As demand for engineering talent continues to intensify, some West Michigan liberal arts colleges are partnering with larger state-funded institutions to add niche programs to their curricula.
While training engineers has typically been the focus of larger institutions, liberal arts colleges are now stepping in to fill what many see as a void of engineering talent.
This fall, Grand Rapids-based Aquinas College will host the first cohort of students under its inaugural engineering program. The private liberal arts college partnered with Western Michigan University (WMU) to offer the program, which stakeholders say will combine the soft skills of a liberal arts college with the technical engineering prowess of WMU.
“WMU actually approached us about this, to have that (liberal arts) side,” said Sr. Damien Marie Savino, dean of science and sustainability at Aquinas. “Employers now want engineers, of course, but they want engineers that also have a broad background and good training in critical thinking (and) writing.”
Under the partnership, students enrolled in the engineering program will receive an associate of arts degree from Aquinas and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from WMU upon completion. Students will take their liberal arts courses at Aquinas and the majority of their engineering courses at WMU, Savino said.
Currently, Aquinas offers an industrial and entrepreneurial engineering program, which stresses design-based thinking in developing new products and ideas. In the coming years, the college plans to add programs in civil engineering and electrical engineering, Savino said.
The partnership also will give engineering students a unique financial arrangement where Aquinas students enrolled in the program will pay the less costly WMU tuition. Students can still apply for financial aid and those dollars will be distributed by Aquinas during the first two years of the program and WMU for the remaining years.
Overall, Savino believes the partnership will open up Aquinas students to numerous opportunities in the growing engineering field.
“We’ve done a lot of the market studies to show that there is a great demand for engineers in West Michigan and across the country,” Savino said. “We’re trying to be able to meet that for our students because their prospects for employment are very good. Engineering can really be a good to the service of humanity. We want to be able to put out engineers that are ethical, and are cognizant of the needs of society.”
FILLING A DEMAND
Aquinas College isn’t alone among liberal arts institutions locally in developing an engineering program. In November 2016, Grand Rapids-based Cornerstone University inked a partnership with Grand Valley State University (GVSU) to offer a number of engineering programs starting this fall.
Cornerstone had considered an engineering program for a number of years, but the institution lacked the funds to create a robust curriculum. Instead of trying to fund the program on its own, Cornerstone reached out to GVSU to create the joint engineering programs.
“The costs for a small, private liberal arts college that doesn’t have a high endowment have just been a barrier for us to get into the marketplace and to get involved in engineering,” said Pete Muir, dean of accreditation and curriculum at Cornerstone University. “We knew the costs were prohibitive for getting involved, so looking around our community, who are the players that we could partner with and find some form of assistance to get our foot into the marketplace.”
Cornerstone originally entered talks with GVSU regarding the partnership, Muir said.
Now the organization plans to offer four engineering programs, including environmental engineering, design and innovation engineering, engineering management and data science engineering.
The institution is in the process of constructing a new $15.5 million, 29,000-square-foot science center to house the engineering programs along with Cornerstone’s environmental biology and pre-med programs.
Students will work in Cornerstone's existing facilities until construction of the the new building is completed in 2019.
Grand Rapids-based Progressive AE is providing architectural services on the project.
Students enrolled in the program will take engineering courses taught at GVSU and Cornerstone University.
For Cornerstone, launching an engineering program marks a way to stay on top of the growing popularity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career fields.
Since the institution does not have a large endowment, it also is very dependent on tuition dollars and staying relevant with students.
“Finding majors that are important in the marketplace at a high demand is going to be our pathway to the future with such a small endowment,” Muir said. “Combined with that is the notion that engineering fits our mission.”
A NEW MODEL FOR COLLABORATION?
Educators believe the partnerships between Cornerstone University and GVSU, and likewise between Aquinas and WMU, underscore a coming trend in higher education that involves further collaboration with large and small institutions.
“I think the future of higher education is smaller, liberal arts institutions that don’t have the budgets (partnering with universities),” Muir said. “These ideas of expensive resource-driven majors are going to be very difficult for liberal arts institutions to become players in. I think the collaboration with the larger public institutions is the way of the future. … This is a sign of 21st century education: small institutions, large institutions partnering and leveraging the strength together.”
By partnering with larger institutions, smaller liberal arts colleges also can stay focused on their core competencies without concern that they may be compromising their foundational curriculum to develop engineering or other STEM programs internally.
“Right now in higher education, partnerships and collaborations are the name of the game,” said Savino of Aquinas College. “It’s a really tough competition right now with small liberal arts colleges. … There will be collaborations of all kinds in the future where you have the strongest skills of one institution collaborating with the strongest skills of another and hopefully they can be complementary.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Cornerstone University's engineering program will start in 2019. The program will begin this fall semester.