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Wash. universities look to 'redshirt' freshman engineers for one year

Curtis Cronn

Some freshmen engineering students at Washington’s largest universities will get an extra year to find their footing, thanks to a new “academic redshirting” program.  

The idea of redshirting comes from college sports, and here’s how it works: When Huskies quarterback Keith Price joined up as a freshman in 2009, he didn’t take the field. Instead he got a year of practice and workouts to acclimate before starting his four years of eligibility.

Now the University of Washington, along with Washington State University, want to apply that to academics.

UW Engineering Professor and Associate Dean Eve Riskin says a lot of disadvantaged students come in with no exposure to college-level academics. Many are in for a shock, which may explain why 72 percent of low-income students on Pell Grants seeking engineering degrees at UW and WSU don’t get one.

“If you don’t do well in your first couple courses, people tend to tell the students you're not cut out for engineering," Riskin said, "whereas in reality if they were given time to make the transition to university, they could be terrific engineers."

The schools got federal grants to offer 64 of those students per entering class a redshirt year. They’ll get time to take prerequisites, figure out college life and get up to speed with classmates from more rigorous high schools.

It’s modeled on a similar program at the University of Colorado, which reports that its first cohort of redshirt engineers is beating the school average GPA and generally sticking with the degree program.

UW officials say the program will help diversify the university’s engineering school and supply more qualified graduates to area employers. The first class of redshirt freshmen engineers is set to start this fall.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.