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Minority Engineering Association Urges National Focus on Community College Students

WASHINGTON – A national engineering science group, citing the surge in minority student enrollment in community colleges, says more emphasis should be placed on two-year college students as a key to boosting science, technology, engineering and math degree candidates and graduates.

At a Capitol Hill briefing here Wednesday, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) called on the nation’s higher education community to do more to remove decades-old academic transfer and financial barriers that “impede” the efforts of many community college students to attend and graduate from four-year, degree-granting engineering and related science programs.

Doing so, the group says, would help narrow the gap in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) graduation rates between the United States and other countries. The group noted that the United States, which used to rank No. 1 in such graduation rates, now ranks 10th worldwide behind even small nations like South Korea.

“Here we are in 2010 grappling with some of the same issues,” NACME president Dr. Irving McPhail told a Capitol Hill audience of about 75 invited guests, asserting that outdated and unclear transfer and articulation policies not materially changed over the past 30 years continue to undermine the ability of thousands of students of color to transfer.

“We know community colleges have become an increasingly important step,” McPhail said. “Clearly this is an area of vital concern to the nation.”

NACME found that, as of December 2009, some 45 percent of African-American undergraduates, 53 percent of Latino undergraduates, and 52 percent of Native American undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges. Those numbers make the transfer issue even more important, the report says, as “only a small proportion of the transfer hopefuls actually get the opportunity to transfer.”

The NACME briefing, billed as a discussion on “The New American Dilemma: Our Nation’s Critical Need for Engineers and Scientists,” included academics and students in the sciences, members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers and Obama administration officials. All spoke to the topic, echoing its theme. 

McPhail and several other participants said two- and four-year colleges need to do a better job of retooling and better communicating so-called articulation agreements that clarify the requirements for transferring credits to four–year from two-year institutions.

One academic official, Dr. Fadi P. Deek, a dean at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, suggested that standardizing some courses at two- and four-year schools to take the guesswork out of transferability.

The briefing was also used by NACME, historically focused on science and engineering students in four-year colleges, to release a new report buttressing its case for expanding its reach in recent years to embrace community colleges and its general call for more attention to them.

The report, “2010 Community College Transfer Study,” shows that NACME Scholars (there are more than 1,000 nationwide) who are community college transfers have a higher retention-to-graduation rate than those who are traditional four-year NACME Scholars. The transfer students also had slightly better grades than traditional-route NACME Scholars, although both groups had grade point averages in excess of 3.0.

The report called on the federal government and states to “mandate” that community colleges implement services for students who are considering transferring to four-year schools in STEM areas. In trying to determine the reasons for the differences, students interviewed for the NACME study say their community college experience prepared them for their four-year engineering degree work.  

In addition to calling for more simplified transfer policies between community colleges and four-year institutions, the NACME study also called for more studies. The study said “it would be beneficial to get a more in-depth look” at community college transfer students to see which programs are influencing them to stay and which are benefiting them the most. It also called on educators to identify “best practices” that could be shared with other engineering schools that are trying to boost their transfer student numbers.

NACME, which is backed by many of the nation’s major names in science and engineering, has awarded thousands of dollars each year to four-year students pursuing studies in the STEM fields. On the community college level, for the 2009-10 school year, it says it awarded nearly $176,000 in scholarships to students with an associate’s degree in engineering science transferring to four-year schools from a community college. Since its founding, NACME says it has supported more than 22,000 students with more than $144 million in scholarships and other support. 

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