SWE’s Community College Research: Understanding Women’s Experiences on the Transfer Pathway

Community colleges play an important role in helping to diversify the engineering and technology professions because many underrepresented groups, specifically women and people of color, begin their educations in these settings.

By Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., SWE Associate Director of Research

Less than half of the undergraduate student population pursues what we often refer to as the “traditional path” to a STEM degree — entrance into a four-year university immediately following high school graduation.¹ There are a variety of alternative pathways available to those seeking a STEM education, such as two-year colleges and the for-profit sector. Increasingly, students are earning college credit from multiple institutions, including those who transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution. Approximately 36% of undergraduate students attend a two-year college, and almost 60% of those students are women.² Community college is also a popular pathway for students of color, who are overrepresented among community college student enrollments.³

In 2016, SWE began a phased study to understand whether women who started their college studies at a community college with intentions to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering or computer science (ECS) were completing degrees in these fields. SWE wanted to know whether women were transferring to four-year institutions at similar rates to men and earning bachelor’s degrees in these majors and, if not, what challenges women faced on the transfer pathway. SWE’s study was conducted in three phases, with the final phase concluding in 2021.

Phase I: Clarifying the Problem

Research has found that more than 80% of first-time community college students want to complete a bachelor’s degree, but only about one-third successfully transfer to a four-year institution, regardless of major.4,5 Approximately 15% of two-year college students declare a major in ECS, and of those who transfer to complete a bachelor’s degree, more than 65% are successful.⁶ Consider these figures in light of the diverse student population that begins their studies at a community college, and we can see the potential to increase the number of diverse graduates entering the engineering workforce if we can better support students to and through the transfer process.

Funded by SWE’s Corporate Partnership Council, Phase I looked at 10 years of education data housed at the Texas Education Research Center. Texas was selected because of ease of access to student-level transfer data, the diversity of the population, and the fact that the majority of bachelor’s degree earners in the state had prior enrollment in a two-year community college — though not necessarily as transfer students.⁷ Researchers looked at disaggregated data by gender and race/ethnicity, where possible. In some cases, low student counts for female subpopulations made it difficult to determine the successful transfer and degree completion for women of color, but that itself was an important finding: There are very few women of color who successfully transfer from a community college and complete bachelor’s degrees in ECS in Texas.

Some of the major findings from this descriptive analysis of student enrollment, transfer, persistence, and degree completion were:

  • Fewer than 2% of women who transfer from a two-year college to a four-year university majored in ECS compared with 11% of men.
  • Approximately half of women who majored in ECS and transferred from a two-year college to a four-year university completed bachelor’s degrees in ECS.
  • Over 60% of two-year colleges in this study had more than 100 men who transferred and completed a bachelor’s degree in ECS, but only 3% had more than 100 women transferred and graduated in ECS.
  • Regardless of gender, students who begin at a two-year college and declare a major in ECS often switch out of these majors. However, more women than men switch majors, with some colleges experiencing more than half of women switching out of ECS majors and completing degrees in other majors.

Across the 10 years of Texas education data that SWE analyzed, fewer than 1,300 women transferred from a two-year college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in ECS compared with almost 9,000 men. This equates to approximately 14% of the total bachelor’s degrees earned in ECS by transfer students being earned by women — far fewer than the approximately 21% of total ECS bachelor’s degrees earned by women nationally. Acknowledging the limitations of extrapolating the findings from a single state to a national landscape, this study exposed concerning trends on the community college pathway. Considering that women represent more than half of college enrollments, researchers questioned why so few women who start at a community college were completing their bachelor’s degrees in ECS.

One of the recommendations from the study was to find out what community college students need to be successful in ECS. What specific challenges and obstacles are women experiencing on this pathway? Are there programs and services that a professional society like SWE could offer to meet their needs? Phase II aimed to answer these questions.

