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The Community College Baccalaureate Association's announcement this summer that it would affiliate with the Golden Key International Honor Society seemed like the happy ending to a Goldilocks-style story. After having been spurned by one honor society for being too much like two-year institutions and another for being too much like four-year universities, the bachelor-degree granting community colleges seemed finally to have found a society that was "just right."

But the story has gotten complicated again: The association now finds itself in the awkward position of having two honor societies vying to represent its members' students.

Looking for a Partner

The search for an honor society that would accept community college baccalaureate students was far from easy.

Beth Hagan, executive director of CCBA, said the quest started two years ago, at the request of some member institution officials who bemoaned the lack of such opportunities for their baccalaureate students. She asked the Association of College Honor Societies who might be an ideal fit for these students and their unusual institutions.

She was told that the Alpha Chi National College Honor Society might be a good match. Alpha Chi has among its members some nontraditional institutions, including national online for-profit institutions and a few brick-and-mortar branch campuses of those institutions that offer both two- and four-year degrees.

In April 2009, after discussion between the two parties, Alpha Chi rejected CCBA’s offer to form an affiliation that would give their baccalaureate-granting community college members a chance to join the honor society. In a letter to Hagan, Dennis Organ, executive director of Alpha Chi, wrote that the honor society was addressing “the broader question of the kinds of institutions that are appropriate for affiliation” with it. He also wrote that “depending on the evolution of higher education in coming years, eventually our two groups may find common ground, even if it is not possible in the immediate future.”

Hagan said she did not take the rejection personally, but she noted that it was possible to “read between the lines” and perceive it as a slight. Given that community college baccalaureates are still in their nascent stage at institutions around the country, she chalked it up to a simple lack of understanding.

“A lot of people don’t understand that these degrees are just as good as baccalaureate degrees at four-year institutions,” Hagan said. “We’re at the beginning stages of something very important with the community college baccalaureate.”

Organ explained Alpha Chi’s lack of interest in community college baccalaureate students quite differently. He noted that officials from some of the honor society’s longstanding member institutions have expressed concern at the changing makeup of its membership in recent years. He spoke, for example, of the addition of the for-profit Strayer University and a pair of branches of DeVry University.

“We didn’t know what we were getting into,” said Organ, who is also the dean or arts and sciences at Harding University, in Arkansas. “The more we know about these trends, we’re wondering, do we want to become known as the honor society that caters to these schools in addition to others? We’re afraid we might lose some traditional schools if they perceive this.… Still, some of our traditional school members have been taken over by for-profits, and we’re not about to kick out somebody that’s been a member in good faith all this time. There’s just a concern about what the nature of Alpha Chi’s image and reputation is going to be in the eyes of our longstanding members.”

At the time Alpha Chi was considering whether to open up its membership to baccalaureate-granting community colleges, Organ noted, it was also weighing whether to admit a “for-profit school affiliated with a larger nonprofit umbrella education group” that was primarily known for awarding associate degrees but had recently begun offering baccalaureate degrees. Organ noted that Alpha Chi had also turned down this institution, which he would not name, bowing to concerns from other, member institutions.

“Our commitment to being a junior- and senior-level honor society at four-year schools is so strong that the idea of letting in a community college, which is essentially a two-year school which maybe has some students in four-year programs, would change the nature of our group to some extent,” Organ said. “That’s a sticking point for sure.”

Alpha Chi, however, has convened an ad hoc committee “to develop and recommend policy with regard to institutions that are transitioning from two-year to four-year programs.” That group has not established a set of minimum admission rules yet, Organ noted, but it is considering requiring that any community college seeking admission must have at least 50 percent of its students enrolled in baccalaureate-degree programs.

Introducing a Competitor

When CCBA struck out with Alpha Chi, Hagan then asked the ACHS what it would take to start a new honor society just for these students. Given the heavy lifting required to get such a new organization off the ground, Hagan naturally thought about teaming up with Phi Theta Kappa, the largest and most well-known honor society for community college students.

Among the initial concerns expressed about letting community college baccalaureate students into the existing Phi Theta Kappa honor society, Hagan explained, was that this would mark a break from its founding mission. After conferring with Phi Theta Kappa officials about the possibility of teaming up, Hagan said, she never heard from them again.

During the radio silence, CCBA struck a deal with Golden Key, which has more than 375 chapters at four-year institutions in more than 190 countries, and more than 2 million members. As the affiliation between the two is still at an early stage, it is unclear how many baccalaureate-granting institutions will seek to found chapters. There are about 100 or so of these community colleges throughout the United States and Canada. Their concentration is particularly high in Florida, where changes to state law have encouraged community colleges to offer a plethora of four-year degrees. Acceptance of them is also on the rise in populous states such as Illinois and Texas.

For Golden Key officials, this is a natural partnership.

“We’ve always been associated with four-year, accredited, degree-granting institutions,” said John Mitchell, chief executive officer of Golden Key. “But the landscape across the country is changing, and there are a lot more nontraditional students. So, when [CCBA] asked us if we would be interested in working with their institutions, I really couldn’t find any real reasons why not. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, well, you’re not quite like us,’ or anything like that. If an individual is continuing to work toward a baccalaureate degree through an accredited community college, then I’m more than happy to provide that individual with a chance to be recognized for [his or her] hard work.”

After news of the new partnership spread, and much to Hagan’s surprise, Phi Theta Kappa finally broke its silence and announced last month its “plans for a fall launch of a new honor society to serve community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees.” In a widely distributed letter, Phi Theta Kappa officials noted that “this is a result of earlier discussions with” CCBA and that “many indicated that Phi Theta Kappa should design this new society.”

Upset at the move, Hagan said she has sent a “cease and desist” letter to Phi Theta Kappa, noting that its announcement had sowed confusion among CCBA member institutions who had just heard about their provisional affiliation with Golden Key. Though Hagan noted that she would not be against her member institutions belonging to both Golden Key and any new Phi Theta Kappa society specifically for community college baccalaureate students, she expressed discontent at feeling passed over.

“We see ourselves as very connected to the colleges that confer baccalaureate degrees,” Hagan said. “I guess Phi Theta Kappa perceived they didn’t need us.”

Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, confirmed via e-mail that his organization is going ahead with its plans to start a new honor society for community college baccalaureate students, noting that he had received “overwhelming support from college presidents, administrators and students.” He noted that he was not “convinced that an honors organization exists today that meets” the unique needs of students in these programs.

“The research administrators and students both wanted opportunities for recognition of completion of coursework at the junior and senior level, not just an extension of recognition as a Phi Theta Kappa member,” Risley wrote.

Risley noted that a survey Phi Theta Kappa developed with Hagan and distributed to CCBA member institutions showed that “numerous survey respondents identified Phi Theta Kappa as the organization that should pursue developing such an honor society.” He added that “there were no discussions of establishing a formal agreement” between Phi Theta Kappa and CCBA.

“As to the suggestion from CCBA that we no longer create an honor society, Dr. Hagan in her communication to us has requested, and I quote, that we ‘stop these efforts to compete with us,’ ” Risley wrote. “This isn’t about competition -- this is about serving students. We feel no other organization understands community college students and their needs as comprehensively as Phi Theta Kappa. Our organization has a track record dating back nearly 100 years, based on our success in proving quality and innovative programs and services to community colleges. We stand on our record and integrity as an organization.”

If there is any indication on what the future will hold for Phi Theta Kappa and Golden Key’s runs at baccalaureate-granting community colleges, consider the response of Ali Esmaeili, associate dean of baccalaureate programs at South Texas College and a CCBA board member.

“I think it benefits students to have a choice,” he said.

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