UVA Outpaces 81 Public Engineering Schools, with 83 Percent of Students Earning Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees in Four Years

As the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science sends its Class of 2018 off to careers and graduate school, it has received an affirmation that commencement is particularly meaningful: An analysis of U.S. four-year, public engineering school graduation rates shows that UVA produces the highest on-time graduation rate of undergraduate engineering students among peer institutions nationwide.

According to the American Society for Engineering Education’s “Retention and Time to Graduation Survey,” in which 81 U.S. public engineering schools participated, 83 percent of students who enrolled in UVA’s Engineering School in 2011 earned their undergraduate degrees in four years. Compare this with the national four-year graduation rate for all engineering schools that responded to the survey (111 public and private schools): 33 percent. And the national average on-time graduation rate for all public four-year institutions (not just engineering schools) is just 35 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The admissions process for UVA Engineering is extremely competitive, so we make a commitment to the students who work hard and earn admission that we’re going to do everything we can to help them succeed,” said professor Maite Brandt-Pearce, UVA Engineering’s executive associate dean for academic affairs. “We don’t believe in weed-out classes; we want everyone to make it.”  

UVA Engineering’s graduation rate, as reported for the survey, does not include students who also graduate in four years but have transferred to a non-engineering degree program within the University. For all students who started at UVA Engineering in 2011 and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University, the four-year graduation rate is 89 percent.

“The students who attend UVA Engineering are outstanding,” said Lloyd Harriot, associate dean for undergraduate education and the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering. “We believe that every single one of our students is capable of graduating from UVA and going on to a great career.  In my office, we feel that it is our job to give them what they need to be successful.”

The ASEE survey also reveals that UVA Engineering offers the top graduation rate among surveyed public engineering schools for Hispanic, Asian, African-American and multi-racial students, and is in the top 10 percent for its graduation rate for women.

“Our mission is to make the world a better place by preparing engineering leaders who will solve global challenges and contribute to a strong economy,” UVA Engineering Dean Craig H. Benson said. “We take this responsibility very seriously. I am proud of our collegial environment, which supports our undergraduate students’ success.”

Related Story: UVA Engineering's Ph.D. Enrollment Growth is #1 in the United States.

UVA’s graduation rates for the Class of 2018 will become available after summer students earn their degrees. The American Society for Engineering Education is preparing to release results of another survey in the near future.

“Our approach to the total life experience of students is what makes the biggest difference,” said Lisa Lampe, UVA Engineering’s director of undergraduate success, which is in the Engineering School's Undergraduate Office led by Harriott.

“We’re interested in developing students holistically, and we understand that non-academic issues can affect academic success," Lampe said. "For example, students may have issues pop up with family, such as illness or death. We connect them with resources that allow them to focus on their learning and be successful.”

Darius Carter, who graduated in 2017 with a degree in mechanical engineering and is now studying for a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering, said the many resources help build students' confidence.

Just as important, Carter said, "The School of Engineering faculty are dedicated to the success of their students, and most have an open-door policy because the students are their No. 1 priority."

Students’ success at UVA Engineering starts immediately in their first year, when entering engineers receive formal advising mainly through their “Introduction to Engineering” courses. In these courses, students are exposed to the skills and experiences they will need to succeed in the Engineering School and beyond. More broadly, they learn what it means to become engineers in a society that desperately needs them to solve some of its biggest challenges.

Keith Williams, associate professor of electrical and computer Engineering, who coordinates the first-year classes, said UVA’s “Introduction to Engineering” delivers far more than a standard engineering curriculum. “We tell students about the challenges that lie ahead, so they know how to prepare. We teach students to see all the brick walls in their way as opportunities to prove how much they want to succeed,” he said, referencing the late Randy Pausch’s inspirational book, “The Last Lecture.”

