When high school students considering careers in engineering look at colleges, they typically focus on large state universities with free-standing engineering schools or comprehensive private institutions. Regional public colleges often make the list as well. But one type of institution almost never makes the cut: community colleges.
Although two-year colleges have long been seen as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree in the United States, engineering is one of several academic fields in which four-year colleges have been reluctant to establish formal transfer agreements with community colleges. There are exceptions, of course. But for the most part, engineering professors at four-year universities believe that students should start their studies there because the undergraduate curriculum is packed with requirements that are best taken in sequence with the same cohort of students.
That viewpoint holds true at many four-year institutions despite the fact that 20 percent of engineering-degree holders began their academic careers by earning at least 10 credits at community colleges. Engineering instructors at two-year colleges say the real reason that their students have few transfer options is because many four-year institutions believe community colleges offer an inferior product. “We’re not accepted or respected,” says Ron Ulseth, an engineering instructor at Itasca Community College in Minnesota. Four-year colleges “are suspicious of us, and that’s hard to overcome.”
Now pressure is building for community colleges and four-year institutions to cooperate more closely to ensure that two-year engineering students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in the subject. A landmark report released in 2005 by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council found that community colleges are already “essential” to the education of American engineers but “have not reached their full potential.” It noted, for example, that 40 percent of recipients of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering in 1999 and 2000 had attended a community college.
The call for two- and four-year colleges to graduate more engineers comes at a time when President Bush and Congress want to build a larger American workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields. “This nation has enormous needs, and we need to look at how the different sectors of higher education can play a role in filling those needs,” says James M. Rosser, president of California State University at Los Angeles and chairman of the National Academy committee that wrote the 2005 report, “Enhancing the Community College Pathway to Engineering Careers.”
One crucial role community colleges can play, Rosser says, is helping to increase the diversity of the engineering workforce. Enrollments at community colleges include disproportionately large numbers from minority groups. The National Academy report noted that “in effect, community colleges have become an educational pipeline for underrepresented minorities entering the higher education system.”
But that pipeline is clogged at a crucial point. “There are just too many barriers for two-year students who want to transfer to four-year colleges,” Rosser says. “Some states and some institutions have done a good job at knocking down those barriers, but we need more of a national effort.”
The report also recommended the harmonizing of curricula at the two types of institutions.
In general, “successful transfer partners communicate frequently, visit each other’s campuses, meet frequently to discuss curricular changes and even share faculties,” the report said. Currently, though, few formal models for communication between the two types of colleges exists, and as a result, cooperation depends on ad hoc relationships between faculty and administrators.
At Itasca Community College, Ulseth says he has “solid” transfer agreements in place with six different four-year colleges. Lining up additional agreements, however, has been difficult. “At institutions where few of our students go, they’re suspicious of us,” Ulseth says. “Even when our students succeed at those places, there is turnover among faculty and we have to prove ourselves all over again.”
About 85 percent of Itasca’s 130 students in engineering and physics transfer to four-year engineering programs, with the majority going to the University of North Dakota.
In fact, the university even helps recruit students to Itasca. When North Dakota officials traveled to Grand Rapids, Minn. in December to meet with prospective students, they didn’t just talk up their own institution; they also plugged the engineering program at nearby Itasca. They even brought along alumni who had transferred to the university from Itasca to provide testimonials about just how easy it was to make the move from the two-year college to the four-year university.
In an e-mail message to Ulseth in advance of the visit, Cheryl Osowski, the outreach coordinator for North Dakota’s School of Engineering and Mines, wrote that she had no interest in recruiting the students directly as freshmen. “We only want to approach these kids at this stage in their development as engineering students,” she wrote. “I will be speaking very highly of the transfer agreement we have with your college and the success of the students that come from your program.” Ulseth expected to receive several “good leads” out of the evening. “They actually came here to do a recruiting event for us,” he says. “That’s a strong relationship.”
Rosser, the chairman of the National Academy committee, says such strong relationships should be the norm rather than the exception. He would like to see a standard transfer curriculum developed that focuses “less on seat time and more on what a student should know at the end of two years in any engineering program.” If that were the case then “those first two years would transfer in no matter where the students began their education, and we can reduce the time to degree,” he says.
Building a national template for transfers, Rosser says, is more vital than ever because high school students increasingly see community colleges as a practical starting point for their education. It used to be that two-year colleges mostly enrolled older students going part time. That’s still largely the case, but students right out of high school make up a growing proportion of the enrollment at two-year institutions.
Indeed, for Dan G. Dimitriu, the coordinator of the engineering program at San Antonio College, a two-year institution in Texas, the recruiting process now begins as early as a student’s sophomore year in high school. In 2003, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Dimitriu created a program called EDGE (Early Development of General Engineering), designed to introduce high school sophomores and juniors to college-level coursework and provide them with activities and projects to develop independent learning and teamwork skills.
The program has been somewhat successful in attracting high school graduates into the engineering program at San Antonio College. Of the 74 students who completed the EDGE program in 2003 and 2004, for example, 21 enrolled at San Antonio, 15 of them with declared majors in engineering.
San Antonio is not alone in persuading high school graduates interested in engineering to snub a four-year institution in favor of a two-year college. At Itasca, for instance, 90 percent of the engineering students are of traditional college age and attend full time. Students who start their engineering education at a community college typically do so because the two-year programs are less expensive, closer to home and offer smaller classes in the first two years.
Dimitriu, who also teaches engineering as a part-time professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says colleagues there sometimes ask why students would go to a two-year college instead of a four-year institution for an engineering degree. “I tell them the students are smart,” he says, with a laugh. “They are taking an engineering curriculum in two-year increments. If they want, they can be hired after two years.”
