Bill Seymour, the president of Cleveland State Community College, is a big proponent of an emerging educational model for two-year schools that's meant to improve student outcomes. Called guided pathways, the approach uses intensive advising and highly structured programs to help students complete their studies without taking unnecessary courses or falling off track.
The approach is working for the Tennessee school, whose fall-to-fall retention rate has improved 8.5% since it was selected by the American Association of Community Colleges to pioneer the model in 2015.
But guided pathways can be an expensive undertaking. Often, schools have to find additional funding or shift their resources to hire more advisers and better track students.
"We didn't have any money to do anything, really. We had the will, we had the desire to move in new directions," Seymour said. "That brought a commitment to find a way to reallocate where we needed to."
Cleveland State is one of hundreds of colleges adopting guided pathways. But according to a recent working paper from the Community College Research Center, implementing the model's core tenets can cost $7.1 million over four years at a college with around 4,000 full-time-equivalent students. That's about 12% of the annual budget.
4-year cost estimates for implementing guided pathways by institution size
|Institution size||Overall cost||Annual cost per FTE|
Source: Community College Research Center
The researchers calculated the costs by interviewing leaders and examining documents from 12 community colleges implementing guided pathways. The school sample is "broadly similar to the national community college sector," according to the report, which estimates making the changes leads to an additional $450 spent per full-time-equivalent student each year at the 4,000-student schools.
Still, community college leaders and higher education experts say adopting guided pathways is worthwhile.
If reforms are successful, schools will see better retention and graduation rates, they note. That can lead to more tuition revenue each term and even increased state support for colleges eligible for performance-based funding.
"The more we can keep students to completion, the better we will do (on the) budget bottom line," said Ann Buchele, vice president of academic and student affairs at Linn-Benton Community College, which was also involved in AACC's guided pathways project.
Getting started with program maps
Guided pathways are designed to create a funnel for students. Credentials are often grouped under broad academic categories and then mapped out to help students understand which classes they need to take.
It's about "simplifying the choices of courses and programs," said Tina Hoxie, associate provost and dean of student affairs at Grand Rapids Community College, in Michigan.
CCRC estimates program maps would cost nearly $856,000 to implement and almost $90,000 per year to sustain for a school with 4,000 full-time equivalents, based on the sample.
Cost estimates for implementing guided pathways' elements by institution size
|Cost category||2,000 FTEs||4,000 FTEs||10,000 FTEs|
Source: Community College Research Center
Linn-Benton, in Oregon, assembled a team of around two dozen college employees and students to work with academic departments on crafting maps for the college's 82 programs. These chart a path to students' chosen credentials and include a list of approved alternatives to the listed courses.
"Our goal is to help students take the courses they need, and not take anything extra," Buchele said. If students want to explore classes outside of their pathways, advisers will help them understand how it will affect their financial aid and time to completion, she added.
The college also developed an online tool based on the maps that students can use to calculate the courses they need to take depending on which math and English classes they tested into. Building the service in-house helped the school save money, Buchele said.
The core team also grouped the programs under seven meta-majors, which include business, arts and humanities, and education and social services. Students must select one of these even if they haven't decided on a final program. School officials have identified classes students can take for one or two terms that will likely count toward their credential while they make up their minds.
The mapping process helped some colleges determine which class sections needed to be added and when, as well as which ones could be scaled back. The college's completion rate has also improved, and it has more students completing 30 credits in their first year.
At Cleveland State, which is one of the colleges CCRC studied, faculty members were tasked with developing program maps. "They knocked it out in a matter of weeks" at no additional cost to the college, Seymour said.
Like Linn-Benton, the college bundled the programs into seven meta-majors and revamped its website so students could easily access the maps. "It made things quite easy for students," Seymour said. "Many of them say, ‘Just tell me what I need to take.'"
Ramping up advising
Program maps help students get on track to completion, but advising is key to ensure they don't fall off course, college officials said. That's why intensive advising — which includes helping students with financing and exploring transfer and career options — is another common element of guided pathways practices.
CCRC found it is also the most expensive, estimating that advising costs a college with 4,000 full-time equivalents nearly $3.7 million to implement and $895,000 annually to maintain. While many colleges will retrain personnel to fill new advising roles, others find new funding for this work.
Grand Rapids Community College received a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education last year to help retain and graduate additional students. Some of that funding will be used to better monitor students on their individual pathways.
"We didn't have any money to do anything, really. We had the will, we had the desire to move in new directions. That brought a commitment to find a way to reallocate where we needed to."
President, Cleveland State Community College
Likewise, the department recently gave a $2.7 million grant to New York's Westchester Community College. Some of the money is going toward scaling an educational model spearheaded by the City University of New York, said Michele Campagna, Westchester's assistant dean of learning initiatives and student success.
CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, model focuses on intensive advising and offers increased financial and academic support to help students stay on track. "We're looking to take the best of what we have from ASAP and see what elements of that we can bring to scale," Campagna said.
Westchester's first-time, full-time students are now assigned academic advisors who check in with them periodically, and the college is underway with redesigning advising for the whole campus.
Cleveland State's initial investment in guided pathways led to better retention rates, which helped it qualify for around $1.2 million more in state performance-based funding last fall. It also grew enrollment in 2018 and 2019 before taking a hit this fall along with the rest of the community college sector.
Some of the additional state and tuition revenue went toward creating a student success center, which is staffed with academic advisers who guide students through registration and their first year before handing them off to a faculty member in their second year. Although the center was designed to be in-person, it has been mostly virtual during the pandemic.
Seymour said implementing these changes prepared the college well for the pandemic's challenges and advised other colleges to keep doing the work.
"Student success breeds success for the college," Seymour said.