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Colorado’s new AES-to-BS engineering degree aims to help students 'thrive and be successful'

Front Range Community College student Adeena Chughtai will graduate with the new Associate of Engineering Science Degree in May. She will then transfer to Colorado School of Mines as a junior to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
Stephanie Daniel
Front Range Community College student Adeena Chughtai will graduate with the new Associate of Engineering Science Degree in May. She will then transfer to Colorado School of Mines as a junior to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Adeena Chughtai is studying engineering at Front Range Community College. When she’s at the Westminster campus, you can usually find her at what she warmly calls the “central hub.”

“The central hub to me is the science classrooms and the café,” she said. “That's maybe not the central hub for everyone. But certainly for me because this is where I spend most of my time.”

This is the 25-year-old’s second stint in college. After a tough time in high school, she enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder, but it wasn’t a good fit.

“I remember just having a constant knot in my stomach anytime I had to go to class, any time I had to like talk to my parents about homework or assignments,” she said. “It was not my thing.”

Chughtai decided to take a semester off, which eventually led to her dropping out altogether. Then, in 2018, she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“That was like an absolute 180 in my life,” she said.

All her academic struggles started to make sense after that and she was ready to give college another try. But Chughtai wasn’t sure about returning to CU Boulder.

“I was nervous to get back because those lecture halls are really big and really intimidating,” she said.

Her parents are from Pakistan and college-educated. But when they immigrated to the U.S., they attended community college to get degrees here. With her mom’s encouragement, Chughtai enrolled full-time at Front Range.

“I got straight A's that semester and it felt so good,” she said. “Even like now, like years later, saying it just feels incredible.”

Chughtai loves Front Range and has found her community here. But she also found something else: a new educational pathway.

Next spring, she’ll be one of the first to graduate with the new Associate of Engineering Science (AES) degree. It will allow her to transfer to a state university as a junior to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

“With this new degree, it's a clear what we would call 60 plus 60,” said Rebecca Woulfe, vice president of academic affairs and online learning at Front Range Community College. “Which means the whole first two years that they take at the community college will transfer to the four-year schools and all of the credits will transfer. So, students are not wasting any time or wasting any money.”

Front Range is the largest community college in the state and enrolls a lot of people of color, low-income, first-generation, and older, non-traditional students. The school offers numerous services to support them.

“These students are in an environment where they can thrive and be successful and then be completely prepared to step into those programs with our four-year partners,” Woulfe said.

In the past, students interested in engineering would pick and choose classes and then transfer to a university, Woulfe said, but it wasn’t a formalized process. Students didn’t have the opportunity to earn an associate degree.

Statewide transfer agreements between community colleges and universities have been around for a decade. There are over 30 degree opportunities, from agricultural business to theater. An engineering degree has been in the works for years but there was a major issue: each school had their own unique curricula.

“We kept struggling because we were trying to fit, in essence, a square peg into a round hole,” Woulfe said.

Then a year ago, a Front Range engineering faculty member reached out to her counterparts at Colorado State University, University of Colorado, Colorado School of Mines and the Colorado Community College System. They worked together to create the AES degree.

“With that faculty support and that faculty input, we were really able to create a degree that all of the colleges felt that they could support,” Woulfe said.

The AES degree will be offered at other community colleges once they sign agreements with each university. Front Range has formalized transfer partnerships with several schools including the mechanical engineering program at CSU.

“We love transfer students because they have more life experiences.” said Anthony Marchese, associate dean for academic and student affairs in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering at CSU. “They've already demonstrated that they can succeed, and they have the math and the chemistry and physics out of their way.”

Transfer students at CSU, and the college of engineering, have higher four-year graduation rates than their classmates who enrolled as freshman.

Last year, Colorado had the fourth-highest concentration of science, technology, engineering and math workers in the country. But a majority them are white men.

Mechanical engineering is a high demand, high wage job and lot of industries in Colorado are hiring these workers including aerospace. The state has the nation’s second-largest aerospace economy.

“Probably 50% of the graduates from CSU in mechanical engineering probably end up working in the aerospace sector,” Marchese said.

Another benefit of starting at a community college is cost. An in-state student will pay about $12,000 for tuition and fees at CSU compared to less than $4,000 at Front Range.

That’s why Anthony Evans left CSU after one semester.

“My first semester, I spent almost $16,000 between housing and schooling,” he said. “Then I went to Front Range and spent a third of that.”

Evans enrolled at Front Range’s Larimer campus and after getting the AES degree, plans to transfer back to CSU. But in the meantime, he’s enjoying community college.

“You get in there and it's a class of 20 and the teacher actually knows your name. It's way better, I think, and that's more how I learn anyways,” he said.

Front Range also signed a transfer agreement with Colorado School of Mines. Chughtai will start there as a junior in the fall and said, as a community college student, she never thought she’d go to a school like Mines.

“They are opening their arms up,” she said. “They're saying, like, ‘We want you here, we're inviting you and we're excited for you, and we know you can do it.’”

Chughtai is a little nervous about returning to a university. But she’s older now, more confident, and so excited she’s practically memorized the course catalogue. She is going to major in quantitative biosciences and engineering.

“For something like engineering that has been a notoriously a white male dominated field, as a young brown woman, I feel great,” she said. “I'm on this path and I feel fantastic.”

Front Range will soon sign agreements with the University of Colorado and eventually will add AES degrees in civil and electrical engineering.

Editor's Note: A previous version of the headline said AA-to-BS; it has been corrected to AES-to-BS.

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