Why Do Adult Community College Grads Pursue Engineering?

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The STEM crisis might be debatable, but the White House Office of Science and Technology claims that the US will need one million additional STEM graduates within the next decade to stay competitive. Community colleges are an important resource to tap into in order to meet that goal.

Getting more community college students to pursue four-year STEM degrees would also boost the diversity of the STEM workforce, since these colleges have a history of enrolling underrepresented students.

In a new study, education professors Taryn Allen and Yi Zhang at the University of Texas at Arlington address how to encourage the transfer of adult students from community colleges to four-year engineering institutions.

Community colleges have a large population (more than 40% in 2011) of non-traditional age students 25-plus years old. But not much is known about what drives this unique student population to STEM or how they navigate their educational experience and what barriers they face, Allen says. Understanding these adult learners’ motivations and learning experiences would help campuses tailor their programs to better meet these students’ needs and hence draw and retain them in engineering.

Allen and Zhang conducted one-on-one interviews with 18 adult students who transferred from a community college to engineering programs. Each person was interviewed twice.

Many students choose community colleges after high school or to refocus their careers because of the flexible schedules, low tuition, and because they’re not ready to commit to four-year STEM programs, Zhang says. “What’s unique about them is that they had community college as a lab to test whether or not engineering was for them,” Allen says. “They had good relationships with faculty, were supported and academically challenged. This made it easier to make the decision that engineering was for them.”

The researchers found that a desire to understand how things work and solve problems, as well as the prestige associated with engineering, drives adults to transfer from community colleges to pursue a 4-year engineering degree.

In addition to possessing a personal curiosity for solving problems and the perceived prestige, participants viewed engineering as a constantly growing field that provides higher salary and better job security than almost all the other majors. Plus, says Allen, they believe that as engineers they can go out and really contribute to society.

Yet the bachelors degree experience is very different for these transfer students, and most campuses aren’t prepared for that. “What stood out for me is that they’re very selective about campus activities they participate in, and very strategic about the relationships they build,” Allen says. They have difficulty relating to younger peers, and believe they’re more advanced than their younger peers in terms of social skills because of life experiences. This can leave them isolated and they can miss opportunities to learn and grow.

The duo recommends that institutions facilitate opportunities for adult learners to access information through self-paced activities rather than structured programs. They also recommend that institutions communicate the academic and professional benefits of campus involvement and consider strategies to enable interactions between older adult students and their younger peers.

The study was published in the journal Community College Review.

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