College Planning & Management

DEC 2012

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Recruit & Retain ECK ERD COLLEGE Transfer Students in STEM Student retention is key to increasing the number of STEM professionals. BY L AUR A W ETZEL T HEREÕS ENORMOUS ROOM for improvement when it comes to broadening the pathways to a fouryear degree for students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). And there's evidence we need to dig deeper to support the need for such students in the U.S. workforce. According to a report entitled, "Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates With Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," issued earlier this year by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the U.S. must produce about one million more STEM professionals than are already in the pipeline. To do so, we will need to increase the number of students who receive STEM degrees by about 34 percent annually. The report says the most cost-effective way to accomplish this is to retain students who begin their college careers in STEM disciplines, avoiding the melt that often occurs when calculus, organic chemistry, and physics take their toll. A key audience to consider in these efforts is transfer students. A National Student Clearinghouse report reveals that 45 percent of all students who finished a four-year degree in 2010-11 had previously enrolled at a two-year college. In Florida, 55 percent of degree completers at four-year institutions got their start in community college. In STEM fields, the number of students transferring from twoyear to four-year colleges and universities is small relative to the demand for a greater number — and more diverse membership — of scientists, technicians, and engineers. To increase the flow of STEM students from two-year to four-year institutions, we need to remove financial, academic, and cultural barriers to degree completion and provide better support networks for transferring students. Potential STEM students, aware of the cost of a college education, see public two-year community colleges as an economically manageable first step toward a Bachelor of Science. But, as they complete their two-year degrees and begin the transfer process, many find four-year colleges to be significantly more expensive. Further, their opportunity to find time for employment is limited because rigorous upper-level science courses demand more time than introductory coursework. Too few colleges offer scholarships or other forms of substantial financial assistance to transfer students. Here at Eckerd College, a liberal arts and science college serving about 1,850 residential students, we've developed the Quantitative Excellence in Science 14 COLLEGE PLANNING & MANAGEMENT / DECEMBER 2012 and Technology (QuEST) Scholars program. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the program — now in its first year — offers seven scholarships of up to $8,000 to transfer students for up to three years to study science, technology, engineering, or math. Over the first three years of the grant, we will provide scholarships for 21 students — roughly a third of Eckerd's newly enrolled STEM transfer students. Once they're on campus, we need strategies to increase their success. The attrition from STEM majors is quite high for transfer students. On average, only about 40 percent of the students who transfer to Eckerd as science majors graduate with a STEM major after three years. Because the strongest predictor of students' leaving a science major for a non-science major at Eckerd is their level of math competency, we're beefing up academic support via a peer-tutoring program to help all students who are struggling with quantitative courses. In addition to financial and academic challenges, acclimation to a new institution can be difficult for transfer students. A new college means adjustments to the size, location, or academic expectations of the campus, complications with admissions and registration processes, financial aid issues and changes in faculty-student interaction, classroom performances, and academic advising. Four-year colleges can help their STEM transfer students by providing assistance through the admissions and registration processes, offering opportunities to participate in undergraduate research, and providing effective mentoring and academic advising. For example, in addition to the peer-tutoring program, Eckerd is developing a peer mentoring program, matching new transfers with current students in STEM majors to help them acclimate to their new college environment and address challenges or concerns beyond academics, inside and outside the classroom. Our program was inspired by the National Science Foundation's Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) initiative. The agency's commitment to funding programs that provide scholarships and academic support to STEM students is a great step, but only the first of many that will be required to significantly impact our nation's need for scientists. More agencies, foundations, colleges, and universities should follow the NSF's lead by recognizing the value of STEM transfer students and ensuring their success. CPM Laura Wetzel, Ph.D., is professor of marine science and geosciences at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL. WWW.PLANNING 4EDUCATION.COM

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