Going the Distance

As the engineering profession seeks to develop a robust, diverse workforce, one category of future engineers represents an attractive but at-risk resource.

Every year, thousands of students enroll in two-year engineering-related programs at community colleges, technical schools, and vocational programs, many with the intent to transfer into a four-year B.S. program. About half never make it to the finish line, not because they don't want to, but because they often face higher financial, academic, and social hurdles than their fellow undergrads.

When a student who otherwise has the qualifications to be a great engineer abandons hopes of a higher degree, it's more than just an individual hard-luck story. Each loss represents a setback to the profession's ability to meet society's future needs.

Engineering educators are exploring a number of strategies aimed at retaining full- and part-time two-year transfer students. Pilot studies show, if given the right blend of financial and academic support, many of these students not only succeed but outshine peers who have taken a more traditional academic path to a baccalaureate.

The Need

Community colleges, vocational programs, and occupational schools serve almost half of all the undergraduate students in the U.S., awarding more than a half-million associate's degrees annually, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Along with preparing students to move into a four-year college, these institutions offer noncredit courses and train job-seekers in workforce development and key skills.

Based on 2005–2006 government statistics, women represented 63% of new associate's degree graduates while students from under-represented minority groups accounted for at least 30%. Nearly 10% of these students expressed an interest in engineering and technology fields. In terms of expanding and diversifying the future engineering pipeline, these students represent some of the lowest-hanging fruit.

Compared to undergraduate population as a whole, transfer students tend to have the greatest financial need. They get less monetary help from their families and are more likely to qualify for federal financial aid. But the cost of college isn't their only barrier to a bachelor's degree. Studies show many students face difficulty transferring enough program-specific academic credits from their two-year schools to enter as third-year students. To them, that means a longer path to full-time employment and more time in school re-taking courses they've often already passed. And, although all engineering students need academic advising and support to thrive, many transfer students require special interventions to build their academic skills and navigate the requirements of their new school.

One Bridge to a Bachelor's

In 2008, a faculty team at the Rochester Institute of Technology led by Surendra "Vinnie" Gupta, professor of mechanical engineering, launched a project for retaining two-year transfer students that has yielded promising results.

RIT students on campus. Image source: RIT.edu

With a nearly $600,000 National Science Foundation scholarship grant, Gupta's pilot project—named the Engineering and Technology Transfer (ET2) Scholars program, has been successful in recruiting, retaining, and graduating promising transfer students. What's more, they found that with proper support, transfer students can stand toe-to-toe with other students both academically and in real-world work settings.

Gupta says the project goals were to graduate 25 additional transfer engineering students per year over the grant period. Participating academic units included 11 ABET-accredited degree programs in RIT's departments of civil engineering technology/environmental management and safety, manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology and packaging science, mechanical engineering, electrical and microelectronics engineering, and electrical, computer and telecommunications technology.

Gupta says the group requested $8,000 in NSF scholarship support for each ET2 scholar, to be augmented by other RIT financial aid programs and a $50,000 university commitment of ongoing support after the grant period.

"The ET2 program addresses a national concern by helping to expand and diversify the engineering/technology workforce of the future," says Gupta. "In designing the program for engineering and engineering technology (EET) transfer students, we needed to answer the following three questions: Is the financial aid adequate to attract and retain transfers from two-year schools; do our programs have curricular flexibility to award transfer credits for most or all of credit-bearing coursework at two-year-schools; and do we have the infrastructure and resources to inform, advise and support transfers from two-year schools."

Gupta explains the plan combines financial aid with targeted recruitment of transfer students through direct mail, in-person faculty visits to area community colleges and on-campus open houses. Although all qualified students are eligible for NSF scholarship support, a goal of the recruitment effort is to build awareness of the program among women and minority applicants.

The issue of transferring academic credits from two-year programs to RIT is addressed through articulation agreements with about 20 two-year schools. These agreements are reviewed periodically to ensure they are in step with current best practices. Faculty members review transcripts and advise the admissions office after evaluating each student's program-specific credits. In general, Gupta says, RIT tries to develop these agreements with the goal of transferring adequate credits so that a student begins at or as near as possible to the third-year level.

Once a transfer student is enrolled, RIT's challenge is to keep them there. Transfer students are assigned a faculty advisor who can direct them to resources if they need academic help. Conversely, care is taken to applaud standout scholars through written communications aimed at keeping them on track. Building a sense of community among transfer students is also part of the project, and informal events over lunch bring students with similar interests and backgrounds together with their faculty advisors.

Through dedicated faculty advising and intervention, the one-year retention rate for transfer students stacks up favorably against the university's overall performance. "Transfer students are graduating at a higher rate than freshmen students in engineering and engineering technology programs," Gupta says. "We are hoping this project will serve as a model for other selective universities to provide transfer students with access to the baccalaureate."

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

Transfer students are graduating at a higher rate than freshmen students in engineering and engineering technology programs.Surendra Gupta, professor of mechanical engineering, RIT

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