Western Michigan University and Aquinas College this fall will join a packed field of schools forging academic partnerships.
The two institutions announced this month that they have signed a partnership agreement to allow Aquinas students to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial and entrepreneurial engineering through WMU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
It will be the first time the Catholic liberal arts college has offered this degree.
Stephen Barrows, executive vice president, provost and dean of faculty at Aquinas, said prospective students have continually expressed demand in that field — to the tune of about 100 students per year.
“Students are interested in a small Catholic college, but there’s no way we can provide those (engineering) facilities at an economy of scale with our resources. That brings to the forefront folks who can,” he said.
After touring WMU’s “industrial park”-sized engineering facilities on U.S. 131 in Kalamazoo about three years ago and learning about the school’s curriculum, Aquinas leaders were impressed.
“This … partnership will help students reap the benefits of an Aquinas liberal arts education while also taking advantage of the resources, technology and engineering faculty that WMU has to offer,” said Juan Olivarez, outgoing president of Aquinas.
Aquinas students will spend their first two years earning an Associate of Arts degree from Aquinas and then transition into the bachelor’s degree program through WMU.
Enrolled students will take general education, pre-engineering and some engineering courses at Aquinas or at the WMU-Grand Rapids campus for the first five semesters. Semesters 6 and 7 and the summer between them will be primarily taught on the WMU campus in Kalamazoo.
Aquinas tuition rates will apply for the first two years, as students earn their associate degrees. WMU’s tuition rate for Extended University Programs, which is lower than Aquinas’s rate, will apply for engineering coursework once students are accepted into the program.
Aquinas students may apply for acceptance in the engineering program at the end of their sophomore year.
According to WMU, this program is the first of several engineering majors planned as future degree offerings at Aquinas.
“We’ll be looking closely in this first year at what degrees will follow. Construction is being looked at and civil engineering,” said Dawn Gaymer, associate provost for Extended University Programs at WMU.
Barrows said it was logical for Aquinas to start with industrial and entrepreneurial engineering.
“Industrial engineering was the most seamless bachelor’s degree choice with what we currently offer in our curriculum,” he said.
“We want to build on that with civil engineering eventually, but with our first partnership program, we wanted to make it the (smoothest) curriculum fit as possible.
Tim Greene, WMU provost and vice president for academic affairs, said both schools likely will see direct enrollment benefits from the partnership. But the colleges also are taking a look long term.
“In the bigger picture, Western and Aquinas are partnering to provide a larger workforce that will help the economic development of the western side of Michigan,” Greene said.
He called engineering “one of the most flexible fields.”
“You’re going to see (the graduates enter) a wide range of industries and jobs,” Greene said.
“They could be working in supply chain management, they could be working on the manufacturing floor, they could be working in product supervision, they could be working as consultants. You would see them in manufacturing and service sectors, and we have them working in hospitals and government operations or nonprofit operations.”
Gaymer said the partnership is part of Western’s ongoing investment in Grand Rapids.
“We’re working on … building an advanced manufacturing lab with GRCC,” he said. “All of these pieces are coming together to build a stronger engineering presence in greater Grand Rapids.”
Greene said students will be taking WMU classes in “manufacturing processes, ergonomics, electrical theory, basic mechanical engineering — specialized courses in systems where they need … computer systems with large design screens,” as well as instruction in entrepreneurship.
Steven Butt, chair of WMU’s department of industrial and entrepreneurial engineering and engineering management, said the program will emphasize engineering design, creativity and innovation, and students will learn to solve real-world problems in a practical setting.
“And they (will) learn how to market and sell their product ideas,” he said.
Butt expects some Aquinas students also will take advantage of the fact WMU offers an accelerated master’s degree in engineering, allowing undergraduates to take graduate courses during their junior and senior years of undergraduate studies.
Barrows said Aquinas will emphasize in its recruiting process that the partnership will give students a more well-rounded education by having a foot in two worlds.
“Having the addition of an Associate of Arts degree puts the graduate in a strong position in terms of creativity (and) critical thinking,” he said. “One of the things people might ask is, ‘Why not just get an engineering degree and do the whole program at a university?’ Because they can say, ‘I also have an Associate of Arts and can engage in critical thinking.’ It’s a market differentiator.”
WMU President John Dunn agreed.
“The strength of Aquinas’s math and science curriculum is an enormous asset for this initiative,” Dunn said. “That strength and the fact that both institutions share a commitment to ensuring all students graduate with a broad-based liberal arts background made this partnership a natural fit.
“We’ll be preparing young people to bring the best of both worlds to their professional lives, and they will be ready to immediately contribute to the needs of our region, state and nation.”