Participants’ Comments

  • “In my classroom, when it is an introductory course, you see among 20 students, 30 students, it’s almost half and half, 50-50, and sometimes the female students are actually dominant compared to the male students at the introductory-level courses. When we get to the advanced courses in computer science, we are lucky if we have two or three female students.” – Computer science faculty member at a community college
  • “I don’t really know anyone else who’s doing what I’m doing … I guess it would be nice to be involved in something like [a professional engineering organization] just to hear what other people are interested in or what other people are getting involved in.” – Female community college student

Event survey feedback

  • I enjoyed “actually getting to talk to the people. And interacting with the other people in the chat. It isn’t normally something that I enjoy, but it was fun at this event.”
  • I appreciated “getting to hear from someone in my major about hardships and how to keep going.”
  • “I loved that [Dr. Grayson] shared honestly about how unconventional her journey was. It was encouraging and I was able to see myself in her.”

Phase II: Understanding the Challenges

For Phase II, SWE collaborated with researchers from the University of Washington’s Center for Evaluation and Research for STEM Equity. With funding from SWE’s Corporate Partnership Council and the Northrop Grumman Foundation, researchers conducted a mixed-methods study of community college students to investigate the differential rates of persistence in ECS, understand the factors that contribute to their success, and identify challenges that women and other underrepresented students in STEM experience prior to transferring to complete a bachelor’s degree. The findings from this research would be useful in determining the types of programs and services that could be developed to support students on the community college pathway in ECS.

The Phase II study comprised a survey of more than 400 community college students in Texas and interviews with community college students and faculty. Survey questions asked about engineering self-efficacy, motivations, and confidence. Interview questions helped researchers identify key supports students received and the barriers they faced on the transfer pathway. Five key recommendations resulted from this research:

  • Improve advising for transfer students: Students felt uncertain about the help that they received from college advisors, with more than 25% expressing feelings of dissatisfaction with advising on their campuses.
  • Provide more financial support: It is no surprise that students expressed concern about college costs. While some reported a lack of finances to be a likely reason for them to withdraw from classes or college, others spoke of the impact that working while taking classes had on their ability to make time for academic and extracurricular activities.
  • Provide more information about career pathways: More than half of students expressed limited or no knowledge about the engineering profession prior to entering college, and women learned less than men about engineering as a profession during their time at community
    college.
  • Strengthen interpersonal relationships, networking, and mentorship: Many students recognized the academic, social, and professional benefits associated with participating in extracurricular activities. While a number of students expressed interest in joining professional societies, few were members of such organizations.
  • Focus on boosting confidence: Women surveyed expressed less confidence in math and science ability than men, regardless of actual capability. Research suggests that interventions that connect women with same-gender STEM experts can counteract stereotypes and increase their confidence.

The findings from Phase II were extremely enlightening in helping SWE identify ways in which the organization could better support women on the community college pathway. SWE focused on three of the five recommendations — providing information about career pathways, strengthening interpersonal relationships, and boosting confidence — as initiatives that the organization was best equipped to address. This resulted in SWE’s creating a pilot networking program to introduce women in community college to STEM professionals, promote relationship building, and increase confidence to encourage them to continue to pursue an ECS degree.

Phase III: SWE’s Pilot Networking Program

In November 2019, SWE obtained funding from the Northrop Grumman Foundation to host six networking sessions for community college women in specific geographic locations in 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and in-person events were postponed. SWE originally intended to push back the in-person events to fall 2020, but the pandemic continued to create an unsafe environment for large gatherings. To prevent further delay, SWE decided to host the networking events online.

Phase III included six virtual networking events, three in spring 2021 and three in fall 2021. The evaluation of this networking intervention involved two main questions:

  1. Does the STEM networking intervention increase community college women’s motivation, self-efficacy, and confidence in ECS?
  2. Does the STEM networking intervention result in greater retention of community college women in engineering and computer science programs?

