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:
- you pass all your courses and the term, but decide that Engineering is not really for you and you transfer to Arts & Business?
- 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 within Waterloo transfer and graduate from Science, Environment, Mathematics, or Applied Health Studies?
- you fail and leave Waterloo, but do very well in a college engineering technology program, or something else?
- 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:
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?