Thursday, November 12, 2009

Retention and Attrition Rates in CS

This past week I have been looking into retention and attrition rates of both men and women in CS programs. One of the first papers that I looked at was the paper about the University of Malaysia - Women in Computer Science: NO SHORTAGE HERE! by Mazliza Othman and Rodziah Latih. Here are the tables which show intake and withdrawal / failure rates based on gender.

The university has fairly equal intake rates and in almost all years (with the exception of 1999/2000) examined in this study, more men failed / withdrew from the program each year.

While attrition rates may be fairly low overall, and in particular for women at the University of Malaysia, that is not the case at many U.S. universities.

In the paper Scavenger Hunt: Computer Science Retention Through Orientation by Talton et al. from the University of Illinois:

"Like many large research universities, the University of Illinois has struggled with the high attrition rate of first-year students in computing disciplines. In the five year period prior to 2003, roughly 25% of the total number of entering freshmen have dropped out of the program by the end of their first year (see Table 1). In particular, the attrition rate of women and minority students is quite high, averaging about 35% for the same period."

Similar situations exist even at CMU.

In a paper on W@SCS, (Women in Computer Science: The Carnegie Mellon Experience by Lenore Blum), Blum looks at retention rates of men and women in CS.

In a paper (not the book), Unlocking the Clubhouse: The Carnegie Mellon Experience, Margolis and Fisher examine the same data at CMU and show promising trends of retention of women in CS.

These graphs so something that should not be surprising, that higher percentages of women in the major seems to lead to higher retention. In Blum's paper Peter Lee, Associate Dean for Computer Science Undergraduate Education at the time is quoted as saying, "[Retention] seems unnecessarily negative to me, and at any rate seems to aim too low. The goal, it seems to me, is to take advantage of the great recruiting success and produce a crop of graduating women who will be the future leaders, world-class scientists, visionaries, and captains of industry. . . . "

Other factors which seem to raise retention rates of women in CS are discussed in IMPROVING THE PERSISTENCE OF FIRST-YEAR UNDERGRADUATE WOMEN IN COMPUTER SCIENCE by Rita Manco Powell. Powell did a study at UPenn about retention and found that there was a 50% persistence rate of women before changes were implemented compared with an 85% persistence rate after changes were implemented which is equal to the male persistence rate. Some changes include more faculty-student interaction, social gatherings for students, mentoring groups, and the organization of WICS (Women in Computer Science). These are very similar to the findings at CMU with the organization of W@SCS.

Powell also examined why women were leaving CS - why the attrition rates were so high:

"This research study found that many of the study participants began the computer science major with an inadequate background from high school in the subject, causing them to struggle to perform as well as their peers with more computer science experience. Because of this fact, which was further heightened by the women’s perception that the male students knew more than they, several women lost confidence in their ability to be successful in the major and subsequently lost interest in the major. Social isolation accompanied their gender minority status within their peer group further weakening their resolve to persist."

I am interested in examining whether women at CMU have similar reasons for leaving CS, and also examining what men's reasons are. I am currently working on coming up with interview questions for men and women who have switched out of SCS at CMU. I am also interested in looking at attrition and retention rates, because I know of 4 women in my year who have left CS (and a few in other years), but I don't believe that I know of any men who started in CS and are now in a different major.

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