Go (College) Fish: Easing Path for Community College Transfers

One of the most persistent problems facing American higher education is how best to create a seamless pathway among the various higher education sectors.

This is especially problematic for community college students seeking to transfer to four-year colleges and universities. For them, the transfer pathway is a bumpy one full of potholes and poor signage. There's little help, and the encumbrances along the pathway have travelers wondering if the trip is worth the effort.

More positively, the work and pledge commitments - in both financial and political capital - are encouraging signs that state, federal, and foundation policy planners see the problem and are working to address it. Phi Theta Kappa, the honorary society established for two-year college students, offers one of the best and most practical approaches to address the transfer problem.

CollegeFish.org is a free, online tool created by Phi Theta Kappa to aid community colleges students as they plan their future after community college, either through transfer to a four-year institution in pursuit of a bachelor's degree, or by entering the workforce. Similar to online services for singles or athletes, CollegeFish.org matches students to best-fit transfer institutions based on their learning preferences, major, career, and financial goals.

Working Technology With a Human Touch

Those who feel like a little fish lost in a big sea of community college students can find themselves swimming in a smaller pond by using CollegeFish.org to build a profile, organize their transfer and scholarship search, and market themselves to institutions. To further shrink the size of the pool, students who accept membership to Phi Theta Kappa will enjoy exclusive access to over $37 million in transfer scholarships.

This raises some interesting questions about how higher education can better employ the resources it already has in place. One practical decision every community college must make is whether or not to establish a Phi Theta Kappa Honorary Society, for example, which seems like a classic "no brainer" decision to most of us. The one-time chartering fee is a modest $500.

There are enormous benefits. Establishing a chapter of Phi Theta Kappa sends a powerful signal to every college constituency about the value they place on academic excellence. It's also a calling card stressing quality for four-year institutions seeking strategic alliances with their strongest and best-prepared two-year partners.

Phi Theta Kappa inducted almost 135,000 community college students into the honorary society last year, representing a pre-qualified market from which four-year colleges and universities might draw extremely well qualified students. In a recent study, President and CEO, Lynn Tincher-Ladner and Dr. George Boggs reported: "It is important to note that Phi Theta Kappa's demographics are not tilted toward those with higher socioeconomic status, and members are nearly as likely to receive some type of college-preparatory developmental coursework as other community college students."

In 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided a $2.9 million grant to make CollegeFish.org available to any community college student. This represents a significant advancement, opening up transfer opportunities much more widely, broadening the transfer market, establishing a better approach to mentorship, and providing efficient, user-friendly technology to make a smoother transition for students possible.

The Phi Theta Kappa Society continues to refine the program. It has committed to seeking funds to develop the "Golden Opportunity Scholarship Fund" program to assist community college students to offset any out-of-pocket costs associated with accepting membership to the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. Heather Schmidt, a director of regional and chapter development, argues that these efforts will substantially move the needle to create an increasingly diverse pool of scholarship-eligible applicants from which four-year colleges might choose.

For their part, it's important for the four-year colleges and universities to be ready. CollegeFish.org provides a proven admissions building block that will produce more robust transfer classes to globalize campus perspectives.

The four-year schools have significant opportunities to attract these students, but they will need to re-deploy financial aid and create transfer funds that will fully take advantage of the opportunity to attract transfers to their campus in a regularized, consistent way.

To do so, four-year colleges must create a safety net as two-year students are handed off to them. The Edvance Foundation's release of its national report, Strengthening the Transfer Pathway: From Community to Private Four-Year Colleges, identifies the need to match technology and competent mentorship. Four-year colleges should avoid efforts to re-invent the wheel, opting to use strategic alliances with groups like Phi Theta Kappa to employ technology and adapt to strategies already in play.

Feifei Zeng, a transfer student from Carl Albert State College in Oklahoma now at Mississippi State University perhaps summarizes it best: "As a first generation, international, and community college student, I definitely understand that transferring can seem overwhelming and intimidating. Just when I had adjusted to the new routine at my community college, it was already time to plan for the next step. CollegeFish.org and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society kept me on task and served as my support system - they are the main reasons I was able to secure generous scholarships from Mississippi State University and successfully transfer."

Some programs work well, evolve, and end up stronger. It's time we recognized nationally scalable efforts to support transfer students and put them into even greater use.