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The Reach

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Don’t Just Check Boxes — Transform Your College Experience

Don’t Just Check Boxes — Transform Your 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, and particularly for part-time students, their interactions with the college are highly transactional. 

While it may be a generalization or an oversimplification, my observation and my somewhat unscientific hypothesis is that these students are largely focused on the checking off of 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 falling through the cracks. Yes, there are other factors that explain why students do not complete college — under-preparedness comes to mind. But after teaching developmental education for nearly a decade of my life, I have seen a large sample of students considered to be “not college ready” overcome their lack of prior learning and go on to complete college. These students, like many, are juggling life’s responsibilities such as work and family, to name a few. For that reason, their ability to truly engage in activities that both enrich the community college experience and provide a support system to the student is limited.

As a mathematician and statistician, my job is to notice patterns, and what I’ve noticed about community college students is that completion has less to do with IQ and more to do with digging deeper into their community college experience. 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. The magic happens when students begin to engage with students, instructors and the institution in meaningful ways.

The word “engagement” carries such formality. It almost sounds as if you have to marry school to be successful — not true. But some relationship rules do apply. To have a truly successful community college experience, you must make time and room for the things that matter. Professors love to talk to their students — it is what they live for, so call them. Make friends with other students, regardless of your student status. You do not have to be a full-time student to have friends on campus. Transactional students rarely even know what building they are in, but transformed students not only know the hours of the learning center, they know the names of the best tutors. The network is there, you just have to tap into it. 

Not everyone agrees with me. Some experts say that today’s community college students don’t have the time or resources to spend meaningful time on their campuses. I reject that. While I have never seen a community college student that has an abundance of time or money, I believe them to resourceful and fully capable of having deep learning experiences, both inside and outside the classroom.

Through my life I have observed that students who engage to the point of transformation share certain characteristics. They travel in small packs and make an effort to build relationships with their school peers. They have a heightened awareness of the support services available to them, and they use them.  They leverage their surroundings and cultivate a network of faculty and friends who they can tap into when things get tough — and things always get tough for these students.

Take a peek at what your college has to offer, because people who work for community colleges work under a mission that is student-focused.  Many will bend over backwards when you need something, so take advantage of that. Take what little time you do have and make the most of it. Engage in experiences on your community college campus that will both move you toward your goals and transform you, as a student and as a human.

Phi Theta Kappa is transformational for many students who truly immerse themselves in such chapter activities as honors programming, volunteerism, study groups and fellowship. And while there are other student activities and organizations that connect students to their peers or college, none do it as meaningfully as Phi Theta Kappa does. I consider Phi Theta Kappa to be the Holy Grail of transformational behavior. Phi Theta Kappa is to student engagement as Beyonce is to Hip Hop, as Muhammad Ali is to boxing, as Tina Turner is to six-inch heels, and as artificial intelligence is to computer science.

What is the purpose of today’s blog post, besides the fact that I have been inspired by the members I’ve met on my summer travels? Two things. First, I would like for our members to reflect on how lucky we are to be in a true incubator of student success — students who step into it truly grow. But more importantly, I want us to think about helping others become less transactional and more transformational. 

Phi Theta Kappa members have a 30 percent higher completion rate than students who are just as smart and just as hardworking. These students earned the GPA, received the invitation, but didn’t make the decision to join, which makes them automatically at greater risk. Our members are mostly full-time and typically have a greater opportunity to engage on their campuses. We must think about capturing the attention of the part-time students who are simply going through the transactional motions of being a community college student. Help me find ways to engage these students in the transformational experience of being a Phi Theta Kappa member. Part-time students can be full-time scholars too.

Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner is the President and CEO of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. To reach Lynn, contact Cassie Bryant, Special Projects Coordinator and Executive Assistant to the President and CEO, at


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