Despite a global pandemic creating higher education enrollment challenges like never before, VCU College of Engineering has seen significant increases in enrollment, retention and graduation rates overall, especially in disciplines that provide the workforce Virginia’s employers are seeking most. These gains are particularly strong among women and underrepresented minorities in computer science, whose enrollment numbers have increased by orders of magnitude.
“The mission set out by VCU Engineering nearly 25 years ago is being realized. Our faculty are training the engineering workforce for Virginia and educating students to solve technical and social challenges that enhance quality of life for Virginians and beyond,” said Gregory E. Triplett, Ph.D., the college’s senior associate dean for academic affairs.
The last two academic years have had the largest graduating classes in the college’s history. VCU Engineering awarded 443 degrees in 2019-20. This represents an 11% increase over the previous academic year, which held the record at the time. The 2020 increases were consistent across degree levels, with graduation gains in undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs.
The 2019-20 academic year’s numbers indicate that the college continues to fulfill its mission to bring more women and underrepresented minorities into the engineering field. One in four of last year’s graduates were women. Underrepresented minorities made up 22%. A quarter of all undergraduate degrees awarded went to transfer students.
Increases in student graduations may in part be the result of programs VCU Engineering has developed to help transfer students, first-generation college students, military veterans and returning students earn engineering degrees. These include the flagship Wright Engineering Access Scholarship program, which aims to create a nearly debt-free path to an engineering degree, and the Completion Grant program, which provides assistance to seniors facing unforeseen financial hardship.
VCU Engineering has also expanded pathways to connect underrepresented communities to STEM education and future career opportunities through its community outreach efforts.
Trends in recent years indicate steady growth in VCU’s engineering program overall. Degree production is up 30% since 2016. “It’s important to note that over the same timeframe, we have been focusing on our admissions, as well as our mission to serve Virginia communities,” Triplett said. “In fact, 93% of students in our incoming class are in-state residents.”
VCU Engineering has stepped up dramatically to supply talent and diversity to Virginia’s high tech workforce. Since fall 2015, enrollments in computer science have gone from 341 students to 588 students this fall. Over the same period, the number of women enrolled in computer science has more than doubled. African American enrollments have tripled and Hispanic and Latinx enrollments have nearly quadrupled.
Concurrent with these gains are innovations to computer science curricula that help ensure these students are successful.
“Our professors have transformed our introductory courses to include numerous active learning components that foster success and allow students to learn programming along with more teamwork and collaboration,” said Debra Duke, M.S., instructor and undergraduate director in the Department of Computer Science. “These skills give students the tools they need and the connections to their fellow students to thrive in a challenging environment.”
With heavy demand from private companies and the federal government, mechanical and nuclear engineering is another prime workforce development area across the commonwealth. VCU Engineering has Virginia’s most comprehensive nuclear engineering program with a bachelor’s of mechanical engineering, and a master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical and nuclear engineering.
The last five years have shown major growth in enrollments in VCU’s mechanical and nuclear engineering master’s program. In 2015, there were 24 students in the master’s program. This fall, there are 71.
“VCU’s fully online master’s program is designed for the working professional, with synchronous lectures that are recorded for the student to view at a later time if needed. The program is designed to offer courses during fall, spring and summer,” said Karla Mossi, Ph.D., associate professor and graduate programs director in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering.
VCU Engineering’s graduate programs continue to garner national recognition. U.S. News and World Report named biomedical engineering at VCU one of the nation’s top-ranked graduate programs and ranked the mechanical and nuclear engineering master’s program number 18 in the U.S. Last year, VCU also launched the country’s first doctoral program in pharmaceutical engineering.
While gratified by the gains over the last few years, Triplett emphasized that VCU Engineering’s eye is always on the future. The college will open its new Engineering Research Building later this year, which will expand capacity for research and workforce development across the board.
“Our strategic plan articulates our commitment to do research, recruitment and outreach very well,” Triplett said. “The trend that we see in our numbers now, coupled with the resources we will have when our new building opens, indicate that we are off and running.”