Creating New Pathways for Students into STEM

Note: My blog = my viewpoints and opinions, not necessarily those of my employer.

One key issue preventing broader participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is that our nation’s two-year and four-year institutions are, relative to each other, respectively oversubscribed and underutilized along certain demographic groups. For example, there is a robust system of community colleges in the Los Angeles area that serve approximately half a million students annually, most of whom are Hispanic/Latin@. Compare that to the 6,000 students at the consortium of colleges and universities where I currently work and where students of color are underrepresented.

Many two-year institutions are Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and many of their students are the first in their families to go to college. Unfortunately, because the demand for STEM courses is so great and counselors have enormous case loads, the time to transfer to a local state school can be very long. I spoke to a colleague at a local community college who told me that the average time for students at his institution to transfer to a California State University or University of California is about 6 years! This long time to transfer is one of the most important reasons why the rate of successful transfer is low. And, this long time also affects student engagement and confidence in their ability to transfer and complete a four-year degree in STEM.

Across the U.S., most highly-selective four-year colleges and universities typically don’t accept many transfer students because (1) specialized core curricula at these schools make it difficult to transfer in community college coursework and (2) they have not equipped themselves with the capacity to work with students with different lived experiences than their majority populations. (Don’t forget that these institutions are typically PWIs–predominantly White institutions.) Yet, many of these community college students could thrive in these kinds of four-year institutions because of their talent and resilience.

I teach at one of these highly-selective four-year institutions, Harvey Mudd College (HMC). It’s a STEM-focused liberal arts college with a highly specialized common core curriculum consisting of courses in mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and engineering. Though we’ve has made great strides in diversifying our student body over the last decade, particularly in reaching gender parity, we still have a long way to go. African-American students make up only 5% of the student body, and Hispanic/Latin@ students roughly 20%. Both of the points in the previous paragraph apply to us. Because of our common core curriculum, it is very difficult for students to transfer in from two-year institutions. We typically get one or two students that transfer to HMC from other selective four-year institutions each year–that’s it. And, we still have lots of work to make HMC a place that is welcoming and inclusive for everyone.

In this post, I’d like to propose an idea for increasing the number of historically underrepresented students successfully completing STEM degrees. This idea takes advantage of the fact that in many metropolitan areas of the United States, oversubscribed two-year institutions and underutilized selective four-year institutions are often in close proximity to each other.

Idea: Create alternative pathways for STEM-interested students at two-year colleges to selective four-year institutions to transfer in as accelerated first-year students instead of as third-year students, which is the more typical pathway. This alternative pathway will result in (1) higher rates of successful degree completion, (2) faster time to degree completion, and (3) lower overall cost to students.

First, let me be absolutely clear that I do not propose this plan because I think that four-year institutions are innately better at two-year institutions at preparing students for STEM careers. I need to own my four-year-college privilege here. Yes, it is probably true that on average four-year institutions have more resources than nearby two-year institutions, but I am not making any claims about the quality of STEM teaching and learning at two-year institutions. I know plenty of extremely dedicated and talented faculty at two-year institutions who would teach circles around us privileged four-year college people. The argument that I am making here has to do with capacity, not quality.

For this idea to work, like-minded two-year and four-year institutions would need to get together to work out an articulation agreement: a sequence of courses at the two-year institution that would help students prepare for admission to the corresponding four-year institution. Students with an interest in STEM and in being at a four-year institution would be advised early on to enter in this track of courses. The four-year institution would agree to mentor and work with these students to prepare them to apply to their institution, but also to other similar four-year institutions. The four-year institution would also commit to giving generous financial aid packages to students with financial need.

Other bells and whistles to make this plan more compelling: (1) early research experiences, (2) mentoring and community, (3) cross-enrollment at the four-year institution.

