Differences by Gender: College Freshmen’s Interest in Engineering

Every year, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA administers the Freshman Survey to gain a better understanding of the pre-college experiences of incoming college students. From this research we are able to see that, while interest in majoring in engineering and computer science is increasing, the gap between men and women’s intentions to major in engineering and computer science remains wide.
Research Highlights From “women And Technology: The Dimensions Of A Revolution”

Every year, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA administers the Freshman Survey to gain a better understanding of the pre-college experiences of incoming college students. HERI has been administering this survey for over 50 years. The April 2019 report covered entering students from the fall of 2017. Over 120,000 first-time, full-time students who entered one of 168 U.S. colleges and universities participated.

SWE pulls data from this report on freshman intentions to major in engineering and computer science and publishes on the SWE Research website. The National Science Foundation used to report this data in the Science & Engineering Indicators report, but they stopped in 2016 because academic institutions vary in when they require undergraduate students to declare a major. This variance makes it hard to consistently report on intentions or enrollment by major. However, HERI continues to report freshmen intentions so we are able to see that, while interest in majoring in engineering and computer science is increasing, the gap between men and women’s intentions to major in engineering and computer science remains wide.

Freshmen intent to major in engineering survey results

What is causing this large gap? There are many theories, but one thing is clear: This interest gap exists well before students enter college. HERI’s report on the Fall 2017 cohort indicates that incoming male college freshmen were more than twice as likely as female freshmen to have experience writing computer code in the past year – and there were substantial variations in the gender gap by race/ethnicity, as shown below.

Percentage of students who wrote computer code during the past year survey results
Source: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. The American Freshman: National Norms, Fall 2017.

Another indication is seen in the Advancement Placement exam rates of certain science and mathematics coursework in high school. Lower rates of AP exams in calculus, physics, and computer science may indicate a lack of interest in pursuing an engineering or computer science degree in college.

Percentage of public school students who took AP exams in math and science, survey results
Source: The College Board, 2018, 2018 Program Summary Report.

What does this mean for our efforts to improve gender equity in engineering and technology? It means that we need to start early to get more girls interested in studying in these fields by encouraging them to take the courses that will expose them to engineering and technology concepts. To learn more about gender differences in high school preparation in STEM, visit the SWE Research site.


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Author(s) Information

  • Differences by Gender: College Freshmen’s Interest in Engineering Interest in Engineering

    Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., Senior Manager of Research, SWE

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