Comparing the Undergraduate Experience of Engineers to All Other Majors: Significant Differences are Programmatic


  • Gary Lichtenstein,

    Corresponding author
    1. Stanford University
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    • Gary Lichtenstein is consulting professor in the School of Engineering at Stanford University and owner of Quality Evaluation Designs, a firm specializing in education research, evaluation, and policy. His intellectual interests include engineering education, mixed-methods research, and community-based research. He has conducted research and evaluation for K-12 schools, higher education institutions, and non-profit and government organizations nationwide. He has researched the preparation of undergraduate engineers as part of the National Academy of Engineering, the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

  • Alexander C. McCormick,

    Corresponding author
    1. Indiana University
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    • Alexander C. McCormick is director of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and also a faculty member in the College of Education's Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department, where he teaches in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program. Prior to joining Indiana University, McCormick served as Senior Scholar at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where he directed a major overhaul of the Foundation's widely-used Classification of Institutions of Higher Education and also served as director of survey research. McCormick began his career in higher education as an admissions officer at Dartmouth College, later serving as assistant dean of the College. His research interests focus on assessment and accountability in higher education, and also organizational change and improvement in higher education.

  • Sheri D. Sheppard,

    Corresponding author
    1. Stanford University
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    • Sheri D. Sheppard is the Burton J. and Deedee McMurtry University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, Associate Vice-Provost for Graduate Education, and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. She is also a consulting senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation, having directed the Preparations for the Professions Program (PPP) engineering study, and co-authored the study's report, Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field (2008). Before coming to Stanford University, she held several positions in the automotive industry, including senior research engineer at Ford Motor Company's Scientific Research Lab. She earned a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan.

  • Jini Puma

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Colorado Denver
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    • Jini Puma received her Ph.D. in Quantitative Research Methods from the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver in 2007. She currently holds a research position with the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include the impacts of an accumulation of risk factors on early childhood development and the mental and physical health of the U.S.-based refugee population. She has co-edited one book, The crisis in youth mental health: Early childhood intervention programs and policies. (Greenwood Press, 2005), in which she also co-authored a chapter.

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The authors partnered with the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to examine how persistence within the engineering major and engagement of undergraduate students in engineering compare to other majors.

Purpose (Hypothesis)

We explored three research questions: How do engineering students rate their college engagement compared to students in other majors? How do engineering persisters, non-persisters, and migrators compare in terms of collegiate engagement, time on task, and enriching educational experiences? What college engagement factors predict persistence in engineering?


Data are from nearly 12,000 students who completed the NSSE survey in their first and senior years as undergraduates. Surveys were analyzed using ANOVA and Chi-square calculations to determine whether differences emerged in three dimensions of student engagement based on students' self-reported major. Due to the large sample, effect size was used to determine statistical significance. Binary logistic regression was used to identify factors that predict persistence among first year students and seniors in engineering.


Results show that engineering majors are similar to non-engineering majors on most variables. However, engineering majors reported significantly higher gains in practical competence and higher order thinking, but the lowest means on reflective learning and gains in general education. Engineering majors reported significantly more time preparing for class and less time participating in educationally enriching experiences.


We conclude that different educational outcomes between majors are the result of programmatic differences. The packed engineering curriculum requires students to make trade-offs between gaining practical/marketable skills and participating in educationally enriching activities. We question this trade-off and suggest alternative approaches.