Development of a Distance Education Program by a Land-Grant University Augments the 2-Year to 4-Year STEM Pipeline and Increases Diversity in STEM
Although initial interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is high, recruitment and retention remains a challenge, and some populations are disproportionately underrepresented in STEM fields. To address these challenges, the Microbiology and Cell Science Department in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Florida has developed an innovative 2+2 degree program. Typical 2+2 programs begin with a student earning an associate’s degree at a local community college and then transferring to a 4-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree. However, many universities in the United States, particularly land-grant universities, are located in rural regions that are distantly located from their respective states’ highly populated urban centers. This geographical and cultural distance could be an impediment to recruiting otherwise highly qualified and diverse students. Here, a new model of a 2+2 program is described that uses distance education as the vehicle to bring a research-intensive university’s life sciences curriculum to students rather than the oft-tried model of a university attempting to recruit underrepresented minority students to its location. In this paradigm, community college graduates transfer into the Microbiology and Cell Science program as distance education students to complete their Bachelor of Science degree. The distance education students’ experiences are similar to the on-campus students’ experiences in that both groups of students take the same department courses taught by the same instructors, take required laboratory courses in a face-to-face format, take only proctored exams, and have the same availability to instructors. Data suggests that a hybrid online transfer program may be a viable approach to increasing STEM participation (as defined by enrollment) and diversity. This approach is particularly compelling as the distance education cohort has comparable grade point averages and retention rates compared to the corresponding on-campus transfer cohort.