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College Admissions

3-2 Dual Degree Engineering/Liberal Arts Programs

Some students love learning how things work and think they might like an engineering career, but they also enjoy studying pure science and maybe even discussing philosophy or literature. Other students know they want to study engineering but also crave the close community of a small college. While there are some liberal arts colleges, like Swathmore, where students can major in engineering while also having a traditional liberal arts college experience, the tradeoff is that the engineering major is a more general program. Students who want to specialize in mechanical, electrical, chemical or some other type of engineering, typically go to a university that has a full engineering school.

 

But there is another choice. A combined 3-2 program offers students the best of both worlds. In this dual degree program, students begin their studies at a college that does not offer engineering. After three years they transfer to an engineering school for two additional years, where they complete the coursework required for their Bachelor of Science in Engineering. The Bachelor of Arts degree is from their first college.

 

A number of excellent engineering schools participate in 3-2 programs, including Columbia University, CalTech, Washington University, Duke, Penn State University and Dartmouth. The list of colleges affiliated with these programs is long, and includes small schools like Occidental, Clark and Wesleyan, as well as bigger schools. More than 100 colleges have an arrangement with Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

 

The combined program offers flexibility, which is especially helpful for students who are not certain about their academic interests and career goals. Students who are interested in science and engineering can start as a science major and have until junior year to decide whether they want to transfer and add the engineering degree or finish the science degree at their college in their senior year.

 

It might seem like students would be less likely to complete the engineering degree if they start in a Bachelor of Arts program, but I have seen quite a few students start in engineering programs as freshmen and transfer out because they weren’t prepared for the rigorous coursework. When I work with students who want to prepare for medical school, I often suggest they attend a small liberal arts college, where they get personal attention from professors who will help them get through the challenging science courses. This is especially important if math and science don’t come easily to them. The same advice applies to students who really want to study engineering but need more nurturing than they would find in a big engineering school. By getting a solid foundation in math and science at a smaller college, they are more likely to be successful when they transition to the bigger engineering school.

 

A combined program also gives a student who may not have stellar grades and standardized test scores in high school the opportunity to start fresh and put together a stronger academic record in college. This student will then have access to engineering schools that would be out of reach as a freshman applicant. 

 

While students don’t take engineering courses in the first three years, they do take math and science classes, including calculus, chemistry and physics, that prepare them for the engineering curriculum. With a 3.0 average and recommendations from math and science professors, students should have no trouble being admitted to one of the affiliated engineering schools.

 

When it comes to preparing for the job market, having three years at a liberal arts college can give students an edge. They have a more well-rounded education than students who have spent four years in an engineering school. Students who have a liberal arts degree bring creativity, critical thinking and communication skills that supplement the technical skills they gain in an engineering program, which can make them even more desirable to potential employers.

 

For students who are shy or who thrive in a smaller community, attending a smaller college for the first three years can be a great way to establish lasting friendships and build social as well as academic confidence.

 

While there are many advantages to 3-2 programs, the one disadvantage is that students have to transfer after three years. They won’t be graduating with their friends, and if they are happy at their college, it can be tough to move to a new school, possibly in another part of the country, and start over. For students who don’t deal well with change, and would rather know that once they start college, they’ll stay there until graduation, a 3-2 program is not the best choice.

 

For someone who definitely wants engineering, has a strong high school record in math and science, and is more excited about getting a job than spending a lot of time in college, going straight to engineering school is probably the best bet. For the student who wants a broader education, needs more time to build a foundation of math and science, or really wants a small liberal arts college experience, the 3-2 program could be ideal.

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