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By Paul Bradley  /  
2016 May 9 - 08:46 pm

Forging a Path

Pathways Project Eyes Fundamental College Restructuring



Thirty colleges. Eight leading higher education groups. Millions of dollars in support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

And one overarching, ambitious goal: to revamp everything at these community colleges from student intake to professional development, from marketing to student advising, and have it all in place for the 2018 academic year.

These are the contours of the Pathways Project, and this is no boutique project destined to reach only a relatively small number of students.  Pathways Project Participants

Rather, it is being billed as top-to-bottom, fundamental change, an effort to embed the guided pathways approach into every corner of participating colleges.

“This is real work,” said Kay McClenney, senior advisor to the president of the American Association of Community Colleges, who is heading the Pathways Project. “This is fundamental. If we keep on doing what we’re doing, we’ll get the same results.”

She added: “It’s not work for rookies. It’s not work for people who aren’t interested in big, comprehensive institutional change.”

McClenney was speaking to an attentive, overflow crowd of community college leaders at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges in Chicago. There, structured pathways took center stage among educators searching for ways to improve the sector’s notoriously poor retention and completion rates. Six years after enrolling, fewer than four in 10 community colleges students have earned a credential.

The Pathways Project has its roots in the work of the AACC’s 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges. It is hoped that the project will provide a template for other colleges to follow, including training, materials and models.

The project got a significant boost last year with the publication of “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success,” a book by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College Columbia University.

The book has become something of a combination Bible and manual for advocates of the structured pathways approach.

The book says guided pathways should replace the so-called cafeteria, self-service approach college characteristic community colleges. In most community colleges, students must navigate a complex and often confusing array of programs, courses and support services mostly on their own. A clear path to the end goals is difficult to discern. Many students, unable to see the path, get frustrated and drop out. The broad choices available at community colleges, the result of their open access mission and policies that tie funding to enrollment, have undermined student success, the book asserts.

Pathways, by contrast, would provide structure guiding a student from the start of their academic career to the awarding of an associate degree or transfer to a four-year college. Upon enrollment, students would be assigned to a meta-major, a broad field of study. Then they would be exposed to various pathways so they can focus on what interests them.

“There is a myth out there that students enjoy wandering,” said Rob Johnstone, president and founder of the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement. “They want direction.”

The challenge for colleges is to provide students with clear choices without limiting their options.

“The real issue is a lack of coherence, not choice,” said Jenkins. “How does your course fit into a coherent program of study?” “What we want is not no choice, but informed choice,” McClenney said.

The project is being funded by a $5.2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Partners include Achieving the Dream, Inc., the Aspen Institute, the Center for Community College Student Engagement, the Community College Research Center, Jobs for the Future, the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement, and Public Agenda.

Patrick Methvin, deputy director of postsecondary student success at the Gates Foundation, said the organization is in the effort for the long haul.

“It’s about getting a ticket to the middle class,” he said. But the transformation will not happen overnight, he said.

“This is going to take five to seven years,” he said. “What is demanded is a combination of patience and urgency.”

That long-term timeframe, at a time when elected officials and other policy makers are demanding immediate results, is just one challenge confronting advocates of the guided pathways approach. Such sweeping reforms require tough decisions by college leaders and commitment among faculty members wary of still another ballyhooed initiative.

Charlene Dukes is president of Prince George’s Community College, one of the 30 colleges involved in the Pathways Project. She described how when she started the program there, the college offered buyouts to 180 faculty members. The goal was strong faculty buy-in, she said.

“I told them ‘your choice not to take it means you are joining our Pathways Project,’” she said. New faculty hires are clearly told that the school has embarked on the Pathways Project. To get a job, new faculty members must be all in, she said.

Each college is also its own individual challenges. At PGCC, for example, 93 percent of students are members of minority groups and 73 percent qualify for Pell Grants. Hunger and homelessness are real issues, she said.

“It’s hard to study if you are worried about where you are going to sleep,” she said. “It’s looking at who our students are.”

College officials also must demonstrate results to win broader community support for such fundamental change.

“You have to help people believe what is possible,” Johnstone said. “You have to show them how this is different from anything we have ever done.”

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