Virginia Tech is smoothing the path to a graduate education in computer science and computer engineering for students at five universities across the state.

Through a new partnership program, undergraduate students at James Madison University, Christopher Newport University, the University of Mary Washington, Radford University, and Hollins University can apply early and earn graduate credits in master’s degree programs based at both the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Northern Virginia and the university’s Blacksburg campus.

“Virginia Tech is committed to creating pathways that will increase access to our degree programs at the Innovation Campus and produce graduates in computer science and computer engineering who have the breadth, depth, and context to quickly become leaders in the evolving digital economy,” said Lance Collins, vice president and executive director of the Innovation Campus. “We are excited to team up with these five schools, and we will continue to pursue opportunities with other universities as we work to build the most diverse graduate tech campus in the nation.”

The details of each partnership agreement vary, depending on the degrees, programs, and courses offered at each school.

In general, by establishing a group of foundational courses at partner universities, enrolled students at those schools will be prepared for admission to Virginia Tech as early as the spring of their junior year. Some students, after graduating from their respective universities, can complete their degree with an additional year of coursework.

A key goal with these partnerships is to fulfill the state’s Tech Talent Investment Program. Virginia Tech and other universities have committed to graduate about 31,000 new computer science graduates over 20 years to help fill a critical workforce need in Virginia.

“It’s nice to be able to show the commonwealth of Virginia that the institutions can work together for the betterment of all,” said Bob Kolvoord, dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering at James Madison University, who called JMU’s partnership with Virginia Tech “a good fit at the right time.”

The partnerships will provide new opportunities for undergraduates across all five institutions, including at Christopher Newport University. While CNU offers a research-based Master of Science degree in computer science, Virginia Tech’s Master of Engineering program is designed to prepare students for careers in computer related fields. By the time students graduate, they will have the know-how needed for mid-level and advanced industry positions, including in-depth knowledge in software development, communication skills, and understanding of ethical issues related to computing technology.

More than 70 CNU students recently attended a virtual information session outlining the new options created with the Virginia Tech partnership.

“It opens a new door for our CNU undergraduate students,” said Peter Monaghan, an associate professor in the Department of Physics, Computer Science, and Engineering at CNU.

In general, the new program widens the degree possibilities for students at Hollins University, a liberal arts college for undergraduate women that does not offer computer science or engineering degrees.

“An important part of our work as a women’s college involves promoting diversity in historically underrepresented fields,” said Rebecca Halsey, director of strategic academic initiatives at Hollins. “This was a perfect opportunity to do that.”

Students at Hollins already have indicated that they are interested in the program, she said.

Also, the partnership could help institutions recruit more undergraduates in computer science majors.

“The opportunity to combine a JMU undergrad degree and a Virginia Tech degree is a pretty strong combination,” Kolvoord said. “We think this is one more reason to help draw really good students to come study here and go on to study at Virginia Tech.”

Similarly, at the University of Mary Washington, which does not offer graduate degrees, “students and parents like to hear that we have this accelerated program with Virginia Tech,” said Ian Finlayson, associate professor and chair of Computer Science at the university. “It makes them confident that they still have options with graduate school.”

Undergraduates could begin the accelerated program with Virginia Tech as early as this spring.

Many undergraduate students studying computer science and computer engineering at the partner schools will naturally meet the prerequisite course requirements to apply for the accelerated program at Virginia Tech. The partnership agreements also provide a road map for students from other majors to take the specific courses needed to enroll.

This will be especially attractive for Radford University students who may want to change their major halfway through their undergraduate career but find it too late to switch, said Art Carter, who is associate dean of the Artis College of Science and Technology at Radford.

“If a student has a physics or mathematics degree or has an interest in getting into the technology field, having this master's degree would change the focus and really expand their job opportunities,” Carter said. “Someone who has an undergraduate [degree] in math or physics and then a master’s of engineering would be a very attractive candidate in most technical jobs.”

Overall, working with these institutions is essential to the future growth of Virginia’s technology industry, said Julia Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering at Virginia Tech.

“We are so pleased that these universities are collaborating with us,” Ross said. “This will provide an excellent opportunity for students to earn a master’s degree as part of a unique program that will prepare them for future careers in the computer science and computer engineering fields.”

Interested students can find more information online.

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone