Get With the Program… and Finish It: The Guided Pathways Approach to Helping Students Complete College

Most community colleges offer a wide array of programs. Yet, colleges typically provide little guidance to help new students choose a program of study and develop a plan for completing it. While career services and advising are provided to students who seek them out, studies suggest that those who need such services the most are the least likely to take advantage of them.

Community college students often report that they are confused and frustrated by the many choices they confront during college. When left alone to advise themselves, many students end up making bad decisions that can waste time and tuition dollars, and decrease their chances of completing college.

While advising is critical, most community colleges cannot afford enough advisors to provide one-on-one support to the students who need it.  Instead, a growing number of colleges are redesigning their academic programs to simplify students’ choices and create clearer pathways to program completion, further education, and career advancement.

Our recent paper examines this “guided pathways” approach, which has three main features:

1)      Clear roadmaps to student end goals. In guided pathways reforms, academic programs are clearly mapped out by faculty to create educationally coherent roadmaps with clearly defined learning outcomes. They are aligned with requirements for further education and, in occupational programs, for career advancement. Students are given a default, whole program sequence of courses to follow for their chosen programs based on these maps, but they can also opt out to follow an alternative path. The guided pathways approach does not restrict students’ options, but it does scaffold decision-making, so that students will be more likely to make good decisions and achieve their goals.

2)      On-ramps to programs of study. The intake system is redesigned to help new students clarify goals for college and careers and, once these are established (even tentatively), to develop an educational plan. All students are required to choose an initial field of interest (such as business, allied health, or English and humanities) and to follow a default curriculum that gives them a taste of the field and helps them decide whether they want to pursue a particular program in that field or switch to another one. Academic foundation skills and “college knowledge” skills are contextualized in college-level coursework in the student’s field of interest.

3)      Embedded advising, progress tracking, feedback, and support. Students’ progress relative to their academic plan is closely monitored and frequent feedback is provided. This way, students can see where they stand in relation to their goals, and faculty and advisors can intervene when students are not making progress or stray “off path.” Advisors and faculty work cooperatively to ensure a smooth transition from initial general advising to advising in a program.

Institutions that have pioneered this approach have reported significant improvements in student outcomes. Queensborough Community College, for example, has seen its federally reported graduation rate increase from 12 to 16 percent in three years.  Valencia College, which has an academic and career planning system linked to clear pathways and “pre-major” tracks aligned with junior standing in majors at partner universities, was formally recognized as a national leader for its high completion rates. The animating principles behind the guided pathways model derive from research in behavioral economics, organizational effectiveness, and research on effective teaching and learning.  Targeted research on guided pathways reforms is only beginning, but early results are promising.

Unlike many reform pilots and programs that community colleges have tried and tested over the past 15 years, the guided pathway approach represents a systemic change in practice.  It requires colleges to move from a business model focused on giving students low-cost access to college courses to one designed to help students enter and complete programs of study that lead to further education and career advancement.  Such reforms require bold leadership and they are not without their costs, but only by rethinking how they teach and support students will colleges be able to “move the needle” on student success.

Davis Jenkins is a Senior Research Associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

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