Changing the College Transfer Game

Kathy Urban has been on both the sending and receiving sides of the transfer process — as a transfer counselor at a community college and as a non-traditional student program director at a four-year college. From both sides, it’s clear: completing a bachelor’s degree can be a long, hard road.

“The majority of today’s undergraduates are not completing a bachelor’s degree through a continuous residential experience,” said Urban, director of undergraduate programs in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “Transfer is inevitable for many students, and tools that can inform and remove barriers are necessary to support degree attainment.”

Urban recently joined six other college transfer experts for the National Summit for Excellence in Community College Transfer Success, held June 12-13 at Phi Theta Kappa’s headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a meeting of researchers and practitioners to improve equity and performance outcomes for transfer students.

Discussions and ideas from the summit will be incorporated into the development of a new web platform and mobile app by Phi Theta Kappa that will allow students to learn more about what colleges and universities are doing to be “transfer friendly.” It is set to launch in October.

In addition to robust techno tools, the Society plans to release an online curriculum for students to navigate the transfer landscape, a curriculum for college recruiters to be successful advocates for community college transfers, and guidance to Phi Theta Kappa advisors on how to be successful transfer navigators at their colleges.

“Half of all bachelor’s degree graduates have some community college credit,” said Phi Theta Kappa President and CEO Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner. “It makes you wonder what we can do if we all work together and build an intentional pathway.”

The work of this national project to increase community college transfer outcomes is made possible through a grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The platform will also be integrated with the foundation’s Scholar Snapp functionality, which automatically fills in students’ information on scholarship applications.

In its just-released publication, The Talent Blind Spot, the Aspen Institute found that, each year, more than 50,000 high-achieving, low- and moderate-income community college students do not transfer to a four-year institution. Approximately 15,000 of these students have at least a 3.7 GPA, suggesting they could succeed at even the most competitive schools.

“Many students often lack the supportive resources and point people to guide them through transfer,” said Benjamin Fresquez, program associate with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “Reaching students early, educating them about their options, and connecting them to responsive/transfer-friendly institutions at scale can have a significant impact on our country.”

Phi Theta Kappa’s forthcoming web platform and app has the potential to be a one-stop shop for college transfer stakeholders. It will streamline the transfer search process and expand opportunities to talented students, and it will enable four-year colleges to reach more prospective students by offering them much-needed technical and professional support, Fresquez said.

“There are many community-based organizations and groups that are invested in transfer success,” he said. “PTK, as a convener, can continue to partner with stakeholders to advance our collective work to improve transfer.”

As the Aspen Institute works directly with colleges through its American Talent Initiative to expand access and opportunity for talented lower-income students, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation works directly with students. The foundation provides scholarships, educational advising, online resources, and a community of scholars with similar backgrounds to help transfer students succeed at the most selective institutions in the country.

The Cooke Foundation awards the largest private scholarship for transfer students in the country — up to $40,000 per year for approximately 45 students annually — and a majority of the recipients are Phi Theta Kappa members. They also offer the Young Scholars Program for high-performing seventh grade students with financial need and the College Scholarship Program for high school seniors.

“Because we provide scholarships to only a couple hundred high-achieving students a year, we have a limited impact,” said Dana O’Neill, the Cooke Foundation’s co-director of scholarship programs. “That is why the work of PTK and other organizations that focus on a larger population of community college students is so important.

“Providing a web platform and app for these students to navigate the transfer process will meet them where they are and provide a great benefit.”

The new transfer website and app will mirror the social media platforms and actions today’s college students are accustomed to using. Students will be able to see the transfer friendliness ratings of colleges, “like” or “favorite” selected colleges, and get recommended schools and scholarships based on patterns of students like them.

Similarly, colleges will be able to run searches to find the best-fit student for them using behavior patterns such as likes and page views.

“PTK’s new web platform and app will be a game-changer — for students, obviously, but also for the four-year colleges,” said Thomas Gutto, director of transfer enrollment at Loyola Marymount University in California. “This new web experience will … allow for the kind of information sharing that will increase student success by aligning their needs with the right colleges.”

I AM PTK: Rahul Kane

Rahul Kane has the number “34” tattooed on his chest. It’s a reminder of the amount of money he had in his pocket the day he started working as a graduate teaching assistant at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota in 2007. It was all he had left.

He had come to the United States from India in 2005 as a graduate student on a full merit-based scholarship, but he had to stop pursuing his doctoral degree due to certain extenuating circumstances out of his control. He lost his scholarship and, due to the stipulations of his student visa, was not allowed to work.

He was already living off his savings and eventually had to sell all his belongings to survive. Toward the end, he was left with just his clothes and a cell phone.

Saint Cloud State University was a turning point for Rahul. He was accepted into their graduate program in Cell and Molecular Biology in 2007 and was offered a teaching assistantship in the Biology Department.

“I did not want to ask anyone for help until I had nothing,” he said. “I still had $34 to restart my life with. If I hadn’t persevered through my graduate degree, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Rahul now teaches courses in Biology, Microbiology, and Anatomy and Physiology at Century College in Minnesota, where he is advisor to the Alpha Alpha Gamma Chapter. He has zero debt, he owns his own home, and he consistently looks for ways to give back and help his students.

One big way he’s doing this is by creating online resources to reduce costs to students. Rahul has partnered with, a platform that offers courses and study materials based on open educational resources, to create affordable, rigorous, and effective STEM coursework in an online environment.

Access to Lrnr is $35 per student. A peer-reviewed high-quality e-textbook is available for the course for a fraction of the cost of a printed one, but owning the book isn’t required for his courses — the textbook is integrated into the Lrnr online course package.

All of Rahul’s courses that he teaches — whether in person, in the classroom/online hybrid format, or completely online — have the Lrnr online component and are completely textbook free. He has also created completely online, two-semester, transferable Anatomy and Physiology I and II courses that are currently going through the national Quality Matters certification.

“Students can buy a lab kit online, do the labs at home, and complete the semester at their own pace,” he said.

Others are taking notice of Rahul’s work as well. In 2016, Rahul was recognized as one of the Outstanding Educators of the Year by the Board of Trustees of Minnesota State Education System. In April 2018, he pitched an idea to a panel of judges in the Minnesota State Shark Tank event. He and Lrnr would partner to create 2D and 3D model-based activities for teaching anatomy and physiology completely online.

“A&P is a very tactile subject,” he said. “In 2D, you can’t read and know how a skull assembles or the heart works. My goal is to create online 3D activity and animation-based courses that are as rigorous as in-class courses.”

The Shark Tank judges loved his pitch — in May, he found out he’d received $25,000. The project will be completed in 2019.

“While similar programs are available, they are very expensive and out of the reach of a typical community college student,” he said. “This is a huge step toward creating affordable, high-quality and rigorous online science courses. I want community college students to get the same experience medical students get.”

The entire course, including the adaptive learning platform, integrated textbook, activities, assignments, practice quizzes, and the 3D animation-based learning platform, will cost the students only $35 per semester. This is a massive savings for a rigorous high-quality course, compared to other online course options and the traditional textbook options.

Included in the grant write-up is that Lrnr will give $2 per subscription from the state of Minnesota back to a higher education nonprofit that works in the state.

Rahul has also developed prep courses for TEAS and HESI, the exams students must take to get into nursing school and several other healthcare programs. He has been teaching these courses for a couple years now, and they appear to work — the average TEAS score nationally is 64 percent, and his students average 82 percent, he said.

After the tremendous success within Minnesota, Rahul wanted to make these courses available nationally and has partnered with Lrnr to create the TEAS and HESI courses in a completely online format. The courses include a pre-test, three post-tests, about 200 lecture videos that cover all the important topics on the exam, and several simulated quizzes that prepare students for the actual exam.

