There are a number of paths for studying engineering. If you’re resolved to be an engineer then state engineering schools (Purdue, Virginia Tech, or Colorado School of Mines) are solid choices. If you’re a cerebral genius who solves Rubric cubes blindfolded in less than 15 seconds then MIT, Princeton, Columbia’s Fu School of Engineering, Carnegie Mellon, or Harvey Mudd should be in your scope. Even if you’re one of those rare birds who is torn between becoming the next great novelist while solving the mystery of Saturn’s rings, there are liberal arts colleges with very solid engineering programs (Lehigh University, Bucknell, Lafayette, or Swarthmore). There are even boutique engineering schools to accommodate the most discerning students: Franklin Olin School of Engineering, Cooper Union, and the Webb Institute (Naval Architectural Engineering), all tuition free, come to mind.
Then there is the 3+2 dual degree path. If you’re tentative about attending a full-fledged engineering program, and you have decided to attend a liberal arts school that doesn’t have an engineering department, this just might be the program for you. The list of small liberal art schools offering this alternative is in the hundreds. The Dartmouth listing will give you a sense of the array of schools associated with its Thayer School of Engineering: http://engineering.dartmouth.edu/undergraduate/dual/. Fu School of Engineering at Columbia University alone has over 100 participating colleges including: Claremont-McKenna, Colgate, Davidson, Grinnell, Occidental, Reed, and Whitman, http://collegelists.pbworks.com/w/page/16119348/3-2%20Engineering%20%28Columbia%29 . Ending up with a BA from any of these colleges, along with a BSE from Columbia in five years, is not a bad way to enter into graduate school or head out into the job market, even these days.
To get admitted into most of the affiliated engineering schools with 3+2 programs requires at least a 3.0 GPA and solid recommendations from your math and science professors.
What the standard 3 + 2 program does is bridge small liberal arts schools, with no engineering programs, to an affiliated engineering program, in some of the more eminent engineering schools in the country. Students, in a 3+2 program will begin their studies with no engineering classes for the first 3 years. Many of these students, however, will probably take a fairly rigorous problem solving major, such as physics, along with high level mathematics, chemistry and other science classes in preparation for an accelerated, intense dosage of engineering coursework over the following 2 years.
Advantages of a 3-2 program include flexibility, it allows students to mature and prepare slowly for the expected rigors of engineering; a nurturing environment, in a small liberal arts school the personal attention of the professors can be helpful in tackling difficult subjects such as linear algebra; and opportunity, as students with less than stellar academics in high school may be able to attend engineering programs (at such schools as Columbia, Dartmouth, Cal Tech, or Washington University) that they would never have had a chance of attending directly out of high school.
There are, naturally, potential downsides to a 3-2 program. Transferring after three years at your liberal arts college, to attend a completely new school for two years is a bit disconcerting for some students. Additionally, not being exposed to the engineering course work till your fourth year of college might be mind boggling—and if you discover you’re not up to the challenge, problematic. It is a good idea to check with the affiliated engineering school of any 3+2 program and find out the completion rate and what the average graduation time is; you should gain a perspective on the demands of your chosen program.
Yet, if you’re undaunted by the demands of such a program, you might just engineer a spectacular undergraduate experience for yourself, and have two solid bachelor degrees as a result.