Waterloo fails a lot of students, and that’s okay

Part 1: Waterloo fails a lot of studnets majoring in Computer Science.

A lot!

When I was attending, you needed to maintain a 65% major average, and every class kept it’s averages under 70%.  In my first year, I was enrolled in Software Engineering (the major), which was basically comprised of the top people from Computer Science and Computer Engineering in one class.  We had a midterm once with an average around 78%, and were told it was too high.  I’ve also heard profs say that 72% is too high for an average.  Averages under 60% are the only ones I’ve ever heard of as being too low.  From what I gathered as an undergrad, anywhere between 60-70% was okay, and profs tended to shoot for ~67%.

That’s an average only slightly higher than the required major average.  The marks were not normally distributed, so the median was actually lower.  There are a group of exceptionally bright people at Waterloo, that create a small hump somewhere up in the 80-90% range, then the larger hump is right around 60%.  This is certainly generalizing, but I believe it to be close to truth for most classes.  (A 50% is a pass.  It’s an ‘honors program’, so if you graduate, you get honors — you can’t graduate with CS and not get honors at Waterloo.  In theory, this makes a 65% equilvaent to an 80% at a lot of other schools.)  

Every class I took was essentially graded on a curve.  If the midterm was easy, you’d get slaughtered on the final.  If everyone failed the midterm, the final would be not so bad.  I had many profs resort to, what I consider, underhanded techniques to lower marks.  Assignments without marking ledgers, exams where 25% of the marks came from 1/2 of 1 lecture, etc.  

The result of failing about 5% of the class every term results in survival of the fittest.  Waterloo CS grads have a good reputation partially because they’re the top half of their class by definition of being a graduate.  In retrospect, this actually makes a Waterloo CS degree that much more valuable, and improves the reputation of graduates that much more.  The only downside is that Waterloo’s incredible bias towards lower marks (especially when compared to our neighbors in the US) makes it that much harder to go into grad work.  Your 65% at Waterloo might be equivalent to an 80% at most US schools, but no one knows it and so your applications will just get filtered out of consideration.

Part 2:  Am I right?

So, here we are.  I’m years out of school, and I’ve had this intuitive belief that Waterloo CS fails a lot of people, certainly way more than their advertised 12% drop out rate.  I’ve always believed the number to be closer to 40%. (http://analysis.uwaterloo.ca/statistics/cudo/cudo_2010/htmlSectionK.php#sectionk2a).

So I went and found the number of students enrolled as FTE in computer science: http://analysis.uwaterloo.ca/statistics/cubes/regist_page.php
And the number of degrees awarded in computer science:  http://analysis.uwaterloo.ca/statistics/cubes/degree_page.php

In the table below, student count is # of full time students in the start year.  By the FTE definition, this should capture every first year student in CS.  The Degrees Awarded is in the same major (CS) from 5 years forward.  So the 2005/2006 start year has the degrees awarded in 2010, which is the latest complete data available.  

Start Year Student Count Degrees Awareded Percentage
2005/06 280.8 222 79.06%
2004/05 416.8 215 51.58%
2003/04 548.2 339 61.84%
2002/03 667.5 354 53.03%
2001/02 604 448 74.17%
2000/01 668.5 514 76.89%
1999/00 618.5 462 74.70%
1998/99 548.5 421 76.75%
1997/98 641 387 60.37%
1996/97 513 310 60.43%

The average CS graduation rate over 10 years was 66.88%.  This is almost exactly failing 5% of the class every term, or failing 10% of the class every year.  Which works out to roughly what I believed intuitively.  

Some notes on the method:  

I tried looking through year-by-year to see if I could get a handle on the annual drop out rate, but it wasn’t really possible because the definition of a full time student is not compatible with the co-op program (in which >80% of CS majors participate); and because the program has 4 year’s worth of classes, but is a 5 year degree.  So we just look at starts and degrees.  Also, regular students (not co-op) graduate 1 year sooner than their co-op counterparts, and I also want to capture (without penalty) those graduating late.  For these reasons, I wouldn’t interpret 2004 to have been the hardest year to start and 2005 as the easiest, but just that there was probably some skew in numbers here between co op and regular (though the they got much more selective in 2005, which could also explain the graduation rate.  

It’s worth pointing out that in 2001, the Software Engineering program started, which potentially drew students to it who would otherwise have been in the CS program.  

Around 2005, Waterloo started offering a Bachelor of Computer Science to which it was easy to transfer from the existing CS program.  It’s unclear to me how to account for the difference between the new CS degree and the old BMath/CS.  The interface for the data did not make it clear to me how to distinguish them.  That said, the Software Engineering program took in 103 students in 2004, and then awarded 52 degrees (50% success rate).  I suspect transfers from that program may have goosed the 2005 graduation rate numbers.  In theory, you fail out of SE, and finish a CS degree 1-2 terms behind your start year.  I don’t have the data to substantiate this theory.

Since students transfer from Software Engineering into CS, but CS students (generally) cannot transfer the other way, it’s possible I’ve overestimated the graduation rates (at least as they apply to your chance of graduating, given that you’re in first year.).  On the other hand, if Waterloo is accounting for the BCS separately, my numbers could be off — maybe the people who started in ’02 and ’03 switched to the BCS and earned that degree?  B
ut then, how do I account for the difference between BMath/CS and BCS undergrads?  Did the BCS take over the ‘CS’ tag startin in ’05?  Are the BMath/CS undergrads now lumped in with the BMath kids?  And finally, I’m not sure how students failing out during first year impact the numbers.  They definitely existed, but I’m getting my first year counts based on the number of students who took 2 full terms in their first year.  

Since these questions are still floating around, it’s probably best to take my result with a grain of salt.  However, given that (AFAIK) there was a lot more program stability prior to 2001, and assuming that Waterloo hasn’t fundamentally changed its policies on grades and pass rates, it would seem that even if my conclusion is not significantly far from reality.

And reality is that it’s damn hard to get a degree from Waterloo with the words Computer or Software printed on it, and that’s okay.


About softwaregravy

Software Engineer, aspiring financial guru, and entrepreneur; all mixed with a bit of awesome.
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4 Responses to Waterloo fails a lot of students, and that’s okay

  1. VK says:

    Good article.Reading this on my iPhone, so I may have missed something – but how does the double cohort come into play? I think 2003 and 2004 would have more students than graduates as a result, right?It would also be interesting to know how these numbers compare with the general attrition rates at all schools. More than a few people failed classes at Waterloo, but I always felt they made it very difficult to actually fail out.

  2. Anonymous says:

    @VK Didn’t account for the double cohort — just chance of failing out, given that you were accepted. It’s possible the failure rates went up a lot due to students coming in less prepared than in previous years, but that’s purely speculation.

  3. Angela says:

    2002 grad here, yep CS majors were dropping out like crazy that year.

  4. Derpy says:

    Some comfort knowing you are still in the minority who failed.

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