Rahul uses concept building and competency-based learning approaches in his classes — teaching styles popular in India that he says resonate with his students. He installed a professional video and sound recording studio in his basement and pre-records all lecture videos for his classes. They are available to students at the beginning of the year. He also holds online video office hours to connect with his students and solve any difficulties they might have.

Rahul was selected to serve as a Phi Theta Kappa 2018/2019 Faculty Scholar, and as such he certified advisors to teach the PTK Leadership Development Program Curriculum at Honors Institute 2018, held in June at Villanova University. He was also selected to be the STEM Representative on Phi Theta Kappa’s Honors Program Council and will begin a four-year term this fall.

“The United States has truly been a land of opportunity for me,” he said. “I have worked very hard to get to this place where I can give back generously. I am a living example of transformative power of higher education, and I want to create opportunities for the equitable access to higher education for all.

“I am genuinely thankful to PTK for recognizing my passion and allowing me to serve the students, who I hope will benefit from my work with them.”

3 Ways You’ll Benefit from the Five Star Chapter Plan

The Upsilon Delta Chapter at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis had been a One Star Chapter for many years. It wasn’t inactive — the chapter consistently offered opportunities to members — but students often faced time constraints that prevented them from taking on larger tasks such as an Honors in Action Project.

This changed in 2017, when nine students attended PTK Catalyst in Nashville. They were inspired by the speakers and by the on-stage recognition of other members. They wanted in, and they set immediate goals: become a Five Star Chapter and be recognized on stage at the next convention.

“The drive back started real conversations,” chapter co-advisor Dr. Joan McGrory said. “As many ideas were discussed, I honestly don’t remember anyone being hesitant to commit. We were all, all in.”

The Five Star Chapter Plan is PTK’s guide for building strong, engaged chapters. Chapters are encouraged to set goals at the beginning of each calendar year to reach a certain level based on the PTK activities and programs in which they participate.

All chapters have a default goal of One Star Level, which is based on basic chapter activities like recruiting members and submitting an annual report to Headquarters. The deadline for chapters to report their progress in the Five Star Chapter Plan for recognition is January 23, 2019. See all levels.

It took a lot of work, but one year later, the Upsilon Delta Chapter was named a Five Star Chapter and had its moment on stage as the officers were recognized as a Distinguished Chapter Officer Team at PTK Catalyst 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Recognition is motivational and fuels the drive for longer-term success,” Joan said. “More importantly, when members achieve recognition, it is earned through the development of skills like planning, organizing, budgeting, and teamwork.

“As a consequence, the recognition is long-lasting and serves as a foundation for reaching further and striving for greater success.”

Recognition wasn’t the only way the chapter and its members benefitted from the Five Star Chapter Plan.

Members Gained Some Serious Skills

Building Honors in Action and College Projects — for levels three and up — required officers to develop some key leadership skills, including budgeting, scheduling, and writing and executing a plan of action. They coordinated research workshops with their college librarians and held a professional development workshop with a focus on journaling.

Officers also beefed up their people skills as they encouraged more members to participate in the projects.

College Leaders Took Notice

The chapter was named the 2018 Club of the Year, officers earned college awards for leadership, and members were recognized for their work in moving the needle on student engagement and success. And, as a result of engagement in the Five Star Chapter Plan, the chapter began working with college administrators on a Commit to Complete pledge.

College administrators knew of the goals the chapter was pursuing, so they made a point to encourage and recognize the students. They even provided snacks and soft drinks during meetings.

“Emails of praise and recognition were common, and accomplishments were recognized and publicized in the college newspaper at the request of our top leaders,” co-advisor Dr. Twyla Waters said. “This praise and recognition were an important step to maintain momentum.”

