Charting a New Path to Success
Work on Building Guided Pathways Accelerates
About a year from now, one of the most comprehensive reform efforts in the history of the community college movement is due to begin flowering after years of spadework.
The Guided Pathways Project is being spearheaded by the American Association of Community Colleges and is supported by some of the most influential groups in the community college movement: Achieving the Dream, 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.
The project is scheduled to be fully implemented on 30 campuses across the country in time for the fall 2018 semester. It has been called nothing less than a fundamental reordering of how colleges have been doing business for a generation or more, involving substantial changes to a college’s programs, services, business processes, and policies.
Just as importantly, it also requires something more ethereal: changes in mindsets and organizational cultures. Community colleges need to come to the difficult conclusion that their important, essential work is falling short.
“College leaders at all levels emphasize the importance of continuing to celebrate and attend to the access function of community colleges, particularly with the important and growing emphasis on equity,” said Kay McClenney, special assistant to the president at the AACC. “That said, a strong impetus for the work on guided pathways is the recognition among leaders that the hard work on student success and equity undertaken over the past decade and a half has not brought us to the place we need to be and to the level of success we aspire to for our students.”
A paper by Jobs for the Future describes the imperative facing colleges this way: “Campuses and states must do more than establish metrics for success, change transfer policies, provide better academic advising and support pilots targeting specific student subgroups. Campuses need to redesign pilot projects and ad hoc interventions into structured or guided pathways that reshape every step of the students experience, and states must scale pathways across state systems to serve all students.”
Colleges, then, have to change the way they are accustomed to doing things. Faculty must be engaged in the process. Curriculum has to be rewritten. Programs, support services, and instructional approaches are being redesigned and re-aligned to help students clarify their goals, choose and enter pathways that will achieve those goals, stay on those pathways, and master knowledge and skills that will enable them to advance in the labor market and successfully pursue further education.
As advocates of guided pathways like to say, this is not work for the faint of heart.
The Pathways Project has its roots in the work of the AACC’s the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges. It is hoped that the project will reach well beyond the 30 colleges involved in the AACC initiative, providing a template for other colleges to follow, including training, materials and models.
Though the notion of guided pathways has been around for a long time, the current project took off in 2015 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 characteristic of 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.
This spring, the CCRC released a report on the progress being made to implement the guided pathways approach. The speed with which colleges are implementing reform has been impressive, the report says. About 200 colleges across the country are undertaking guided pathways reforms, boosted by support from state agencies, student success centers, and other entities.
The report said the need for guided pathways is clear.
“At community colleges, the paths into and through programs of study are often unclear and not well aligned with students’ end goals,” it said. “This problem is particularly acute for students seeking to transfer to four-year institutions. Information on transfer requirements is often complicated, hard to find, and unreliable. Prospective transfer students are typically encouraged to take general education courses on the premise that doing so will give them the most flexibility when they transfer. However, since general education requirements often vary by major, students who are not directed to the appropriate general education courses for their desired major may have to take additional lower division courses when they arrive at the four-year college to satisfy bachelor’s degree requirements.”
“In the guided pathways model,” the report adds, “colleges clearly map out every program, indicating which courses students should take in what sequence and highlighting courses that are critical to success in the program, along with ‘co-curricular’ requirements and progress milestones. For each program, colleges provide detailed information on the employment opportunities targeted by the program and the transfer requirements for bachelor’s programs in related fields. All of this information is readily accessible on colleges’ websites.”
And while Guided Pathways will not be fully implemented until the fall semester opens in the fall of 2018, the difficult reform work needed to make it a reality is under way now. College leaders have completed a series of seminars in Washington, D.C. with some of the leading thinkers in community college reform. Armed with what they have learned, they are now working to make this hugely ambitious initiative a success, the CCRC report said.
• San Jacinto College, in Texas, organized its 144 degree and certificate programs into eight metamajors (tentatively called “career pathways”) that are aligned with the 16 career clusters established by the State of Texas for postsecondary education and the five “endorsement” career fields that the Texas legislature has established to guide career and college planning by high school students.
• Alamo Colleges, also in Texas, have organized their programs into six “Alamo Institutes” that are aligned with growth areas in the San Antonio region: creative and communication arts, business and entrepreneurship, health and biosciences, advanced manufacturing and logistics, public service, and science and technology. For transfer programs, the colleges began by “backward mapping” from popular university transfer programs to determine which of the 120 hours of instruction in a bachelor’s program in a particular major could be taken at Alamo, and which need to be taken at a university.
• Northeast Wisconsin Technical College has organized its programs into 13 “fields of interest,” each of which has been mapped out with the help of employer advisory committees. The college has also recently entered into a partnership with the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay to create stronger transfer programs.
The progress is encouraging. But the movement still faces some serious challenges, the CCRC report says. Chief among them is integrating developmental education into pathways to better enable more students who arrive underprepared to pass critical program gateway courses and get on a program path as efficiently and quickly as possible. Most of the programs being developed by the Pathways Colleges are being designed for college-ready students, who make up a small percentage of community college enrollment.
Still, the progress so far has been encouraging, McClenney said.
“Very exciting is the fact that CCRC is reporting that the colleges are progressing in implementing real change, and that even now, some are beginning to see improvements in key performance indicators that reflect early momentum in student progress,” she said in an email. “Clearly, the field needs more proof points regarding the efficacy of the pathways model and the essential practices it incorporates. That is one of the driving purposes of the AACC Pathways project and related work going on around the country. Still, the model itself is evidencebased; and importantly, there is emerging evidence in both community colleges and universities of improvements in student progress and equity.”