Engineering Failure Rates-Redux

Here’s an update on a popular old post, with some new data and comments.

I’m never quite sure why people ask about failure rates, 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:

  1. you pass all your courses and the term, but decide that Engineering is not really for you and you transfer to Arts & Business?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. you fail out of Engineering (term average <50%), but within Waterloo transfer and graduate from Science, Environment, Mathematics, or Applied Health Studies?
  5. you fail and leave Waterloo, but do very well in a college engineering technology program, or something else?
  6. you do quite well, but decide to leave Waterloo before graduation for some other place or opportunity.

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 opposite of failure rates), so let’s look at those.  But first, for some context let’s see  how many engineering students start out in Ontario, and where they enroll.  From CUDO, here is the first year enrollment in Engineering at various schools in Ontario, for 2016.

Next, let’s look at graduation rates for these schools.  But first, you have to read the fine print for the CUDO data (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 2009, failed several times and had to repeat a couple of years,  switched programs and received a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2015, 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, but that’s what this data includes.  Here is the data averaged over the most recent 3 years:

Percent receiving any degree from that institution after starting in an Engineering program. Three years of data are averaged, with bars indicating the variability in degree completion over that time period.

I included some error bars to show how variable the percentage can be over the three years.  Variation in percentage can be significant whenever you’re dealing with smaller numbers, as one can see for the smaller engineering schools towards the top of the graph.

Considering the variability, a lot of engineering schools have very similar degree completion rates.  It looks like you are pretty likely to graduate, so does that imply you are unlikely to fail?  No, again these data are for graduation with any degree, not necessarily the one you started with in engineering.  A university with a high completion rate like Queen’s may just be more successful in transitioning failing students out of engineering and into other programs.  It’s impossible to tell from the CUDO data, so if you’re worried about how successful you’ll be in engineering this data is not very useful.  Unfortunately, it’s about all we have.

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 2015 again, and let’s pick one university (Queen’s) to eliminate inter-university differences so we can compare programs more rigorously.  Here are the reported graduation rates for a few programs:

  • Business & Commerce  93.1%
  • Engineering  89.1%
  • Humanities  66.7%
  • Nursing 90.2%
  • Social Science 100%
  • Theology 100%

So, judging by graduation rates the Humanities at Queen’s is the “toughest” program and Business is relatively 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 an interest for your field will make a much bigger difference to your future than the institution’s failure (or graduation) rate statistics.  Maybe in the comments, let us know…why are you interested in failure rates and what does it matter?

7 thoughts on “Engineering Failure Rates-Redux

  1. I agree that the rate of “failure” should not be a deciding factor for your future. I didn’t have any interest in the failure rates at Waterloo but seeing the post in my inbox sparked my curiosity. Now I come out on the other side feeling, surprisingly, more motivated. As I am currently aspiring to be an engineering student my knowledge of the course difficulty at Waterloo engineering is purely anecdotal. Regardless, I think it is safe to say the program truly challenges individuals that want to be successful. Seeing as that’s the case, I find it comforting that the Waterloo graduation rates remain in the high 80s: There must be *something* pushing students to persevere and finish their degree. Or maybe everyone there has impeccable work ethic? Or perhaps everyone sticks together? In any manner, such a statistic should only be a pull factor for a student applying to these school.

    • To some extent, the admission processes try to identify applicants who seem to be motivated, so perhaps that’s a factor. I think that the other key factor is having a supportive environment, with lots of available help and classes that all take the same courses together, promoting social cohesion. Even those who transfer out of engineering to other programs will still have friends on campus.

  2. I’m somewhat of an outlier. I care about failure rates because I am the Director of Software Engineering and I should know what’s going on in the program!

    The SE graduation rates track the CUDO rates for the University of Waterloo. I’ve counted various graduation stats for the classes of 2014 through 2018. We have rates from 75% to 85% for graduation-with-any-bachelors-degree, with a weighted average of 82%. Right on track.

    Other numbers that people might care about are % BSEs granted: weighted mean 70% (low 63%, high 81%); and % BSE or BCS granted, weighted average 79% (low 71%, high 86%). So about 10% of the students that start in SE 1A graduate with a CS degree in the end.

    From my perspective it seems like many of the people who run into trouble are having trouble with adjusting to university (perhaps reflecting a lack of interest in one’s program) or with underlying mental health issues. We are trying to help with both of these issues as best we can.

    Another interesting factoid is that most term failures in ECE and SE occur in first year. This is not the case for other Waterloo Engineering programs. I don’t know how that affects graduation rates. All else being equal, it’s better if a student fails 1B rather than 3B.

  3. Hello Professor,
    I had a conversation with you in a previous comment regarding whether I can apply to Waterloo with my AS level grade. Now sir, I do require an advice from you which can help me decide whether to apply or not.
    I am planning to apply to Chemical Engineering at University of Waterloo with Computer Engineering being my second priority. However, I am in a doubt if I can afford Waterloo. My family’s annual income is around 30,000 USD making it difficult for me to pay the tuition fees. But I think I can afford the first year and pay the consecutive years with the money I earn from Co-op.
    I have a strong interest to join Waterloo for my higher studies. The extensive career oriented education system and wonderful environment of innovation drives me towards Waterloo more than anything else. I am also planning to other Universities outside Canada but no University interests me more than Waterloo for some reason.

    Also sir, I would like to know if there is an option to get some type of waiver for the OUAC application as 250 USD to apply to Waterloo is going to be difficult for me as I will be applying to other Universities too.

    I find no one to suggest me whether I should apply to Waterloo or not based on my financial condition. I hope you can shed some light to my queries and help me professor

    • I’m afraid that financial advice is beyond my expertise. I can provide some comments: 1) I do not believe that there is any mechanism to waive OUAC application fees; 2) I’m assuming that you’re not a resident of Canada, in which case there is no financial aid available, unfortunately. I’m not sure how easy it is to pay international student tuition rates from co-op income alone. Possibly some current students can give you advice on that point.

      • Thank you Sir. I will talk to some current students enrolled and definitely apply to Waterloo for Chemical Engineering

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