Guided pathways have become a full-fledged movement among community colleges in the past few years.
So far, more than 300 institutions have adopted the model, which helps students graduate on time by outlining the courses they need to earn a credential or transfer to a four-year college.
Yet many institutions encounter stumbling blocks when implementing guided pathways. They may have to get buy-in from resistant staff and faculty, shift resources to support the new model or make constant tweaks to get the results they want. But experts say it's worth staying the course; early adopters show promising results, such as increased graduation and retention rates.
To find out more about the challenges of implementing guided pathways, we asked five community college administrators to share what they learned from rolling out the model at their institutions and what advice they'd give to others doing the same. Here's what they had to say.
The following responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (A-B Tech)
Beth Stewart, vice president of instructional services
When implementing the Pathway Project at A-B Tech, the two most important lessons we learned centered on advising and flexibility.
First, we quickly learned that quality advising is more important to the success of the project than developing structured curricula. Cultivating buy-in from advisors is paramount. Professional development covering the importance of pathways helps obtain buy-in, as does giving advisers the authority to say no to students who want to stray from their path. Advisers also must be given technology that restricts registration to courses they approve. Otherwise, some students disregard quality advising, delaying completion.
Second, any college attempting guided pathways must be flexible. Start small by focusing on one or two programs. Learn from mistakes. Make changes quickly. A-B Tech developed the Pathway Project in one year, but it took three years of implementation before seeing a positive impact on retention and completion. We made dozens of minor changes, and we anticipate making more. The Pathway Project looks very different now than it did in the fall of 2016 and that's okay. Flexibility has made it much stronger.
Austin Community College District (ACC)
Charles Cook, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs
Historically, the structure and operations of community colleges offered students a bewildering array of options without adequate assessment or advising related to their individual needs and goals. The prevailing mode of instruction was one of transmitting information, via lectures, to passive students as opposed to active and collaborative engagement.
In 2016, ACC began implementing guided pathways, which is an institution-wide approach to improving student success by providing clear, easy-to-follow road maps to on-time completion.
For these efforts to be successful, everyone at the college must see their role in improving the student experience. This requires continuous communication and dialogue as well as many opportunities for professional development. To start, ACC identified 24 faculty, staff and students who spent a year exploring the concepts of guided pathways, how other colleges implemented them and how they might be adapted for implementation at ACC.
The results are beginning to show, but we are far from finished. The process requires continuous evaluation and adjustments. Our work with guided pathways has the potential to be transformational beyond ACC, playing an integral role in the economic development of the region.
Lorain County Community College
Jonathan Dryden, provost and vice president for academic and learner services
The secret to the success of our guided pathways program is that it has been — and continues to be — a grassroots effort guided by our faculty and staff. Instead of direction coming solely from administrators and senior leaders, we formed a cross-functional committee of deans, advising staff and faculty that helped lead the implementation of our guided pathways strategy. They were given the freedom to respond creatively to obstacles as they saw fit.
Another team of math and English faculty formed a committee to redesign our developmental education courses so they gave students an accelerated on-ramp to our program pathways. Our English faculty members led the launch of a corequisite model of college composition that allowed students to complete their remedial and college-level courses simultaneously. This helped accelerate students onto their pathways to degree completion. With this type of leadership from our faculty, we developed formal policies and practices to support student success.
A few tools helped with this approach. Jobs for the Future's survey tool helped us identify areas of policy and practice that impact students, while Civitas Learning helps increase transparency around student data, find opportunities for coordinated student care and take informed action to keep students on the completion pathway.
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC)
Trista Loritz, learning division project manager
We structured our guided pathways work around four pillars.
First, we focused on mapping pathways to students' end goals. To help students reach them, NWTC programs sequenced all courses and updated the program pages to showcase the recommended order and developed career pathways in 80% of programs. Out of those, 75% are entirely embedded.
Second, we launched supports to help students choose and successfully enter a pathway. A mandatory College 101 course has been embedded in all programs. We formally offer credit for prior learning, and we advise faculty on different ways to assess the knowledge and skills students gained through those experiences as they relate to existing course competencies.
Third, we put in place new programs to help keep students on their pathways. For example, we partnered with InsideTrack to build the institutional capabilities and infrastructure required to provide highly personalized student support.
Finally, we wanted to ensure that students are learning. To do this, a faculty-led committee will implement a five-year assessment plan that includes annual reports, reflections, and documented evidence of students' mastery of the intended learning outcomes as well as that the necessary technical and employability skills have been built.
Stanly Community College
Myra Furr, vice president of student success and dean of students
In 2016, Stanly Community College joined community colleges from across the nation to participate in the American Association of Community Colleges' (AACC) Pathways Project.
This in-depth work led the administration and college community to take a hard look at how we are performing relative to the four pillars of AACC's guided pathways: clarify the path; enter the path; stay on the path; and ensure students are learning. While we were able to identify areas of excellence, such as the work we are doing to ensure students are learning, we realized we needed to work on how we assist students to stay on the path to their goal.
So, in 2018, we transformed our advising model from a faculty-driven one to a staff (success coach) approach. During a time when some colleges are seeing a decline in headcount, ours is up 7% for the fall 2019 term, and tentative data shows a positive increase in term-to-term persistence. Schools with the opportunity to engage in work such as guided pathways will see positive results if they use a team approach geared toward improving academic excellence for students.