A more robust college experience

I first became familiar with the idea of something being “transactional” in an economics class.

There, it was defined as an exchange of goods or services between parties — the act of doing business. When I think of today’s community colleges and the students who attend them, I believe that for many, their interactions with the college are highly transactional.

My observations over time have led me to a somewhat unscientific hypothesis that these students are largely focused on checking off boxes and little more — complete my FAFSA (check), pay my tuition (check), register for classes (check), complete my coursework (check) — repeat until complete.

The problem is that most students who start don’t complete college. And it is these students, who engage only in the business of college (and little more), who are most at risk of failing. But students who move past the transactional business of being a college student and immerse themselves in the transformational experiences that happen outside the classroom are more likely to reach their goals.

This was confirmed in a recent study on the City University of New York Research Scholars Program. The study demonstrated that students who participated in research experiences were more likely than their peers to be retained and ultimately graduate.

Honors in Action

In the U.S., approximately one-third of community colleges have an official honors college. In the other two-thirds of colleges, Phi Theta Kappa’s undergraduate research program, Honors in Action (HiA), is the honors college. HiA provides high-quality and co-curricular and collaborative undergraduate research opportunities on more than 1,200 two-year campuses — not just those with budgets for honors programs.

Students begin the HiA process by collectively developing a research question to guide their work. Each group then develops a research plan and a set of research objectives to guide their work.

After students complete their research and develop their research conclusions, the team considers an action step that can include advocacy, an act of service or an awareness campaign.

Completed projects are then submitted for awards consideration. Top entries are published in Civic Scholar, the nation’s only academic journal dedicated to community college undergraduate research, funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

Putting it all together

Reading Area Community College (RACC) was among the top HiA projects in 2019. The students’ research involved an investigation of sources of media bias, inclusivity and diversity, and the work included interviews with students, faculty members and the college community. Their findings were used to create a college website that more effectively promotes inclusivity and diversity.

“Research opportunities such as the Honors in Action projects help our students grow as scholars, while at the same time making a big difference in our communities,” said RACC President Susan Looney.

A recent $350,000 grant to Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation seeks to expand access to research experiences like these for community college students through the Phi Theta Kappa HiA program. The main objective of this grant is to provide HiA training for students and faculty members in colleges struggling with funding undergraduate research experiences.

The grant will also provide direct financial support for HiA project implementation on underserved and rural campuses.

As a mathematician, part of my job is to notice patterns, and what I’ve noticed about community college students is that success is less about IQ and more about digging deeper into their community college experience. The real magic happens when students begin to engage with students, instructors and the institution in meaningful ways that are less transactional and more transformational.

Related stories: Research experiences have major benefits” and Tapping research experiences to improve college success

About the Author

Lynn Tincher-Ladner
is president and CEO of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, the international honor society of two-year colleges. To reach her, contact Heather Boyte at heather.boyte@ptk.org.