(1) Imagine that this two-year sequence of courses also includes, at the end of the first year, a paid summer research experience at the four-year institution. There is lots of research that early research experiences in STEM have all kinds of benefits for students, including increased likelihood of graduation, attainment of an advanced degree, etc. In addition, this arrangement would allow faculty from the four-year institution to get to know students in this accelerated transfer pathway. And the students in this accelerated transfer pathway get to see what the environment is like at the four-year institution.

(2) There could be all kinds of interesting mentoring and community-building opportunities for students at both institutions. Joint research symposia, travel to the SACNAS annual conference or discipline-specific conferences, and social gatherings would be great ways for students to learn more about each others’ lived experiences. What if students from both institutions form a club to mentor local area high-school students participating in robotics competitions? Or a math club? How cool would that be?

(3) If the two-year and four-year institutions are close to each other, it might also be possible for students in the accelerated pathway to take courses at the four-year institution. This is especially helpful if there are certain courses that the two-year institution doesn’t offer that the four-year institution does. (For example, computer science is a booming area right now and there is great demand for those courses.) If a student eventually transfers to the four-year institution, then that student wouldn’t need to take that course and can accelerate on to more advanced courses. And again, this cross-enrollment strategy is another opportunity for the two groups of people to get to know each other.

If at the end of this accelerated transfer program a student decides she isn’t interested in going to a highly-selected four-year institution, she could still continue at the two-year institution so as to transfer as a junior to a larger state school.

I’m not suggesting that all or even most STEM-interested students at two-year institutions should transfer to highly-selective four-year institutions as first-year students. I am merely advocating for there to be more options and opportunities made available to them. Most students at two-year institutions aren’t even aware of the opportunities that exist at highly-selective four-year institutions. Cost of attendance is often misunderstood to be deal-breaker, whereas the reality is that many schools are competing with themselves over a relatively small pool of talented students of color who are interested in applying to them. And, there are lots of schools that have the means to offer generous financial aid packages.

This accelerated transfer pathway idea address the problem of “scale up” in two ways. First, the idea is relatively easy to replicate because there are many other selective four-year institutions around the U.S. that are underutilized relative to nearby two-year institutions. The resources that are required to keep this pathway operating are relatively modest. The financial aid resources required is another thing, but I’ll get to that later. Second, it is much easier for four-year institutions to forge alliances with surrounding two-year institutions than with high schools because of the sheer number of high schools and the fact that high school counselors and administrators turn over more quickly.

Finally, another important feature of this idea is that it would truly increase the number of students of color and first-generation students into STEM disciplines rather than poach them from one program to another program. Other efforts focused on reaching talented students in high schools through summer programs and the like are important but in many cases attempt to reach students already considering attending four-year institutions directly after high school. In contrast, many community college students don’t think of transferring to these kinds of institutions. So, this program could truly broaden participation.

To get this to grow organically, a two-year and four-year institution would start the program on a small scale. If it goes well, then they could create a network of schools in that area who would cooperate together. They would need careful and systematic program evaluation to identify whether the program is working, what specific pieces of the program make it work well, and what could be improved. Over time, these institutions would share their work with others and help them start similar programs around the country.

One fly in the ointment is that if this were truly to scale up, highly-selective four-year institutions would need to translate their desires for greater diversity and inclusion into cold hard cash–financial aid cash. Many colleges and universities, HMC included, need to do a better job of increasing the number of low-income students that they admit. I think there is a growing collective will to do this. Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast has been highlighting the issue of money in higher education in episodes 4, 5, 6. And here’s a great article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how some schools are trying to increase the economic diversity of their student bodies.

If you know of other institutions already doing things like this, I’d really like to hear about it. Please let me know your comments too. Would this work in your area or for your institution? And, if you’re with granting agency (like the NSF), I’d love to know if this sounds like a fundable idea.


2 thoughts on “Creating New Pathways for Students into STEM

  1. I absolutely agree with the underlying premise of this post, in that community college students represent an underserved population, and are not encouraged or supported nearly enough in pursuing STEM careers at not only the undergraduate, but also the graduate level. In my field (physics/astronomy), there are a few initiatives working at this issues in various ways that have some overlap with what you describe here. In the LA area, faculty at Cal Poly Pomona run the CalBridge program (, which gives scholarship support for the final two years of undergrad, funding for the first year of grad school at a UC, and a wide range of mentoring, professional development, and academic support in that time. The program works both with community college students looking to transfer and students at CSUs. At my institution (University of Maryland), I help run a program that is at a more grassroots level; it’s called GRAD-MAP (, and we, among other things, bring students in their first and second years to UMD for a Winter Workshop to get a taste of research and life at an R1 (for better or for worse). We also have a summer program for alums of that workshop; three of the four students this summer were community college students. We’ve also got an S-STEM program that, like CalBridge, supports the last two years of undergrad as a form of retention, and it gives students research experiences and mentoring along the way. A large fraction of the S-STEM program are CC transfers (including two that came out of GRAD-MAP’s program). Texas A&M Commerce has an REU program specifically for community college students: There are also several undergrad-to-grad bridge programs )Fisk-Vanderbilt:, APS bridge program, Princeton Bridge program, Volumbia bridge program) that are doing this kind of program for the next transition stage. I know there are some other programs, but hopefully that’s enough to get you started seeing what others are doing and look for potential collaborators.

    I would like to give you a few thoughts to ponder. First, you’ve identified a definite problem in the transfer time to a four year degree (six years! That’s terrible!). However, in my experience, students are in community colleges because those institutions work for them, where they are at right now (e.g. class schedules are amenable to working/families, cost is much lower, location is accessible, etc). I’m not so sure that pulling them out of that structure early is actually helpful for those students. The way you’ve framed it here, it sounds like (though this may not be your actual opinion; regardless, it is one commonly held), you think that students are in a community college because they couldn’t get in to a four year institution, which is a common, but misguided and often harmful assumption (particularly when it comes from professors). This leads to my second concern, which is that faculty at four year institutions are known to exhibit bias (and far worse behaviors) toward minoritized students; tie that in with the above stated assumptions about community college students, and you have a recipe for a hostile climate, which does the opposite of what you’re hoping. I do not believe that acknowledging that your faculty are not prepared, but assuming that the students’ “talent and resilience” will get them through, is an appropriate approach. It’s condescending to the student, and it’s not holding the faculty accountable for creating an inclusive climate. Changing the climate and educating your faculty about bias, appropriate behavior, working with minoritized students, and systemic racism must go hand in hand with any approach.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and links to other programs. I will go through them more carefully. I think that there has been more effort so far been given to the “critical transition” between undergraduate and graduate studies and not as much toward the transition between 2-year and 4-year institutions. Part of that might just be scale differences.

      Also, I appreciate your two comments very much and agree with you wholeheartedly. On the first point, I agree that this accelerated transfer idea won’t work for everyone, and I’m not suggesting that it should. There will be lots of STEM-interested students at 2-year institutions who don’t want to go to a highly-selective 4-year institution for lots of reasons. One that you didn’t mention is that they might have a supportive network of friends, faculty, and staff who are looking out for them that they don’t want to leave. But, I’m still hoping that we can help some make the transition. Cost is an issue and the four-year institution must be prepared to offer a generous financial aid package (perhaps without the expectation of work-study?) and to have a supportive network of professionals in place.

      I also agree fully with your second point. It is irresponsible to admit “diverse” students but not be ready to support them fully. That is basically setting students up for failure and perpetuating narratives of deficit for marginalized students. The reality is that many highly-selective four-year institutions are predominantly White institutions (as is mine). They need to make their teaching practices, policies, curricula, campus climate more welcoming and inclusive. Ideally this would be done before trying to admit a more broadly representative student body, but often, because of the privilege of being in the dominant group, you don’t even see the issues that are around you until others who have different life experiences point them out. But, I am optimistic that many schools are thinking hard about these issues and that we are making progress. So yes, let us not make believe that if we just admit them, the story ends happily ever after.

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