3-2 Engineering Programs at Liberal Arts Colleges

If you're interested in engineering, you can still opt to take the liberal arts route.

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My family lives in California where roughly 84 percent of the state's college-bound students enroll in public colleges and universities within their borders.

[See U.S. News's list of top public schools.]

With such a strong tradition of students staying put for college, my son Ben wasn't surprised at the reaction he routinely received this spring when students at his high school in San Diego asked him this question: "Where are you going to college?"

"I'm going to Beloit College," Ben would say.

"Where???"

It's a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, Ben would explain.

The puzzled teenagers (or parents) would then ask Ben something like: "Why are you going there?"

Of course answering that question required more effort. Most people in this state, where the University of California and California State systems dominate, don't know what a liberal arts college is. And how do you explain the virtues of a liberal arts education in sound bites?

[Read Is a $50,000 College Tuition Worth It?]

Ben already understood what a liberal arts education offers because his sister Caitlin is a senior at Juniata College, which along with Beloit, is one of the liberal arts colleges featured in Loren Pope's popular book, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way That You Think About Colleges. Caitlin has enjoyed all the perks that a liberal arts college can provide, including small classes, great interactions with professors, internship opportunities, and the freedom to explore her academic passions.

Unlike nearly all of his classmates, Ben didn't apply to a single university, public or private. During last year's admission season, he only sent his applications to liberal arts colleges.

[Read more about small colleges.]

Initially I thought Ben's possible major—engineering—would prevent him from attending a liberal arts college, which, as the name suggests, focuses on the liberal arts such as history, English, philosophy, as well as the sciences and math. It's rare to find a liberal arts college that offers engineering; Bucknell University, Lafayette College, and Smith College are exceptions.

In doing some research, however, I discovered the existence of 3-2 engineering programs, which allow students to attend a liberal arts college for three years and obtain a bachelor's degree in a major like physics or chemistry. The student transfers after three years to an engineering school, such as Washington University in St. Louis, for an additional two years to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering.

I wondered how successful these programs were so I contacted the 3-2 coordinators at Washington University and Columbia University when my son was exploring his options. These two universities happen to be popular 3-2 destinations for liberal arts/engineering students. The 3-2 coordinators at both schools raved about the programs and the caliber of the liberal arts students who participate.

The Columbia coordinator called 3-2 programs a "hidden jewel" and her peer at Wash U. said if he had to do it over, he'd get his engineering degree through a 3-2 program.

Because the liberal arts students take their prerequisites, including four semesters of math, in small classroom settings, they are well prepared for the rigors of engineering—and sometimes better prepared than those who start at engineering schools where classes are typically much bigger. Employers love the liberal arts/engineering majors since they not only possess the technical skills, but also know how to write papers, make presentations, and think beyond the requirements of an engineer.

Who knows if Ben will end up pursuing engineering, physics, or some other major. That's the beauty of a liberal arts education. You aren't boxed into declaring a major before you even step foot on campus and no one is pressuring you to choose before you've had time to explore.

Ben has embarked on an amazing journey—one that will require him to wear serious winter clothes for the first time in his life—and I can't wait to see where it will lead him.