SWE collaborated once again with researchers from the University of Washington to understand the impact of connecting women in community college to women in four-year university STEM degree programs as women in the STEM workforce. Surveys were sent before each virtual event to those who registered to attend. Immediately after each event, a second survey was sent to those who attended. In addition to the pre-event and post-event surveys, a six-month follow-up survey was sent to those who attended the three spring events. Qualitative data collected included responses from open-ended survey questions and a handful of interviews with students who registered to attend the spring 2021 events.

A total of 132 people attended across the six virtual networking events. This was approximately one-third of those who registered to attend. The events were open to anyone interested, including university students and professionals, though the focus was primarily on women enrolled in community college. Of those who attended, about 63% provided demographic information. Of these, 56 were undergraduate students, and 18 attended a community college. Figure 1 provides sample demographics of survey respondents.

Engaging Speaker Series

The spring and fall events followed a relatively similar format, with the first half of the event focused on a presentation or moderated discussion, and the second half providing an opportunity for interaction among those in attendance. However, there were some differences.

In the spring, the three virtual events were presented as a series called “Unleash Your Inner STEM.” Each event included a moderated panel discussion followed by small group discussions focused on specific topics of interest and facilitated by a STEM professional. Topics included “Different Types of STEM Careers,” “Promoting Your Identity,” and “Mentoring.” Remo was the platform used to host the events. This platform allowed participants to move around virtual discussion tables and interact with facilitators and other attendees, but it required a separate registration through Remo to attend.

In the fall, the speaker series was called “#Renew. #Relaunch. #Reimagine.” SWE moved from a panel discussion to a single guest speaker, giving speakers time to share their stories before opening the floor for questions from the moderator and audience. Instead of Remo, SWE used Zoom to host these events in the hope that a more familiar platform would make students more inclined to attend. After each speaker, Google Jamboard was used to facilitate interaction among the participants. Based on feedback from the fall events, Jamboard was seen as a less intimidating way to encourage interaction. Figure 2 shows an example from one of the Jamboard sessions, where participants were asked to share their thoughts about how women engineers can support other women engineers.

Evaluating Impact

Due to the small number of survey respondents, it was not possible to draw inferential conclusions. Researchers reported descriptive statistics and reviewed qualitative data to gain insight into how the events were received.

To understand the impact of the networking events on women’s motivation, self-efficacy, and confidence, students were asked whether the events were beneficial:

  • More than 80% agreed or strongly agreed that the event expanded their understanding of the potential career and educational pathways available to STEM students.
  • More than 90% agreed or strongly agreed that the event helped them see themselves as a part of a broader STEM community.
  • More than 80% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more confident in their ability to succeed in their desired career or education pathway.
  • Approximately 80% agreed or strongly agreed that they met people in the STEM industry who could be valuable resources for them.

Feedback received on event satisfaction was generally very positive. Participants appreciated hearing from women from diverse backgrounds and professions who were willing to share honestly about their experiences.

Students were asked to rate themselves on specific traits compared with their classmates, including self-confidence, science ability, and communication ability. Researchers compared pre-event and post-event survey responses to gauge whether students’ ratings changed. Figure 3 shows some of the observed differences. While 37% of students rated themselves higher in confidence after the event, and 26% rated themselves higher in science ability, students rated themselves lower after the event in terms of communication ability. Qualitative feedback indicated that some students may have been intimidated by the use of the term “networking” when SWE marketed the event. There also seemed to be more interaction among participants in the fall events when the Jamboards were used compared with the spring events, when participants were expected to speak or use the chat function to communicate. The drop in communication ability ratings may also have been influenced by the virtual nature of the events themselves. In-person events may see different results.

The response rate for the six-month follow-up survey was too low to allow for adequate analysis to determine whether the STEM networking events resulted in greater retention of women on the community college pathway in ECS. However, researchers were able to gain some insight into students’ expectations for the future when comparing pre-event survey responses against post-event survey responses:

  • Students reported more confidence in pursuing a career in ECS after the events than before the events.
  • Of those students who responded to both the pre-event and post-event surveys, 20% reported being more likely to pursue a career in ECS after attending the event.

