EPHRAIM—Snow College may be primarily a community college, but students who graduated this spring with bachelor’s degrees in software engineering say the education they received rivals many master’s programs in computer-related fields.
The students, who were interviewed two weeks before spring commencement, also praised the quality of their professors, the time professors spent with them out of class and the low cost of the program.
Above all, the students, and a faculty member who was also interviewed, agreed the Snow program, more than similar programs at other schools, prepares graduates to step straight into jobs, which typically start in the mid $70,000s but have been as high as $99,000.
“It’s a program designed around work, attitude, behaviors and skills that they’re going to need for their jobs, not just today but 20 years from now. Not just the hows, but the whys, and how to learn the next step,” said Heber Allen, an assistant professor, who joined the faculty four years ago after 25 years in industry, including jobs at Intel Motorola, Intermountain Healthcare and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Utah State Board of Regents permits a community college to offer bachelor’s degrees in a few areas where it has exceptional excellence or where there is a high need. The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded can’t exceed 10 percent of total degrees, including associate degrees.
Snow’s two bachelor’s areas are commercial music and software engineering. It is also possible for a student to get a bachelor’s degree in business, but that program, while based on the Snow campus, is offered by Utah State University.
Based on 2021 numbers, Snow could award up to 120 bachelor’s degrees. It gave out less than 35 this spring.
Even though there is a severe shortage of software professionals, and despite Snow having a special focus on preparing students for jobs, enrollment in the software engineering program during the first four years has been below expectations, said Garth Sorensen, professor and head of the Engineering Department.
When the program was approved in 2016, the college projected it would attract up to 40 majors. Last year, it had 27. And in the three years in which bachelor’s degrees have been awarded, there have been 10, 8 and 11 graduates.
Faculty believe the problem may be that not enough people are aware of the program. Snow has launched an advertising campaign to get the word out.
Efforts started in 2012
Steps to get a computer-oriented bachelor’s program approved began about 2012. The college hired Kristal Ray, who had a PhD and significant experience in software development, to put together the proposal to the Board of Regents.
One of the big motivations was economic development. “A lot of industries need to be in the city, but software development is something that can be anywhere,” Kevin Christensen, director of economic development for Sanpete County, said at the time.
The presence of an educational program might even motivate a company looking for software engineers to locate in the local area, Christensen said.
That possibility appears to be on the crest of becoming a reality. A Manti native, who started a software company on the Wasatch Front, told the Ephraim City Council he might move the company to Ephraim Crossing, the new mixed residential-retail-office development going in south of McDonald’s. He said the company would start with about 20 jobs.
For software engineering graduates who want to stay in Sanpete County, another possibility is working from home for companies based elsewhere.
As the proposal for the bachelor’s program evolved, the focus and named changed from “computer science” to “software engineering.”
Although the two fields have a lot in common, there are important differences. “Computer scientists test theories and work at the edge of the unknown,” the Snow website says. “Software engineering is an engineering discipline. Engineering starts with knowledge that has already been proven reliable and develops solutions for technical, societal and commercial problems.”
The Board of Regents approved the bachelor’s degree software engineering at Snow in November, 2016. At the time, it was the only software engineering program in Utah and one of 21 nationwide. The program started up in fall, 2017.
Students do not have to complete an associate degree before being admitted to the software engineering program. But along the way, before they graduate with their bachelor’s degrees, they have to complete the general education courses that would be required for an associate degree.
Nor do students have to be juniors before taking software engineering courses. They can start as early as their freshman year.
But to be admitted to the major, students have to complete about 12 hours of prerequisites. Some of the prerequisites have prerequisites themselves, so the number of classes required to apply may vary with the student.
For example, one of the prerequisites for applying is Physics 2220, Physics for Scientists and Engineers II. The course teaches students to use calculus to solve problems related to electricity, magnetism, circuits, optics and relativity.
But before taking the course, a student is advised to take Physics 2210, Physics for Scientists and Engineers I. And before taking either course, a student needs to have taken calculus.
Offers about 20 courses
The software engineering program offers about 20 courses. Many are highly technical, such as Survey of Languages (computer programming languages, that is), Database Systems, Mobile Application Development, Cloud Application Development and Advanced Algorithms.
Some of the courses combine technical information with discussion of how to get things accomplished in the workplace, such as Management of Software Projects and two Software Engineering Practicum courses that all majors take the first and second semesters of their senior year. The practicum courses include individual and team projects, information about the software industry and preparing portfolios for job searches.
In general, the courses are tough. “The things we’re doing in this bachelor’s program… they don’t do…until a master’s program” at other schools, said Ammon Zerkle, of Mt. Pleasant, a graduate of North Sanpete High School. “A lot of the project-based work and real-life applications we’re doing in the bachelor’s, they don’t get until the master’s.”
Jaaron Nielson, a graduate from Elsinore, Sevier County, said his favorite class was Survey of Languages. The course covered 12 programming languages. “It’s a very vigorous course,” he said.
The course is “definitely relevant for working in the field because (as) the technology changes, you have to be able to apply what you already know to different circumstances,” he said. Having a background in all those languages gives to the ability “to pick up different languages quickly.”
McKinnon Lloyd of Mesquite, Nevada, did an internship in summer 2020 with 3M, and now that he’s graduated, will be going to work for the company full-time.
He said the manager at 3M who hired him for the internship was especially pleased he had learned about SQL, a language for programming databases, because other people the manager had interviewed, including candidates from graduate schools and industry, didn’t know SQL.
In fact, one of the boss’s interview questions was, “What did you learn in the first two weeks in your database class?”
“When students come back from job interviews, where they’ve been successful, seven out of 10 times, at least one of the questions was about databases,” Allen said. “It’s a pretty common area, and our students do pretty well in it.”
The graduates who were interviewed said the main thing reason they are able to meet the demands of the rigorous classes is the quality and accessibility of the faculty.
“We have really smart professors with really relevant work experience,” said Matt Rigoli, also of Mt. Pleasant, and another North Sanpete High School graduate.
Wyatt Brown of Manti, a graduate of Manti High School, said he took the Advanced Algorithms class his last semester. The class covered “some very advanced things about programming” and required him to write “some algorithms to solve very complex problems.”
But he added, “Thanks to Snow College and the opportunity we have here, most of us are able to spend 2-3 hours per week in our teacher’s office.”
Without that one-on-one help, he said, he would be searching Google and watching YouTube videos to learn what he needed to know. That could take 20 hours per week.
Finally, the graduates said, the Snow program is a huge value financially. Kaydon Stubbs, who is from Southern California, said, “I’m here because the value is greater than anyplace else, especially California.”
He said some of his friends in computer-related majors at prestigious schools in California are paying $50,000 in tuition per year. He paid between $1,700 and $1,800 per semester ($3,400 to $3,600 per year) at Snow.
Even in Utah, the graduates said, Snow tuition is less than half what it costs to attend USU or the U of U.
“It’s been a difficult program, but we’re here,” at the end of the road, graduating, Zerkle said. And two weeks before graduation eight out of the 11 graduates had accepted jobs.
The strength of the software engineering program at Snow that “we’re trying to match industry needs on Day 1 and Year 10,” Allen said. “We’re not just teaching the theory that’s been taught for years but the reasons for the theory and the applied methods of today. Our education is not just book learning but use-on-the-job learning. We want our students to be ready on Day 1 for their new employers.”