Engineering Majors: A Road Less Traveled

I’ve been a great admirer of liberal arts colleges for years. Students who  attend these colleges enjoy small classes, get to know their professors, and, per capita, they tend to go on to graduate schools in greater numbers.

My son has watched his sister thrive at her liberal arts college which prompted him to say that he’d like to attend one too. This request, however, posed one huge problem:  He hopes to be an engineer.

There are very few liberal arts colleges that offer a engineering major, which made me wonder about the effectiveness of so called 3-2 engineering programs. Here’s how they work:  You attend a liberal arts college for three years and then you transfer to an engineering school for two more years. At the end of the 5th year, the student receives a liberal arts degree and an engineering degree.

Many liberal arts colleges across the country offer these 3-2 degree programs. These colleges often align with the engineering schools at Columbia University in New York and Washington University in St. Louis. Some of the other schools that participate include Penn State, Case Western Reserve, Cal Tech and Duke.

I wondered, however, if these 3-2 programs really work. Do many future engineers participate in them? And, more importantly, do the colleges adequately prepare students for the rigors of engineering school in the fourth and fifth year of school? 

What I found out when I talked with the assistant dean of the engineering program at Washington University was extremely encouraging.  (He didn’t want his name used because he said he is leaving the program after eight years and someone will be taking his place.)

The engineer was positively ebullient in his praise of the liberal arts students who end up at Washington University’s engineering program.  He said some of the best engineering students at his school are the liberal arts transfers.  He said the liberal arts majors are mature, they actually finish the engineering program–unlike some of Wash U.’s own students  who transfer out — and they get great jobs. He said employers are very eager to hire engineers with the extra  liberal arts degree. “It’s almost too good to be true,” he gushed.

He attributes the success of the transfer students to the more personalized attention at their smaller liberal arts schools, which can provide the nurturing some kids need to get through rigorous math and science classes. A student at a liberal arts college is more likely to receive help as opposed to a student at a university where there could be hundreds in a calculus class.

He has been so pleased with the success of the 3-2 program that he said if he could get his engineering degree over again, he would start at a liberal arts school.

He said there should be no mystery about who is accepted for the program. Washington University posts the requirements on its web sites. For instance, a student needs to have taken three calculus courses, two semesters of calculus-based physics, two semesters of chemistry, etc. The school requires a 3.25 GPA, but some schools don’t require a GPA this high. He believes Columbia only requires a 3.0 GPA. If a student meets all the posted requirements, he or she is accepted to the program.

Washington U. does provide financial aid and some merit aid to students, but there are no guarantees. The packages that students receive may be better or worse than the ones that they obtained at their liberal arts colleges.

This approach won’t be the right fit for all would-be engineers, but it’s definitely worth considering. Especially since the wash out rate for engineering students who choose the traditional route is so high.

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  1. I am an engineering major at Mizzou, and it is true at larger universities you people do not hunt you down to help you, but if I ever needed help there were many places I could go to. The format of my calculus 1 class had a lecture of around 500 people in it, and then a recitation where a grad student TA went over what was taught in lecture the day before, in a class of 30 people. So I was in a large class but also had a smaller section. Plus I lived in the engineering dorm and most of my neighbors had the same classes that I did, and if I ever did have a question I could ask one of them and in my opinion they were more helpful than the TA’s, but i never needed the extra help and never visited the TA’s during the office hours. I thought about doing the liberal arts college and transferring path but like Johnny’s son I did not want to start anew with all new people. My first year I met a lot of new people and had a great time but I think that it would be harder to do a second time when I am 3 years older than everyone else.

  2. My son thought about this option but decided against it because of the social ramifications – having to leave the college and friends midstream and start new. For some this may not be a big deal, but for his it was.