Plotting Student Pathways
AACC Convention Focuses on Pathways Proposals
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — It’s no accident that the competition for the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence has been dominated by Florida colleges.
The very first prize, awarded in 2011, went to Valenica College, in Orlando. This year the prize was awarded to Santa Fe College, located in Gainesville.
And according to Rob Johnstone, president of the National Center for Inquiry & Improvement, 26 of the state’s 29 community colleges would have ranked among the top 100 colleges had not the Aspen jury — of which Johnstone was a member — tweaked the rules to create more balance.
At least part of the reason that Sunshine State colleges have dominated the Aspen competition is that Florida was an early adopter of the so-called pathways approach to promoting student success. In Florida, two-year and four-year universities share common course numbering. They have common articulation agreements.
At Florida community colleges, each student gets a clear roadmap from admission to graduation. Along the way, they know how many credits they have earned and how many they need to reach the finish line, Johnstone said.
“These things matter,” said Johnstone, who was speaking during a session at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges. “Policy makes a difference.”
The convention attracted community college presidents, chancellors and other thought leaders from around the country. They shared ideas on college completion, accountability, developmental education and stackable credentials.
But most of all they talked about student pathways, which have gained new currency in higher education circles as educators overlook a landscape of piecemeal reforms which have not moved the needle on student success in significant ways. Dozens of sessions at the convention were devoted to pathways and the need for community colleges to completely overhaul the way they do business, using the pathway model.
One could scarcely walk the hallways of the cavernous Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center without hearing the word “pathways” uttered in one way or another.
The discussion is being fueled by the ambitious college completion goals announced by President Obama and supported by an array of philanthropic groups and education associations, including the AACC. Obama’s ambitious goal — he said community colleges should increase college completion rates by 50 percent by 2020 — has provided a critical benchmark for community colleges, which in turn have produced a panoply of reform efforts.
From student success courses to mandatory orientation, from math emporiums to early college high school, community colleges have tried them all. The efforts and subsequent analysis have given educators and policymakers a keener understanding of the challenges facing community colleges and the best strategies to address them.
But most of the reforms have been small-scale and reached a relatively small numbers of students. They have never been pulled into a coherent whole. They have not significantly improved the dismal completion rates among community college students, which have remained essentially flat over the past decade. Despite the feverish pace of reform, an essential truth remains: Fewer than four in 10 community college students earn a degree or credential within six years.
Reformers are searching for another way, and growing numbers believe pathways is it.
Lara Couturier, program director of Jobs for the Future, said colleges and state governments need to create and support reform in a big way. The Boston-based think tank is studying ways to get states to better support colleges and their reform efforts.
“Pilot projects aren’t going to meet the challenge,” she said. “We need solutions that are going to help millions of students.”
Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, said: “If you want to improve your outcomes, you have to do things differently.”
Jenkins discounted the notion that technology will solve higher education’s shortcomings, that a digital university of the future will replace essential face-to-face interactions between students and professors.
“The idea of this digital university where students can sit in their underwear at home and take courses instead of coming to you is a long way off,” he said.
Jenkins is the co-author of a new book , Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. The book, co-authored by CCRC Director Thomas A. Bailey and Assistant Director Shanna Smith Jaggars, outlines recommendations on restructuring community colleges using the pathways system. The book served as a touchstone for much of the discussion during the convention.
The book asserts that community colleges today employ a cafeteria, selfservice model of education that is serving students poorly. The goal of the system is to offer a wide variety of courses at low cost to all kinds of students. It’s based on promoting access, not completion.
Bailey said students face a bewildering array of options to consider. Navigating community college becomes a series of high-stakes choices about what courses to take, which program to pursue, how and when to seek out support, whether to enroll full- or part-time and whether and where to transfer.
Under the current system, “you can get almost everything you want, but students are on their own to figure out how to put this together,” Bailey said. Most students are illequipped to do so.
Numerous colleges have already embraced the pathways approach. It’s a hallmark of many career and technical education programs. But expanding it to large swaths of students is problematic.
At Harper College in Illinois, for example, “there is a clear pathway if you want to be a welder, if you want to be a nurse, if you want to be a dental hygienist,” said college President Kenneth Ender. “There is a lot of low-hanging fruit for guided pathways.
Unfortunately, that represents 35 to 40 percent of our students.”
Adopting the pathways approach is neither easy nor cheap. It fundamentally reshapes the roles of faculty, staff, administrators and students. Faculty members, for example, no longer just teach. They become responsible for creating pathways and deciding which courses are needed and which should be discarded.
Such efforts commonly encounter resistance. A reform effort at Laramie County Community College, for example, has every student select a field of study by the end of their first semester. College President Joe Schaeffer said implementing the systemic change has been a tough slog.
“We are talking about rewriting the culture,” he said. “This stuff takes a long time.”
How long? In Ender’s view, it will take between eight and 10 years for the pathways to take hold. That’s bad news for politicians who oversee community colleges. They want results quickly.
“Things don’t start happening until year six, seven or eight,” Ender said. “This takes a long time, and faculty has to be to in on it from the get-go, or you will not succeed.”
In a time when states are disinvesting in higher education, upfront costs of restructuring can be significant, said Rolando Montoya, provost of operations at Miami Dade College. Pathways initiatives entail hiring more people, especially advisors and counselors. That costs money.
When the college launched its pathways initiative, it hired 20 master’s level advisors, 11 pre-admissions advisors, 11 financial aid advisors, two prior learning assessment officers, a veterans’ coordinator and others. It installed a new $60 million computer system capable of tracking the progress of every student.
“If you really want significant change, if you want to move the needle and produce a revolution of completion in your institution, you need to spend some money,” Montoya said.
The overarching challenge is persuading policymakers that the added spending is actually an investment that will pay significant dividends, Montoya said.
“This completion agenda actually saves money,” he said. “It produces more graduates who become taxpayers sooner.”
Despite the enthusiasm that has greeted pathways proposals, questions remain. Chief among them is whether the student pathways approach represents a risky leap of faith or a well-grounded strategic decision. Nobody knows for sure.
“There is strong evidence that the current system does not work well,” Jenkins said. “We have evidence from other organizations that this works. But it’s a heavy lift.
It takes five years to lay the foundation and seven years to put it into place. Politicians don’t have that kind of time.”
Added Johnstone: “What we do know is what we are doing now is not working.”