Closer Attention at a Low Cost
The low price tag is what sold Warner Meeks on the engineering program at St. Louis Community College. A 15-credit semester at the college costs around $1,110, compared with approximately $3,900 at the University of Missouri-Rolla, where the 23-year-old will transfer in the fall as a junior. “You learn the same thing at a two-year college as you do at a four-year college, so it seems like a no-brainer to me to save the money,” Meeks says.
TJ Bloch agrees. He spent a semester at the Rolla campus before a surgical procedure over winter break during his freshman year forced him to take some time off. Since St. Louis Community College was closer to home, he decided to take a few engineering classes there before going back to Rolla. Once enrolled at the community college, however, his original plan changed. “I realized it was a lot easier and cheaper to stay where I was,” he says. This fall, the 21-year-old intends to transfer to the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Bloch says the professors at St. Louis Community College are much more accessible than those at Rolla. “They provide the support network that you need in these first two years,” he says. “If you have a problem, you can go right to them or ask a question in class. At a university, you’re a number in a big class and have to go through a teaching assistant to get to the professor.”
For the most part, engineering students at community colleges need the extra attention. Nearly all two-year colleges are open-admission institutions, meaning they basically take everyone who applies. As a result, many engineering students arrive at two-year colleges needing to brush up on the basics, particularly mathematics. They do that by taking remedial courses, which don’t count toward their degree requirements.
At San Antonio College, Dimitriu persuaded the math department to group all the engineering students in remedial classes together. “If you bundle them with each other, there is peer pressure to finish so they can actually take courses that have something to do with engineering,” he says. “Otherwise, they are dumped into remedial courses with students where they have nothing in common.”
At Itasca, Ulseth has divided each semester into two terms, so that remedial students can take the extra classes they need without falling behind in completing their degree. Ulseth also works with the students when they arrive to quickly identify which four-year college they want to transfer to and ensures that they take only the courses required by that institution. “We don’t let them take anything superfluous,” he says. “We’re not focusing on our degree requirements, we’re focusing on their degree requirements.”
The close attention given to engineering students at a community college seems to pay off. From 1999 to 2003, for instance, 110 students graduated from four-year engineering programs with associate’s degrees from Itasca. Of those, 100 either became engineers or are on track to do so. At St. Louis Community College, 90 percent of the students who go on to four-year colleges graduate with a bachelor’s degree, often with a grade-point average that is higher than the one they achieved earning their associate’s degree, says Ashok Agrawal, dean of math, science, engineering and technology at St. Louis Community College. “Many universities find that once these students spend two years with us they are much better prepared,” Agrawal says.
In fact, the percentage of community college transfer students who complete a bachelor’s degree in engineering is slightly higher than those who start at a four-year institution. In a 1999 study, Cliff Adelman, a former researcher at the U.S. Education Department, found that nationwide 66 percent of community college transfer students earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, compared with 60 percent of students in four-year-only institutions who persisted to the junior year.
The engineering students who transfer from two-year colleges also look much different than those who start as freshmen at four-year universities. Because of their open admissions and low costs, community colleges enroll large numbers of financially needy and minority students. Underrepresented minority students account for 36 percent of the enrollment at two-year colleges in the United States, compared with 26 percent at four-year institutions, according to the U.S. Education Department. What’s more, 20 percent of students with family incomes under $25,000 annually attend community colleges, compared with 11 percent who go to public four-year institutions and 8 percent who are enrolled at private four-year colleges.
At St. Louis Community College, minority students make up nearly 40 percent of the 270 engineering students enrolled. About 75 percent of the 386 students in the engineering program at San Antonio College are Hispanic, says Dimitriu, the program coordinator there. “Texas is soon going to be a majority Hispanic state,” Dimitriu says. “We need more Hispanic engineers, and right now the universities are not attracting enough Hispanic high school students. So someone has to fill that role and it’s us.”
Because Dimitriu teaches engineering courses at both a four-year college and a two-year institution, he has a unique perspective on the differences between the two sectors. His advice to those who ask where they should start their engineering education? “Without a doubt, a community college,” he says. At a four-year institutions, he says, introductory courses are too large for students to actively participate in the class and are typically taught by graduate assistants, not regular professors. He also maintains that full-time faculty members at universities are often more interested in research than in teaching. “About 90 percent of the engineers who graduate from four-year colleges with a bachelor’s degree end up in industry, but they are taught by researchers,” Dimitriu says.
Dimitriu worked in the private sector before moving to academe, and one of his colleagues had an associate’s degree from San Antonio College. “He was good,” he says. “That’s how I discovered this place.” In 1995, he became an adjunct faculty member while still working in the private sector. In 2001, the president of San Antonio considered shutting down the engineering program because of declining interest.
When Dimitriu said he was interested in taking it over, the administration gave him three years to rebuild the program. Since then, it has grown to 386 students, from 162. In that time, he has hired five adjunct faculty members, all retired engineers who worked in industry.
Despite the program’s growth, Dimitriu says it is still difficult to establish transfer agreements with four-year colleges. Right now, he has formal agreements with five four-year colleges. He’s hoping that as more San Antonio engineering graduates go on to four-year institutions and do well that additional agreements will be easier to forge.
In the meantime, Dimitriu and his colleagues at other two-year colleges know that even if their students end up not transferring to a four-year institution, they have still succeeded. “They still leave here with a degree that can help them get a job in the field,” says St. Louis Community College’s Agrawal. “If engineering students drop out of a four-year college after two years, they leave with nothing to show for their effort but some credits.”
Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.