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Fall 2005 Vol. 5 No. 3

Table of Contents

Educating America's Engineers

©Leon Zernitsky/

The Vital Role of Community Colleges

For many U.S. students who aspire to earn bachelor's or graduate degrees in engineering, community colleges can be a critical pipeline to four-year institutions.

Consider: Studies show that 20 percent of people with engineering degrees started their academic careers by earning at least 10 credits at community colleges. And 40 percent of graduates who received bachelor's or master's degrees in engineering in 1999 and 2000 had attended a community college. In some parts of the country, the trend is even more pronounced. In 2002 the California Council on Science and Technology reported that 48 percent of graduates with science or engineering degrees from the state system got their start at community colleges and later transferred to four-year schools.

Community colleges are essential to the schooling of many American engineers, says a new report from the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council, but this educational pipeline is operating beneath its capacity in this field. Four-year institutions should work more closely with community colleges to recruit, retain, and train students seeking bachelor's or advanced degrees in engineering. Two- and four-year schools that team up for this purpose also should have clear, effective "articulation agreements" -- programs and policies to foster seamless transfers of community college students to four-year colleges or universities. Moreover, the best articulation agreements focus on student outcomes, such as mastery of important skills.

On the whole, educators, legislators, and industry representatives should pay more attention to the pool of prospective engineers at community colleges, the report says. Two-year institutions attract many minority and female students, making community colleges good places for initiatives to increase diversity in the nation's engineering work force. Plus, research shows that transfer students with associate's degrees in engineering science are just as likely to receive B.S. degrees in engineering as students who attend only four-year campuses.

There is no "one size fits all" approach to the academic preparation of students pursuing engineering degrees or to enhancing the community college pathway to this field. But good communication and true collaboration are often the keys to successful transfer partnerships between two- and four-year colleges, the report emphasizes. As a start, partners should work together to recruit engineering students. High school outreach programs could be developed jointly, for example. And four-year institutions could support community colleges as a viable route to bachelor's degrees. Individualized counseling also should be provided early and often to engineering students at both two- and four-year institutions.

Successful partners communicate frequently, visit each other's campuses, discuss changes in curricula, and sometimes share faculty, says the report, which includes descriptions of stellar programs and practices. One example is the Transfer Opportunity Program (TOP), a collaboration between the University of California, Davis, and 15 northern California community colleges. The university's TOP coordinators visit participating colleges to counsel students and parents on admission to UCD and to discuss issues such as financial aid and academic requirements for particular majors. Students who transfer through TOP receive counseling the summer before their fall enrollment, as well as full-time undergraduate staff advisers from engineering departments and early intervention services if they run into academic difficulties.

But generally, more research is needed on how community college students ultimately fare in engineering, the report says. All too often, community colleges lose sight of students once they transfer to four-year institutions -- precisely when community colleges should begin tracking their graduates' educational and career development. Better data in this area could be used to improve transfer partnerships. Also, publicizing information on transfer students' successes in obtaining B.S. or advanced degrees and rewarding careers in engineering would demonstrate the value of community colleges' engineering programs -- and likely boost recruitment rates.   -- Vanee Vines

Enhancing the Community College Pathway to Engineering Careers. Committee on Enhancing the Community College Pathway to Engineering Careers, National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council (2005, approx. 106 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09534-4, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $26.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by James M. Rosser, president, California State University, Los Angeles. The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences