College costs continue to rise. Many students see community college as a way to start earning their degrees while avoiding significant debt. Almost 40% of undergraduates in the United States attend a public two-year college (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Among recent STEM baccalaureate degree earners, more than half indicated having done some community college coursework (National Science Foundation, 2020). In 2017, 43% of Hispanic and black undergraduate students and 36% of undergraduate women were enrolled in a community college (U.S. Department of Education, 2018).
Research indicates that more than 80% of first-time community college students intend to transfer to a university to complete their baccalaureate degrees, but only 33% successfully do so (Horn and Skomsvold, 2011; Jenkins and Fink, 2016). However, more than 65% of students who transfer in engineering do successfully complete an engineering baccalaureate degree (Burke and Mattis, 2007). If we can better support students before and through transfer, there is a real opportunity to significantly increase the diversity of engineering graduates.
A refresh on SWE’s prior research
In 2017, SWE released its first research report on community college transfers in engineering and computer science (ECS). We wanted to increase our understanding of the issues that women and other underrepresented students face on the community college path toward an ECS bachelor’s degree. To start, we launched an exploratory study of existing education data in Texas, looking at the rates of degree completion of more than 350,000 transfer students from the 2002-03 academic year through the 2011-12 academic year.
By analyzing enrollment data, major selection, and student demographics from 60 two-year colleges and 25 four-year universities, we were able to gain a better understanding of the success of first-time-in-college degree-seeking students who began their ECS studies at two-year colleges, broken down by gender and race.
Three findings in particular were compelling. First, in any given year, tens of thousands of students in Texas transfer from two-year to four-year institutions. And, while more women than men transfer overall, less than 2% of female transfer students major in ECS compared with 11% of male transfer students. In head count, this equates to fewer than 4,000 women out of the more than 240,000 who transferred from two-year to four-year colleges and declared majors in ECS over the 10-year period of our study.
Second, women are switching out of ECS and earning non-ECS baccalaureate degrees at higher rates than men. Persistence and completion rates of ECS students were lowest among black and Hispanic students, regardless of gender. Across the 60 community colleges in Texas, half of them saw more than 38% of their female students and 28% of their male students switch out of ECS to non-ECS majors (1). Seven community colleges saw more than 50% of their female students switch out of ECS majors. This rate of major switching was not seen for men at any of the community colleges in our study.
Third, community college transfer students majoring in ECS have similar degree-completion rates as students who begin their educations at four-year institutions (2). Completion rates among ECS transfer students in our study exceeded 60% for men and 50% for women for the 2005/06 cohort. This aligns with prior research on the success of transfer students in STEM.
The current study
The findings from our prior research left us with numerous questions. Given the success of students in completing ECS degrees after transfer, coupled with the diversity of the community college population and the high number of women choosing to begin their educations at two-year institutions, a greater understanding of why women on the transfer pathway in ECS are leaving these majors could help increase diversity in the engineering and computer science workforce. For SWE in particular, if we can better understand the obstacles and challenges these women are experiencing, we can develop better programs and services to support them along this pathway.
In partnership with the University of Washington’s Center for Evaluation and Research for STEM Equity, SWE developed a mixed-methods study of community college students in engineering and computer science. Building on our prior work, we sought to understand why women on the community college transfer pathway are choosing to leave ECS, and what can be done to increase women’s persistence.
Methodology. For this mixed-methods study, we developed a survey to capture information on students’ self-efficacy, motivations, and confidence in ECS(3). Survey data were collected from 414 students at three community colleges in Texas. Table 1 shows select demographic characteristics of survey respondents. The age range of respondents was between 18 and 58 years old, with a mean age of 25 years; 64% worked while going to school; 69% were full-time students; and 39% were the first in their family to attend college (first-generation students).
Scores were calculated and normalized, and the means were compared across gender and race/ethnicity groups using independent sample t-tests. Students also provided information on their educational histories, current areas of study, and intentions to pursue baccalaureate degrees and careers in ECS. Chi-squared tests and logistic regression were performed to analyze intentions, motivation, inclusion, and efficacy measures.
To allow for a deeper understanding of women’s experiences on the transfer pathway, we conducted eight qualitative interviews with women recruited from the pool of survey respondents. Students who participated in the interviews were slightly older than survey participants and were more likely to be from racial/ethnic minority groups due to intentional recruitment efforts. Particular attention was made during the interviews to students’ reflections on the supports received and the barriers faced as they pursued their educational goals in ECS majors. We also interviewed four community college faculty members to gain their perspectives on the institutional supports and barriers that impact ECS students’ experiences at their colleges.
Among survey respondents, women were more likely than men to pursue or express interest in civil and biomedical engineering, or to be undecided about their engineering specializations. Men were more likely to express interest in mechanical or electrical engineering.
Results. The results from our study are categorized under major areas of focus. The reported results are from our survey data, with quotes included to provide examples of experiences shared during the interviews. Interesting findings emerged from our research, but what surprised us most was how little difference we saw between demographic characteristics of gender and race/ethnicity on some of the measures.
Motivation, confidence, and self-efficacy. Our study suggests that men and women have similar motivations for studying ECS, with survey respondents indicating they were most motivated by intrinsic behavioral and psychological factors such as liking to build things and finding engineering fun and interesting. Students reported a high degree of motivation from a desire to do social good, or believing that technology and engineering skills contribute to the good of society, and women in our study were more inclined to express social good as motivation than men. There were no statistically significant differences by race/ethnicity or gender in financial, mentor, or parental motivations, and the latter two ranked lowest among motivational factors for pursuing an ECS degree.
However, we did see some associations between demographic characteristics and confidence in skills related to careers in ECS. In line with prior research, our survey findings show that men are more confident in their math and science skills than women (Figure 1). Research indicates that confidence rather than ability in math contributes to higher rates of women’s attrition from STEM, even when their performance is equal or superior to their male counterparts (Ellis, et al., 2016).
Students who were older tended to be more confident in professional and interpersonal skills. Age was also associated with greater confidence in solving open-ended problems.
Inclusion. Contrary to previous research on gender inequity in engineering, we observed no differences in sense of inclusion in engineering when we considered gender and race/ethnicity of survey respondents. Students reported that they relate to their classmates and that they have a lot in common with other students. However, women we interviewed commented that the lack of women in ECS classes and professions can sometimes make them doubt whether they belong in the field.
“I know that femininity and engineering [have] no correlation, but it does make me feel like, because I stand out, maybe I don’t belong.”
About half of interviewees mentioned the lack of women in engineering and the need for more women engineers.
Some interview respondents indicated that it was not so much their gender, race, or ethnicity that set them apart from their peers. Rather, they felt that their age was more of an issue to their sense of inclusion. Some respondents explained that their busy schedules prevented them from interacting much with their peers socially. However, overall there was a sense that the drive to complete an engineering degree was a quality shared by those we interviewed and their classmates.
Involvement in academic, extracurricular, and professional activities. Research shows that students in STEM are more likely to persist when they engage in activities such as studying with others and involvement in academic clubs and organizations, particularly those from underrepresented groups in STEM (Chang et al., 2014). While the majority of survey respondents indicated that they participated in study groups, they were less involved in academic clubs and organizations. Outside of academic activities, 66% of women and 57% of men said they occasionally or frequently participated in extracurricular activities such as hobbies, civic or church organizations, campus publications, student government, or sports.
Several women we interviewed mentioned the difficulty of fitting extracurriculars into their busy schedules, but they saw them as beneficial academically, socially, and professionally. Those who were involved in clubs or activities outside of their coursework indicated they felt that these activities helped them develop leadership skills and build networks, and provided academic and social support as well.
Faculty members we spoke to also indicated that clubs at their colleges often struggled to maintain active membership and leadership.
“ … there is a pretty good percentage of community college students who are here part-time, … they are married, have families, have jobs, things of that sort. Getting them involved in college activities becomes a little bit more difficult because they have other things to do outside of classrooms and exams and their college life.”
Many of the women we interviewed discussed the benefits of joining a professional engineering organization, though few of them had such an affiliation themselves. They noted that professional organizations can be a great source for information, networking, and career opportunities. However, mentorship was an important piece missing from several students’ experiences, and this could be a gap that such organizations can fill for the next generation of engineers.
Institutional factors influencing persistence in engineering and computer science. A number of institutional supports were mentioned as important factors in helping students as they progressed with their studies, including partnership programs, college centers, faculty support, and advising.
Partnership programs provide meaningful opportunities for those interested in transferring to complete their bachelor’s degrees (4). There is evidence that community college transfer retention is higher for students who have participated in partnership programs that offer coordinated academic advising, peer mentoring, and networking opportunities (Laugerman et al., 2013; Jain et al., 2011; McPhail, 2015).
During our interviews, students discussed specific centralized resources for STEM students within their colleges. For example, one student said that she relied on the mathematics, engineering, and science center on her campus for tutoring, computer access, and connecting with a community of peers. Other students relied on the veterans’ office or international students’ office to receive advising and get connected with other resources. Three-quarters of those we interviewed discussed utilizing tutoring resources on-campus.
We were also interested in the role that faculty and advisors played in women’s experiences prior to transfer. Among our survey respondents, women were more likely to report interacting with faculty in class, but men were more likely to interact with faculty outside of class. Women were more likely than men to report frequently or occasionally interacting with instructors during office hours, and more likely to report never interacting with instructors outside of class or office hours (Figure 2).
When asked about their comfort level with asking questions during class, some students shared negative experiences that have made it less comfortable for them to do so. One student said that in response to a question she had asked, the instructor told her, “This is a piece of cake,” in front of the whole class. While she indicated that such responses could make some of her peers less inclined to ask questions out of fear of “looking stupid,” she also stated that she “would rather look stupid and get an A than not ask and get a C.”
Quality academic advising can have a positive impact on student retention and satisfaction, but inadequate advising can factor into students’ decisions to switch out of STEM majors (Tsui, 2007 and Blash et al., 2012). In our study, survey responses were divided on the level of satisfaction students experienced with advising at their colleges. Women reported higher levels of dissatisfaction with academic advising than men, and both men and women expressed higher satisfaction about the quality of advising from instructors than from academic advisors (Figure 3). Most students we spoke with had relatively negative impressions of their college advisors.
“[Advisors] never put themselves in the student’s shoes. So the explanation is really uncaring, I guess? It’s not like they are, you know, being mean to us or anything. But they don’t understand us at all.”
Of particular concern were issues that arose regarding incorrect information about transfer requirements from college advisors. One student expressed her frustration, saying that what she has been told “just hasn’t turned out to be true a lot of the time.”
Additional factors influencing persistence in engineering and computer science. Students expressed challenges they have experienced due to financial barriers, academic preparation, and lack of family support that they felt could have a negative impact on their progress toward an ECS degree. When asked what issues might cause them to withdraw from class or college, top responses from women in our survey were lack of finances, working full time, and being academically unprepared. This compares to men’s top responses of lack of finances, caring for dependents, and working full time.
Finances play an important role in students’ decisions to enroll in two-year institutions. Educational costs vary depending on the program a student selects, with courses in engineering and science being more expensive than those in the humanities and social sciences (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2016). Most interview respondents in our study discussed the financial challenges they faced and the necessity of working while in school. For these students, financial strain was their primary reason for attending community college rather than starting at four-year universities.
Students also mentioned during the interviews some of the family commitments that limit the time they can devote to their studies. A couple of students mentioned certain health issues they faced that affected their attendance and finances, while others noted the impact partners and children have had on their educational trajectories.
Some students expressed concerns related to their academic preparation for college coursework, noting that their high school lacked resources for certain advanced coursework that many other schools are able to provide. Older students mentioned a fear of having lost some fundamental math skills due to the amount of time that had passed since high school. Still others mentioned nervousness about their levels of academic preparation prior to transferring to a university to complete their degrees.
While the students we interviewed indicated that their families were generally supportive of their pursuits of ECS degrees, faculty we spoke with noted instances of students expressing a lack of support from their families, particularly among first-generation students. For many, they had no one in their families who had attended college, much less pursued a degree in a math-and-science-intensive program. For others, it stemmed from the gendered stereotypes of appropriate careers for women.
“I’ve had women come in and tell me that, you know, ‘My parents won’t pay for me to study engineering because it’s just not an appropriate occupation for a woman. It’s okay for my brother, but it’s not okay for me.’”
We conducted this study to gain a better understanding of the challenges and barriers facing women on the transfer pathway in their pursuits of ECS baccalaureate degrees. Based on the findings from our first study of ECS transfer success in Texas, we expected to find gendered differences that would lead us to clear recommendations to improve women’s retention in these programs. Instead, we discovered that all genders face similar challenges on this pathway, and only a few of these challenges are felt more strongly by women. In some cases, our observations aligned with prior research, while others were unexpected.
The following recommendations could help better support women on the transfer pathway in ECS, but our findings indicate that all genders would benefit from many of these improvements.
• Improve advising for transfer students. Students in our study reported feeling uncertain about the help they received from their college advisors. Faculty we spoke with expressed an expectation that students should be proactive in reaching out to the transfer institution for information about courses they should take at the community college. While a number of students indicated they were able to find the help that they needed, it is those students who are unsure how to navigate the college environment, and who are in most need of guidance, who may be falling through the cracks.
• Provide more financial support. For many students, cost is the primary reason for beginning their baccalaureate degrees at a community college. Some students in our study spoke of the impact working full time while taking classes had on their ability to make time for school-related activities, including enrolling full time. Scholarships and other forms of financial support could help give students more time to focus on their ECS studies. Paid internships and other forms of employment that expose students to hands-on engineering projects while also providing monetary support as they pursue their educations could help retain students in ECS programs.
• Provide more information about career pathways. More than half of the students in our study expressed limited or no knowledge about the engineering profession prior to entering college. Students we interviewed reported that learning more about the range of opportunities available within engineering would help them narrow their choices of major and develop plans for their futures. Fostering connections with professional engineers could be very valuable for women in community college by exposing them to the different career paths and opportunities available to them if they complete their ECS degrees.
• Strengthen interpersonal relationships, networking, and mentorship. Students stated that they knew involvement in extracurricular activities could benefit them academically, socially, and professionally. While a number of students we interviewed said they were interested in joining professional societies, few were members of such organizations. Events that allow women engineers to talk about their jobs or interact with university students who have successfully transferred into ECS majors from a community college could help foster relationships with students at universities to which they are considering transferring as well as build their support and professional networks.
• Focus on boosting confidence. Aligning with prior research, women in our survey tended to be less confident in math and science than men. Research suggests that interventions such as providing opportunities for undergraduate research and connecting women with same-gender STEM experts can counteract stereotypes and increase confidence of women (Russell et al., 2007; Stout et al., 2011). Increasing women’s confidence can have a measurable impact on both performance and persistence in STEM.
Additional findings from this study can be found in the full research report, Diversifying STEM: Increasing Women’s Persistence on the Transfer Pathway in Engineering and Computer Science. To download a copy of the report, visit https://research.swe.org/. This research was made possible by the generous support of the Society of Women Engineers’ Corporate Partnership Council and the Northrop Grumman Foundation.
1. Major switching was assigned to the institution where the student first declared an ECS major, though the student may have switched majors after transfer.
2. Time-to-degree was not considered, as long as the student received a bachelor’s degree before the 2011-12 academic year (the last year of available data).
3. Previously validated measures from the Longitudinal Assessment of Engineering Self-Efficacy (LAESE) and the Academic Pathways of People Learning Engineering (APPLES2) were used to develop survey questions.
4. The Texas Success Center coordinates the Texas Pathways strategy. Information about this program can be found at https://tacc.org/tsc.
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“The Community College Pathway: A Closer Look” was written by Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., Manager of Research, SWE. This article appears in the 2020 State of Women in Engineering issue of SWE Magazine.