Pathway to STEM Degrees Made Smoother for Community College Students

Colorado has nearly 150,000 community college students, and CU Boulder wants more of them on its campus — especially if they like science.

A newly formed team of CU Boulder experts and community college partners is trying to smooth the way between the state’s two-year colleges and its flagship four-year university, with an eye to creating opportunities for science and engineering (STEM) students and employers.

“There are Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners who started as community college students,” said CU Boulder Assistant Dean Sarah Miller, who is heading up the federally funded project. “We want more of the smart, driven students at Colorado’s community colleges to come to CU Boulder next. Imagine what they could do with the resources of a major research university. Imagine the promise and the diversity of background they’d bring with them.”

The project, called Creating Academic Pathways in STEM, is among the first in the National Science Foundation’s INCLUDES initiative, which aims to diversify science and engineering in America.

About 35 percent of all Colorado community college students are minorities. Many are also first-generation college students.

Each year thousands of these students transfer to four-year universities, including CU Boulder. But the process can be daunting and needlessly complex, said Miller, who directs the Broadening Opportunity through Research and Diversity (BOLD) Center in CU Boulder’s engineering college, and co-investigator Noah Finkelstein, the CU physicist who directs the Center for STEM Learning.

Simply translating community college credits to the appropriate university major can be confusing, she said. And many students who successfully transfer feel behind and overlooked, having had two fewer years to get to know professors and apply for the research and internship opportunities that can lead to jobs after graduation.

Working off an initial $300,000 NSF grant, the Colorado team will have 18 months to streamline entry to CU Boulder for two-year college students and develop a series of unique programs for them. The team would then earn a shot at an additional $12.5 million for scaling the initiative statewide and beyond.

Early goals involve aligning curricula across two-year and four-year departments and developing internship programs with Colorado companies and national labs specifically for community college transfers.

Said Miller, “We want to lower the barriers for two-year college students with STEM promise so they can more easily pursue a four-year STEM degree and join Colorado’s thriving STEM workforce.”

CU Boulder’s partners are the Community College of Denver, Red Rocks Community College, Front Range Community College, Arapahoe Community College and the Community College of Aurora.

“Success is often more about supporting socio-cultural navigation rather than academic preparation for students transferring from community colleges to four-year colleges,” said Heidi Loshbaugh, dean of the Center for Math and Science at Community College of Denver. 

Loshbaugh, Anne-Barrie Hunter and Sean Shaheen of CU Boulder are co-investigators. The project’s full name is Creating Academic Pathways in STEM: A Model Ecosystem for Supporting 2-year Transfer.

Individuals pose for a group photo at a BOLD Center event. (Photos courtesy of the BOLD Center.)

Individuals pose for a group photo at a BOLD Center event. (Photos courtesy of the BOLD Center.)