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by Susan Donohue

An Alternate Retention Strategy

Five-year programs with room for electives would make engineering more attractive.

While much attention is being paid to expanding the PreK-12 pipeline into engineering, educators can’t ignore a major contributing factor to the shortage of practicing engineers: the annual loss of nearly half the undergraduates who enroll in engineering.

A primary reason for transferring out of engineering studies is the perceived lack of flexibility in the engineering curriculum. Students accustomed to taking a variety of courses in secondary school may feel confined by a math- and science-focused engineering curriculum that doesn’t offer enough opportunity for electives, especially in the first year of core courses. Other students who were totally immersed in math and science in high school may want to take advantage of the wider offerings at the college level. Both of these types of students are likely to transfer to a program that allows or encourages electives.

These undergraduates, many of whom could become successful engineers, are prime candidates for re-recruitment and re-enrollment in engineering studies, and we have a proven model to use: the 3/2 program.

Undergraduates may need a break from math and science. The 3/2 model lets them re-enter engineering.

In the traditional 3/2 program, liberal arts and science colleges partner with a larger university to give students access to a wider variety of programs. A student spends the first three years completing degree requirements and university program prerequisites at his or her home school, and the fourth year completing any remaining program pre-requisites and then program requirements at the partner university. Upon admission to the graduate program, the student spends a fifth year completing research and thesis requirements. It’s a win for all involved. The student graduates with a bachelor’s degree from the home school and a master’s from the university; the college has access to additional resources; and the university has a solid, vetted source of graduate students.

Engineering 3/2 programs exist, but anecdotal data suggest that they are not actively used. They also tend to partner college departments of physics with university engineering programs. In order to re-enroll “once and future” engineering students, we need to take a new perspective and transform the model to include internal sources of students as well as external, and to partner with departments not traditionally linked with engineering. Judicious choices of partner departments could lead to increased gender and ethnic diversity in engineering studies. Designed well, an internal model would retain curricular integrity and give prospective re-recruits the ability to develop new interests while remaining connected to the engineering community.

Could this goal be accomplished informally? Certainly. The “five year” (and, increasingly, “six year”) plan is a common degree path taken by students take. However, students on these extended study plans most likely did not choose them as a way to gain space for electives. More likely, their choice was a consequence of limited access to required courses that are pre-requisites for others. Providing a structure in which progress to a degree is monitored increases the likelihood of success.

Precedent exists for adopting such a transformed model. Consider the admission models of other graduate professional programs, such as business, law, and medicine. None of these programs require certain majors; instead, their admission requirements include a set of prescribed courses and, perhaps, relevant experience. Graduate engineering programs follow this admission model with additional restrictions. Isn’t it time to offer a similar option to undergraduate engineering students who may be at risk of leaving because of an inflexible curriculum?


Susan Donohue is an assistant professor in the technological studies department of the College of New Jersey.




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