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Columbia Business Monthly

USC and Midlands Tech create a new pathway for transferring STEM students

Nov 09, 2018 09:45AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Anne Creed

For nearly 30 years, the University of South Carolina (USC) and Midlands Technical College (MTC) have worked together to help students make the transition from MTC to USC’s engineering and computing degree programs. Now, the institutions have formed a partnership that will allow MTC students to transfer more easily to the four-year school because they will have taken coursework equivalent to what some of USC’s engineering students take in their first two years. 
Before now, MTC engineering students who came to USC had to play catch-up. Because of this partnership, the details of which are still being worked out in some areas, they will no longer have this barrier. 

There is tremendous demand for this option. Even before the partnership had been announced, MTC saw a 40 percent enrollment increase in engineering transfer courses just this past year.

Hossein Haj-Hariri, dean of USC’s College of Engineering and Computing, says, “These students do extremely well when they come here. They have a much better retention rate than a typical freshman. They are very intentional about their studies. By the time they make all their sacrifices to come here, they really mean business. They are not here to play.”

Haj-Hariri sees an overall benefit to USC, the community, businesses, and the field of engineering. He has experienced firsthand how diversity of background — economic, gender, and race — leads to better engineering and better solutions for society.  “We need diversity of thought,” he says. “We need it in our environment at USC and companies need it after they graduate.”

He believes South Carolina’s businesses will benefit in other ways, too. “The workforce needs to be representative of the population,” he says. And, “if [businesses] don’t have to import their workforce from other states, they will get employees who are local and are more loyal,” and therefore less likely to move on to work for competitors in other areas. 

He adds, “This was never about getting more students. We have more students than we can handle. This was about adding the right students that we needed to complete the picture.”

This partnership also benefits MTC in multiple ways. Benjamin Gaston, department chair for engineering technologies at MTC, says, “We greatly appreciate our relationship with USC, but it’s also an opportunity to grow what we are able to offer our students. It provides an easily marketed and easily understood pipeline. It provides other opportunities for our students, and it puts in place a model for us to develop these relationships with other four-year institutions.” They are working to develop similar agreements with Clemson and USC-Upstate. 

There are many reasons why an aspiring engineer would choose to start out at MTC with the intention to graduate from USC. “This [partnership] offers an affordable and flexible on-ramp to several engineering disciplines,” Gaston says. “Someone may want to become an engineer and may not be able to afford a four-year institution right out of the gate, or they may be scared of the calculus or coursework. [MTC] gives them the opportunity to come here and pursue it.”

Floyd Bowles, an engineering instructor at MTC who has worked closely with USC to develop this option, says, “Our students still have to be able to do the same things [as USC students] at the same level of performance. They have to take four calculus courses. At USC, they do that first semester. Here, you start off with other math classes, lowering the barriers and making it accessible. They have the opportunity to get prepared for what they will need to do.”

This preparation may take more than two years, but students want to have the preparation they need to succeed. “Our students aren’t reluctant to take the courses that they really need,” he says.

This agreement also provides a gateway for non-traditional students. “I talked to a non-traditional student yesterday who was in his 30s, and although he had a machine tool certificate, he had hit a ceiling in his job,” Bowles says. “He realized he wasn’t going to get any further without a bachelor’s degree, and he decided that it would be in engineering.”

The student had a family and a job, so he couldn’t drop everything and go to school. He was also concerned because he hadn’t been in school in a while, and he knew he needed to refresh his knowledge in many areas. He decided to start out at MTC and then transfer to USC.

“We have more agility as far as course scheduling,” Gaston says. “There is a big demand for night courses and for classes in the summer. Our mission is to serve traditional and non-traditional students, those who are full-time and those who are part-time. So it is more approachable for non-traditional students with families. We can meet anybody where they are and help them get on the path that they have chosen.”