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Taking the Long View

May 13, 2010

Many community college administrators boast about the speed with which their institutions are able to get students in and out with a credential and employed. But officials at one community college in western Massachusetts are encouraging their engineering students to think long-term and consider transferring onward in order to boost their career prospects over the long run.

This attitude is clear on the website for the engineering program at Greenfield Community College, which offers something of a disclaimer to prospective students: “While a person may sometimes be able to find a job with only an associate degree, these positions are few and far between. Most engineers need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. The pay makes up for the investment in your education.”

Ted Johnson, engineering professor and program co-chair, said the program’s emphasis shifted about a decade ago, primarily due to changes in the economy. The program phased out several short-term certificates, such as those in computer-aided design and surveying, and associate degrees in industrial technology and electronic engineering technology.

“There was just a lack of employment opportunities,” Johnson said. “You used to be able to get a job with a surveying certificate or an associate in technology. Nowadays, that’s just not the case.”

Now, the program simply offers an associate in engineering science, which includes aspects of these older offerings within its curriculum, and the focus is on transferring community college students who have already made progress toward their major into baccalaureate engineering programs. Through a consortium agreement with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, located about 30 minutes to the south, the college offers specialized upper-division electives in chemical, civil, environmental, electrical, computer, industrial, and mechanical engineering.

Lisa McLoughlin, engineering professor and program co-chair, said though most students transfer to UMass – taking advantage of joint admission, tuition discounts or other benefits available to in-state students – the program also has comprehensive transfer agreements with engineering schools at Northeastern University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Western New England College.

The focus on transfer, McLoughlin said, has vastly improved the popularity and performance of the program. For instance, Greenfield’s overall enrollment has grown by 15 percent in the last two years, while the engineering program’s has grown by nearly 50 percent. The fall-to-spring retention rate of engineering students was 81 percent this year, compared to the 72 percent overall retention rate of the college – both figures that would be the envy of many community colleges.

“We’re a small program with about 50 students, so we just needed to focus our energy on one thing,” McLoughlin said. “When we just had small certificates and the small degree we just weren’t getting the students, and it was expensive to run. Offering the first two years of the engineering degree just seemed like the right thing to do. Simply put, civil engineers can be surveyors, but surveyors can’t be civil engineers.”

Though acknowledging that not everyone will become an engineer or even want to, McLoughlin believes her program’s singular focus on transfer serves a greater good, perhaps inspiring students who would have been content with a certificate to go on to pursue further education and a larger career.

“I think that students should be the ones deciding how they want the rest of their lives to be,” McLoughlin said. “We’re in the poorest county in Massachusetts, and we have a lot of farm students. I feel it’s my job to show them options of how this degree would make their lives different. It’s a lot different living on $60,000 a year than whatever they’re earning on their current job. Timing is a hard thing, though, especially for people who have children or have to support themselves. Finances are a huge burden, but I believe the payoff is worth it for these students.”

Photo: Greenfield Community College

Inside an engineering class at Greenfield Community College

Thayne Henry, a rising senior and electrical engineering major at Northeastern University, got his start at Greenfield. He credits its engineering program with giving him direction.

“After leaving [Greenfield], I didn’t know exactly what concentration of electrical engineering I wanted to get into,” Henry wrote in an e-mail. “But [Greenfield] was able to give me the math and science background that I needed as well as a broad overview of different types of engineering so that the choice would be made easier down the road.”

Henry will graduate from Northeastern with more than just a bachelor’s degree: he already has a job offer, and hopes to pursue an advanced degree.

“The Northeastern co-op program allows students to work for three full semesters while going to school for a total of five years and making up the lost semester with two summer sessions,” Henry wrote. “I am currently on my second co-op work term at Draper Laboratories in Cambridge, Mass. working in the micro-electronics group on [micro-electro-mechanical] gyroscopes. I am scheduled to graduate in 2011 and have been offered a job continuing to work on the electronics... I am currently deciding whether to accept that job offer, work full time and go to school part time … or whether to apply to [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] ... and go to graduate school.”

Though Greenfield’s engineering program isn't unique in its scope, one scholar believes its focus on transfer and further opportunity is admirable in a time when quick-fix credentials and short-term solutions are lauded and given a great deal of attention.

“Do two-year, sub-baccalaureate credentials encourage people not to reach too high? Not on an individual basis, but on a systematic basis they do,” said Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University who studies the history of science and engineering. “It’s not that the sub-baccalaureate experience is, by definition, inadequate. It’s just that, often, it doesn’t hold the seeds of further opportunity, and it really should. The commitment to pre-transfer signals a commitment to students.”

Community college programs, Slaton said, can “firewall” themselves from baccalaureate training to the disadvantage of their students.

“Obama has so famously made these verbal commitments to community colleges and said that we need a high-tech workforce,” Slaton said. “When I look back at the role of sub-baccalaureate education in the 40s, 50s and 60s, some of these same claims were being made — that community colleges were going to be gateways out of unemployment or underemployment. I see the same pattern now in that they don’t change the patterns we already have. Programs such as Greenfield’s are rare partially because they just wouldn’t be the normal way of thinking [about] what skills we need in this economy.”

Robert Pura, Greenfield president, perceives the curricular shift within his college’s engineering program differently. He simply credits the faculty for being engaged with the workforce needs of their community.

“We really want to identify the community’s needs and be flexible to think about the short term as well as the long term on behalf of our students,” Pura said. “There are folks who get laid off who really want to get a job quickly. We have to be there to think through those comments as well as give them a long-term strategy. To not think long-term is to undermine development and the best interest of our students and community. Non-credit and credit can sit side by side in one classroom, and the needs of a student in the short term are not at odds with investment in the long term. But certainly it is in the best interest of our nation and our democracy to elevate the aspirations of all in our society.”

 

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