Awards and Opportunities Overflowed

Upsilon Delta began to see success on the regional level too. The chapter officer team earned its first award — the 2017 Spirit Award — during the Tennessee Regional Honors in Action Conference. The team was also the second place Distinguished Officer Team, and the chapter earned Chapter of Light status for its annual service projects. Advisors received the Horizon Awards, given by the Regional Coordinator to the region’s outstanding advisors.

Members took advantage of their new regional network, organizing a region-wide fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House of Memphis. Friendships were forged, and ideas for pursuing scholarships and transferring to a university were exchanged.

The then-chapter president, Ronald Morgan, was elected Vice President for the West Tennessee Region. The next chapter president, Joey Brock, was selected to serve as a Social Media Ambassador for PTK Catalyst 2018. Four chapter members earned individual awards for publication in Tennessee Mosaic, the regional literary anthology.

Ready to see what the Five Star Chapter Plan can do for your chapter? Get started today!

9 Keys to a Strong Transfer Application

Editor’s Note: This post was written and submitted by Heather Yush, Phi Theta Kappa’s Associate Director of College and Transfer Relations.

During PTK Catalyst 2018, we hosted a panel presentation featuring three transfer experts:

  • Kathy Urban, Director of Undergraduate Programs, University of Pennsylvania College of Liberal & Professional Studies
  • Emmett Ingram, Admissions Manager, Columbia University School of General Studies
  • Marguerite McClain, Assistant Director of Admission, Case Western Reserve University

These panelists shared some valuable advice, but a key takeaway was how you can strengthen your transfer application to help increase your chances of getting admitted to your top-choice university. They offered nine tips:

1. Read through the application and become familiar with the requirements before starting the application. If you are not able to “page” through the online application without completing each section, schools will often list what is required for their application online.

Follow the directions and pay attention to things like word counts, the number of recommendation letters, and the type of submissions that are required or allowed. If you need clarification, reach out to the admissions office.

Resist submitting an extra-long essay, more than the required recommendations, or additional materials (videos, files, etc.) if they are not requested.

2. Writing is important. Components such as an essay or writing sample are influential and DO matter. Proofread and have others who know you proofread. Does the essay capture the essence of who you are or what you want to communicate?

Spell check does not catch everything. A word may be spelled correctly, but it might not be the correct word.

3. Look for institutions that are a best fit academically, financially, socially, and geographically. Maybe you had your heart set on a school whose cost (even with financial aid) makes it inaccessible. Another option is to look for an in-state school or a school that offers a significant discount on tuition or a scholarship.

In addition to federal aid, schools may discount their tuition and offer you grants, which will reduce the price. Do not let the sticker price prevent you from applying, as you do not know what the financial aid package will look like.

Look for honors programs if you are interested in smaller classes at your state institution.

4. Prepare your recommenders. Give them your resume and a 250-word essay about your plans at that transfer institution and a deadline date. Waiting for letters of recommendation is most often responsible for holding up the review of an application.

5. If the institution offers an optional Interview, then do it. Interviewers are not meant to be intimidating or scary. They want to have a conversation with you, and this is an opportunity for you to quite literally bring your application to life.

6. If you’re an adult learner, recognize that the number of high school students is declining. Adult students are increasingly important applicants.

7. If you don’t get admitted, ask the transfer admission counselor if they would be willing to offer feedback on why you weren’t admitted. Find out if you can revise and reapply. Or, ask if they have any helpful advice to offer as you move forward with your education.

8. “We want to see people who passionately live their lives,” Kathy Urban said. This comes through in your essay and interview. Be who you are.

9. Do not feel under-qualified to apply or not good enough to get accepted just because you’re not involved in multiple campus clubs and organizations. Often there is a misconception that you must be the president of everything at your current school to get admitted to your next one.

As admissions counselors review applications, they understand that students who are already in college have other obligations that compete for or limit their time to devote to on-campus involvement.

It is more than okay if you are a parent or caretaker, involved in your church or community organizations, have a hobby, or are employed. Talk about the leadership or new skills you’ve developed through those responsibilities. How have those experiences impacted your world view?