Williams saw an opportunity to improve the student advising system a number of years ago, and advocated for “total advising,” an approach that integrates academic, career and personal counseling. He piloted the inclusion of advising in his introductory engineering classes. The result was so successful that it is now the norm at UVA Engineering. Students receive additional support from the time they join the School with major selection, academics, career mentoring and counseling, if they need it.

“Most of our students arrive well prepared, academically,” Williams said, “but few know how to define success, or have a detailed strategy to achieve it. We help them prepare for what lies ahead and get a first glimpse of rewarding careers. That’s exciting for them, and for us.”

Walter Nicholas, who graduated in May with a degree in engineering science from the Department of Materials Science & Engineering as well as a degree in chemistry, took Williams' Introduction to Engineering course four years ago.

"Having this course in my first year enabled me to see my passions in engineering and to make a decision about which engineering field to pursue," Nicholas said. "I would place the course at the top of my list of most impactful courses I took at UVA."

"Lisa Lampe was also a major contributor to my success as an engineer," Nicholas said. "With her guidance and expertise in student success both in and out of the classroom, I was able to improve my organizational, note-taking and communication skills."

Nicholas credits Lampe and the Engineering Career Development team, led by Director Julia Lapan, for helping him land "the job of my dreams, which at one point seemed impossible." Nicholas starts in August as an associate systems engineer with Maximus, Inc., which provides business process services to government health and human services agencies.

UVA Engineering is particularly conscious of the supports that students may need if they are entering from populations that are typically underrepresented in engineering, such as students who are the first in their families to attend college, women, African-Americans and Hispanics, Brandt-Pearce said. These future engineers are offered the opportunity to participate in a summer “bridge” program through the Engineering School's Office of Diversity and Engagement, led by John F. Gates, associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and the program includes orientations and sessions to gain critical academic skills.

“We want our students to be ready for their first semester,” Brandt-Pearce said. “We want to make them really feel welcome and that we are here to support them – and that they are not on their own.”

Once students choose their engineering majors in the spring of their first year at UVA, they are assigned to within-major advisers. The School’s embedded career development team also “engages with students starting in their first year to help them design their curriculum and their future careers – and to think about their lives as something they are able to design,” Brandt-Pearce said.

“We also have a dedicated director of undergraduate success whose whole job is to take care of the students so that no one falls between the cracks,” she said.

Lampe helps students with skills such as prioritizing their work, developing organizational skills, staying on top of homework and communicating effectively with faculty. “We just assume that they come to college and they’re ready to learn,” Lampe said. “Sometimes they have to learn how to learn before they’re really successful.”

William H. Guilford, associate professor and undergraduate program director in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the School's director of educational innovation, said students at UVA also are offered a collection of active-learning experiences that have been found to be particularly influential for student learning and lifelong success.

“Writing-intensive courses offered through the Department of Engineering and Society, capstone design experiences required by each of the degree programs in the Engineering School, and first-year experiences are all examples of high-impact practices that we deliver to each of our students,” Guilford said. “The virtue of an education at UVA isn’t just what students do in class, but also what happens outside the classroom.”

Experiential learning opportunities, like the Mini Baja race car-building club and the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, feature prominently in the School and are supported by cutting-edge facilities such as the Lacy Hall Student Experiential Learning Center, he said. Further, “undergraduate research has always been a key feature of UVA – something that few if any universities do better than we do. We believe that the combination of quality mentoring with experiential education or undergraduate research promotes degree attainment, and students following on into engineering careers.”

The University also has embedded an associate dean of students, Julie Caruccio, and a counseling and psychological services professional within the Engineering School to support students’ mental health, an increasingly important issue that institutions of higher education are grappling with across the country, Brandt-Pearce said.

“We follow each student through the program, offering tutoring and mentoring to students who feel like they need extra help,” Brandt-Pearce said. “We also employ a great number of undergraduate teaching assistants who are very aware of what their peers’ struggles are – and proactively address how a student might misunderstand the material.

“I am tremendously proud of what our students have accomplished, and grateful to our faculty and staff for their commitment to our students’ success.”