We typically get a few questions each year about our failure rate. I’m never quite sure why people ask, or what they are expecting. Do they want to hear that the failure rate is high, so they are convinced it’s a tough (and therefore good) program? Or maybe they don’t want the failure rate to be high, because they are concerned that they won’t be successful? I’m not sure what the motivation for the question is, but anyways let’s examine failure rates.
First, a philosophical question. What is failure? We can’t measure a failure rate until the term is defined. So, is it failure if:
- you pass all your courses and the term, but decide that Engineering is not your passion and transfer to Arts?
- you pass the term (which requires a 60% average at Waterloo), but fail a course (i.e. get a grade <50%) and have to repeat that course in the future?
- you fail the term with an average between 50 and 60%, but repeat the term and go on to graduate successfully a year later than originally planned?
- you fail out of Engineering (term average <50%), but transfer and graduate from Science, Mathematics, or Applied Health Studies?
- you fail and leave Waterloo, but do very well in a college engineering technology program?
What some people might call failure, others would view as part of the learning process and finding your place in the world.
There is actually no universal definition of failure, so answering the question “what is your failure rate” is actually quite complicated. One public information source, CUDO, has a nice engine that allows you to download spreadsheets of data. They give graduation rates (sort of the inverse of failure rates), so let’s look at those. Here’s a graphical version of some graduation rate data I downloaded for engineering at Waterloo, McMaster, Queen’s and Toronto.
As the graph shows, graduation rates fluctuate between the high 70s and low 90s among these universities. It looks like you are pretty likely to graduate, so does that imply you are unlikely to fail? You have to read the fine print for the CUDO data however (as you should always do with any data). The CUDO data is based on counting the fraction of students entering engineering, who graduated from that university with any degree, within seven years. So it’s quite a bit more complicated than it looks at first glance. If some student entered engineering in 2002, failed several times and had to repeat a couple of years, switched programs and received a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2009, that would appear as a successful graduation in this CUDO data. When applicants ask “what is your failure rate”, I don’t think they have this type of scenario in mind!
If you want to know how many people start and successfully finish in an engineering program, that’s a bit more difficult. Waterloo publishes such information in annual performance reports, like the ones listed here. The 2012 report (on page 40) shows that 71% of students that started in Engineering in 2005 had graduated by 2012, 6% had received degrees in other faculties at Waterloo, 6% were still working on their degree, and 17% had left Waterloo (destination unknown). So the majority of the students that start in Engineering will finish.
Finding similar information from other universities is not easy. Toronto’s Engineering produces a nice annual report (here), but it doesn’t include the same graduation rate information. Perhaps the information exists for the other universities, but I haven’t been able to find it (admittedly I haven’t looked that hard). However, looking at other data such as 1st year registration and number of graduates suggests that the other universities have statistics that are not much different from Waterloo’s.
Finally, how does Engineering compare with other programs? We all know that engineering is a tough program, so should we expect the graduation rates to be higher in Science or Business or Arts? To check this we can use the CUDO data for 2012 again, and let’s pick one university (Toronto) to eliminate inter-university differences so we can compare programs more rigorously. Here are the reported graduation rates for a few programs:
- Business & Commerce 83.7%
- Engineering 86.2%
- Humanities 77.2%
- Mathematics 90.5%
- Nursing 97.7%
- Physical Science 85.7%
- Theology 73.9%
So, judging by graduation rates Theology and Humanities are the “toughest” programs and Nursing is easy. Or, maybe this whole failure/graduation rate thing is not particularly useful or informative for making decisions about what to do with your academic future? I suspect that being motivated and having a passion for your field will make a much bigger difference to your future than the institution’s failure (or graduation) rate statistics.