A Crack in the Pipeline: Why Female Underrepresented Racial Minority Students Leave Engineering
Female and underrepresented racial minority (URM) students are indicating their interest in STEM fields at increasing rates, yet when examining the engineering discipline specifically disparities in degree completion rates between female URM students and others in the racial or gender majority are even more severe. This study explored female URM college student perceptions of school and classroom climate and the impact these factors had on their decision to persist or to leave engineering. Through a qualitative interview methodology grounded in Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT), this study explored factors including self-efficacy, perceived barriers and supports, other-group orientation and outcome expectations that influenced students' academic decision-making. Interview participants consisted of 5 female URM students that matriculated into an engineering major at a top tier, private university but subsequently left the discipline in pursuit of another field of study. The perceptions of this target population were juxtaposed with interview data from 4 male non-URM, 4 female non-URM, and 4 male URM leavers in addition to 7 female URM engineering persisters. As a final component in the research design, 9 undergraduate engineering faculty were interviewed to understand their perceptions of why female URM students leave engineering in pursuit of other disciplines. With faculty being a central component of the academic environment, their perceptions of female URM students, as well as how they view their role in these students' retention, provided insight on this other side of retention question.
Salient findings emerged that differentiated female URM leavers' experiences in engineering from other student populations. Female URM leavers were less likely to call upon self-directed learning strategies in response to academic challenges. Perceived academic barriers such as heavy course loads, lack of connection between material and application, and perceived academic deficits deterred these students from persisting in the field. A perceived lack of academic preparation also inhibited female URM students from participating actively in class. Additionally, while targeted support programs were effective in connecting female URM students with their peers and such programs contributed to an overall sense of diversity at the school, a lack of diversity was felt when inside the classroom.