Universities are turning to community colleges in the search for potential STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students who are black, Hispanic or female, reports Inside Higher Ed.
Using a $2.6 million Gates Foundation grant, the University of Maryland Baltimore County will pilot a national model for increasing the number of community college students who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. The City Colleges of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago wil use a Kresge Foundation grant to help minority males transfer and earn STEM bachelor’s degrees. Mount Holyoke College is helping female community college students earn a STEM bachelor’s, with a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Transfer students in STEM fields face the same problems any community college transfer might face: courses that don’t line up, credits that don’t transfer, trouble adjusting to the class size or format, a lack of a community feeling. Those problems, however, are often more acute for STEM students. After all, 500-person lecture classes are more common in science departments, and requirements are often more stringent in those fields, too; an engineering student who takes the wrong class in his first year at community college will likely have a harder time finishing a bachelor of science degree in four years than an English student would have with a bachelor of arts.
Becky Wai-Ling Packard, a professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke, interviewed 30 Massachusetts community college students in STEM fields before and after they transferred to a four-year institution. Twenty-six transferred and 22 persisted in STEM majors after the first semester.
Most of the students reported positive feelings about their community college experiences, citing inspiring professors, peer support, and helpful advising as reasons for their success. Once the students got to their four-year colleges, however, sentiment turned negative. Most students reported struggling in at least one course, and said that compared to their community college courses, the four-year classes often moved at a faster pace, were more difficult, and provided less support. The content in the courses didn’t always line up, either. One student said she had taken the first semester of organic chemistry at her community college, but the second semester course at her four-year college assumed knowledge of things she hadn’t learned, so even though she had earned credit for the first semester of organic chemistry, she ended up having to take it over again.
Mount Holyoke’s STEM transfer initiative provides scholarships, advising and mentoring to help transfers complete a STEM degree. Students meet with science faculty members regularly and go through a special orientation.