What’s Next

While the switch from in-person to virtual events made them available to a larger audience, it did present significant drawbacks. Virtual networking can be challenging in the best of times, but it can be particularly difficult to market such events to students who are unfamiliar with or intimidated by the act of networking. Marketing these events and encouraging community college students to attend was the most challenging aspect of this project.

One takeaway from Phase III is a greater understanding of the competing priorities that community college students face. Students interviewed who had registered but did not attend noted that they had other commitments, including academic and family responsibilities, that ended up taking precedence over the SWE event.

Another takeaway is the need for SWE to be more creative when marketing to community college students. A number of people who were interviewed or provided comments on the surveys noted that SWE needed to improve its marketing. Some suggested exploring platforms such as Slack or Discord, while others suggested reaching out to other professional engineering associations when such events are held. While SWE did reach out to its network, sharing the event with other associations and through various communication channels, the reach into the community college space could be improved.

SWE learned a great deal from hosting these networking events. Since launching Phase III, SWE has a new Community Colleges Affinity Group and is working to be more inclusive of women in the two-year college community space. While there are no plans for another community college or transfer study at this time, SWE intends to continue exploring ways to engage students on the transfer pathway and bring them into the SWE network. SWE staff will be connecting with the Community College Affinity Group members to find new, creative, and effective ways of supporting students. In particular, SWE is considering ways in which activities could take place at a more local level to encourage the personal relationships that will best support women who want to transfer to complete their ECS degrees and enter the STEM workforce.

You can read the reports and conference papers that resulted from this phased research study on SWE’s Research site at https://swe.org/research/. Recordings of the speakers from each of the six virtual events are available on SWE’s Advance Learning Center or on SWE’s YouTube channel under the SWE Research playlist.

Acknowledgments

This research was made possible by the generous support of the Society of Women Engineers’ Corporate Partnership Council and the Northrop Grumman Foundation. SWE would like to thank Gibson Consulting for their contributions to Phase I, and Emily Knaphus-Soran, Ph.D.; Erin Carll, Ph.D.; and Alexandra Schaefer from the University of Washington’s Center for Evaluation and Research for STEM Equity for collaborating on Phases II and III of this study. This study also benefited from the contributions of SWE staff members Abby
Watson and Mary Firor for networking event logistics and University of Texas at Austin doctoral candidate Ursula Nguyen for qualitative data collection and analysis.

Two of the six events, one in the spring and one in the fall, were co-hosted by the Pioneer Valley Women in STEM (PVWIS). Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, a professor at Springfield Technical Community College, PVWIS executive board member, and co-chair of SWE’s Community Colleges Affinity Group, was instrumental in the planning and delivery of these events. SWE would also like to thank Melissa Paciulli, Ph.D.; Isabel Huff; and Michelle Rame for their help in planning these events.

Endnotes

  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees: Systemic Change to Support Students’ Diverse Pathways.
  2. U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. IPEDS, Fall 2020, 12-Month Enrollment Component (provisional data).
  3. Bailey, T. (2012). Can Community Colleges Achieve Ambitious Graduation Goals? In A.P. Kelly and M. Schneider (eds.), Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education (pp. 73–101). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  4. Horn, L. and Skomsvold, P. (2011). Community College Student Outcomes: 1994-2009. National Center for Education Statistics.
  5. Jenkins, D. and Fink, J. (2016). Tracking Transfer: New Measures of Institutional and State Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students Attain Bachelor’s Degrees. Community College Research Center.
  6. Chen, X. (2014). STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths into and out of STEM Fields. National Center for Education Statistics.
  7. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2017). Snapshot Report: Contributions of Two-Year Public Institutions to Bachelor’s Completions at Four-Year Institutions.

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