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Reimagining engineering diversity : a study of institutional perspectives on socioeconomic status

conference contribution
posted on 2017-12-06, 00:00 authored by V Lundy-Wagner, N Salzman, Matthew OhlandMatthew Ohland
While calls to transform engineering education often revolve around pedagogy, curriculum, and student learning (1–4), there is a concomitant need to consider diversity given demographic shifts (5). However, despite various diversity initiatives enacted in the past fifty years, participation and completion by women and minorities in engineering has improved only modestly (6). As a result, some have questioned the almost exclusive focus on gender and ethnicity/race, increasingly turning toward social class as an additional area for exploration (7–10) and another way to consider the field’s “cultural competence” (11). Exploring social class in undergraduate engineering is important and promising in two ways. First, it expands traditional diversity efforts focused on historically underrepresented groups (i.e., women, African-Americans, Latina/os, and Native Americans). Although there is no data presenting low- versus higher-SES student outcomes in engineering, previous research shows that socioeconomic status is an important predictor for achievement (8,12). Social class disadvantages, like high school poverty level, are highly correlated to ethnicity/race (13), but exert a different force based on group membership and institution enrolled (14,15). Thus, more work that examines social class as a relevant component of diversity in engineering is needed. Second, by exploring social class, engineering stakeholders will have a more nuanced understanding of the range of socio-demographic backgrounds (7,8). Social class is often measured by a proxy, socioeconomic status (SES), an index of parent’s level of education, occupation, and income. The typically dichotomous way SES is characterized (e.g., “low SES” versus “high SES”) can contribute to simplistic conceptions of social class disadvantage (16), and potentially inefficient retention efforts. For example, institutional strategies related to financial aid (17) or information-sharing (18,19) seek to address economic challenges and deficits in college-knowledge, respectively. However, there is notable evidence that financial aid alone is not sufficient to overcome attrition risk factors (20,21), and furthermore institutional resources are not equally or properly accessed by all undergraduates (19,22). Social class theory may help explain why conceptions of diversity in engineering should be expanded, and why many engineering students are stifled when it comes to appropriating and manipulating institutional resources to fuel their academic success.


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Atlanta, Georgia


American Society for Engineering Education

Place of Publication

Washington DC

Peer Reviewed

  • Yes

Open Access

  • No

External Author Affiliations

Conference; New York University; Not affiliated to a Research Institute; Purdue University;

Era Eligible

  • Yes

Name of Conference

American Society for Engineering Education. Conference