A Hidden Jewel: 3-2 Engineering Degree Programs

My family lives in California where roughly 84 percent of the state’s college-bound students enroll in public colleges and universities here.

With such a strong tradition of students staying put for college, my son Ben wasn’t surprised at the reaction he routinely received this spring when students at his high school in San Diego asked him this question: “Where are you going to college?”

“I’m going to Beloit College,” Ben would say.


It’s a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, Ben would explain.

The puzzled teenagers (or parents) would then ask Ben something like: “Why are you going there?”

Of course answering that question required more effort.

Attending a Liberal Arts College

Most people in this state, where the University of California and California State University systems dominate, don’t know what a liberal arts college is. And how do you explain the virtues of a liberal arts education in sound bites?

Ben already understood what a liberal arts education offers because his sister Caitlin is a senior at Juniata College, which along with Beloit, is one of the liberal arts colleges featured in Loren Pope’s popular book, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way That You Think About Colleges. Caitlin has enjoyed all the perks that a liberal arts college can provide, including small classes, great interactions with professors, internship opportunities and the freedom to explore her academic passions.

Unlike nearly all of his classmates at High Tech High, Ben didn’t apply to a single university, public or private. During last year’s admission season, he only sent his applications to liberal arts colleges.

Discovering 3-2 Engineering Programs

Initially I thought Ben’s possible major—engineering—would prevent him from attending a liberal arts college, which, as the name suggests, focuses on the liberal arts such as history, English, philosophy, as well as the sciences and math. It’s rare to find a liberal arts college that offers engineering; Bucknell University, Lafayette College, and Smith College are exceptions.

In doing some research, however, I discovered the existence of 3-2 engineering programs, which allow students to attend a liberal arts college for three years and obtain a bachelor’s degree in a major like physics or chemistry. The student transfers after three years to an engineering school, such as Washington University in St. Louis, for an additional two years to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Columbia University and Washington University in St. Louis

I wondered how successful these programs were so I contacted the 3-2 coordinators at Washington University and Columbia University when my son was exploring his options. These two universities happen to be popular 3-2 destinations for liberal arts/engineering students. The 3-2 coordinators at both schools raved about the programs and the caliber of the liberal arts students who participate.

The Columbia coordinator called 3-2 programs a “hidden jewel” and her peer at Washington University said if he had to do it over, he’d get his engineering degree through a 3-2 program.

Because the liberal arts students take their prerequisites, including four semesters of math, in small classroom settings, they are well prepared for the rigors of engineering—and sometimes better prepared than those who start at engineering schools where classes are typically much bigger. Employers love the liberal arts/engineering majors since they not only possess the technical skills, but also know how to write papers, make presentations, and think beyond the requirements of an engineer.

Who knows if Ben will end up pursuing engineering, physics, or some other major. That’s the beauty of a liberal arts education. You aren’t boxed into declaring a major before you even step foot on campus and no one is pressuring you to choose before you’ve had time to explore.

Ben has embarked on an amazing journey—one that will require him to wear serious winter clothes for the first time in his life—and I can’t wait to see where it will lead him.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.com and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. My son is also considering Engineering and as we have started to explore colleges i actually thought that there were quite a few liberal arts colleges who were seriously promoting this 3-2 idea. At a recent college fair it seemed that when asked about engineering many of the schools said they offered a 3-2 program, some with guaranteed places to Wash U or Columbia, others where you could apply. Our question was how good are they/how are they viewed in Engineering communty. Vanderbilt has a good article comparing the 3-2, straight engineering and a 4-2 program. Colleges we have found, Butler, Davidson, Carleton, Pomona, and I am sure a bunch of others.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this article. I am a senior in high school looking at colleges right now and I am so glad I found this article. I agree with Paula, it is so hard to find good information about these programs, your article really cleared some of my confusion up.

  3. Lynn,
    I came upon this article on your blog, and was thrilled to read about this subject. My son is seriously considering a 3-2 program. What I wish would be that liberal arts colleges wouldn’t make it so hard to find this info on their websites. And, once found, spell out in greater detail what is expected of a student at the liberal arts school to go on this track. A couple of schools, (I think, Grinnell), does a good job, but most don’t. Keep up the greattttttt work!!!
    Best Regards,
    Paula Roveda