-institutional study, Besterfield-Sacre, Atman and Shuman [14-16] found that attitudes held by freshman engineering students when they entered college differed as a function of gender and institutional characteristics. Within their own institution, the researchers found significant differences in certain attitudes between students who left engineering in good standing and those who left in poor standing. Their data indicated that SAT math, high school rank, participation in a specialized program, and financial motivation for studying engineering were significant predictors of freshman-year attrition.

These studies suggest that non-cognitive variables should be considered as part of any model that seeks to explain persistence at a specific institution. The purpose of the study reported here was to build a preliminary model of how students' attitudes held after attending college for one year affect both short-term and lone-term persistence in engineering. The ultimate goal is to develop a specialized theory of persistence toward graduation for undergraduate engineering students. …