NACME Career Center

Response to President Obama’s “America’s College Promise Proposal”


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The recent announcement by President Obama that he would propose a plan to make the first two years of community college free comes as a major boost to energizing the community college pathway to engineering for all Americans, most especially underrepresented minorities (URMs). According to The White House Fact Sheet, the America’s College Promise Proposal aims to create a new partnership with states to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students, while promoting key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college.

NACME has been at the forefront of research, partnership, support, and policy on the community college pathway to engineering careers for URMs. My own background in academic leadership includes nearly 12 years as a dean, campus president, and chancellor at progressively more complex community college systems. Transfer programs in engineering science, and career programs in engineering technologies were hallmarks of the academic programs offered at each of these three community college systems: Wayne County Community College, St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, and The Community College of Baltimore County.

Specifically, NACME’s Community College Strategy has encompassed scholarship support for high school juniors and seniors to take calculus, physics, and introduction to engineering courses at their local community colleges in circumstances where those courses were not offered by the K-12 public school district; targeted transfer scholarships for engineering science students at community colleges who complete their associate’s degree and successfully transfer to bachelor’s degree programs at any one of NACME’s 51 Partner Institutions across the nation; a major study of NACME Scholars who began their post-secondary education in the community college that demonstrated higher GPAs and retention rates for community college transfer students; and a Lumina Foundation-funded grant to explore contextualized instructional models that utilize Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in intermediate algebra and pre-calculus courses, and that integrate engineering awareness, concepts, and skills. Our current efforts are focused on incentivizing best practices in engineering transfer and articulation between community colleges and NACME Partner Institutions in our regionally-based NACME STEM Integration Model sites.

Why is the community college such a vital partner in the national effort to increase the representation of African American, American Indian, and Latino women and men in engineering education and careers?

Nearly half of U.S. undergraduates enroll in community colleges. Community college students constitute 40 percent of first-time freshmen and 52 percent of American Indian, 45 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, 43 percent of African American, and 52 percent of Latino undergraduates. For many of these students, a community college education is the gateway to a four-year college degree.

Although the collegiate function (transfer and liberal arts) of the community college has been well-documented, recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed the impact of the community college in providing an educational foundation for students who transfer successfully and earn a four-year degree1. The study showed that nearly 75 percent of the students who earned an associate degree and then moved to a four-year college graduated with a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring. The report demonstrated the importance of tracking outcomes of community college graduates over a longer period.

Less well acknowledged is the role of the community college in the education of engineers in the U.S. Adelman revealed that 20 percent of engineering degree recipients began their academic careers at community colleges, earning a minimum of 10 credits from these institutions2. Data from the 2008 National Survey of Recent College Graduates (NSRCG) documented that 44.4 percent of recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees and 25 percent with master’s degrees in engineering attended community college3.

Analysis of the 2006 NSRCG data by Tsapogas showed that 64 percent of American Indian/Alaska Natives only, 5 percent of Black only, and 55 percent of Hispanic science and engineering bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients in 2004 and 2005, attended community college4.

I believe that this is a propitious moment to connect four strands that relate directly to the concerns about U.S. competitiveness in the flat world: 1) the fact that diversity drives innovation and that its absence imperils our designs, our products, and, most of all, our creativity—all components of competitiveness; 2) African American, American Indian, and Latino women and men remain one of the most underrepresented minority groups in engineering-related fields; 3) African American, American Indian, and Latino students are well-represented in the community college sector, although not in the STEM disciplines; and 4) community colleges are already essential to the education of engineers in the U.S.5

We agree that President Obama’s plan is a potential game-changer. Clearly, there is still much to know about this ambitious proposal before free community college tuition could become policy. NACME looks forward to working with all interested stakeholders to maximize the opportunity to produce more URM community college transfer students who successfully complete the bachelor’s degree and beyond in engineering.


1. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “The Role of Two-Year Colleges in Four-Year Success.” Last modified Spring, 2012.

2. Adelman, C. Women and men of the engineering path: A model for analysis of undergraduate careers. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1998.

3. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Characteristics of recent science and engineering graduates: 2008. Last modified July 15, 2013.

4. Tsapogas, J. The role of community colleges in the education of recent science and engineering graduates. Handout presented at STEM Conference, Montgomery College, MD: October 2007.

5. McPhail, Irving P., “Confronting the 'New' American Dilemma: A National Imperative for the Community College.” Community College Week, March 2013, 4. 


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