I propose a game for your next community college conference: every time you hear the word ”pathways” mentioned in a keynote, concurrent session, or even in the hallway, take a sip of your preferred beverage. I guarantee by the end of the first day, you’ll be sick of the word (and your beverage choice).
The Pathways movement—an institution-wide approach to student success based on clear, coherent, and structured educational experiences that guide each student from the point of entry through to graduation, transfer, and career—is here to stay. Some of the largest names in the industry are leading the charge, and the movement takes a refreshingly holistic approach to student success. Faculty may be tempted to roll their eyes at yet another initiative, but board members, state legislators, and funders will undoubtedly raise the question, “Are we doing Pathways”?
The answer to that question depends on the reach of your efforts. However well-intentioned, well-designed, and well-implemented, college leaders are no longer satisfied with small, boutique programs. A high-touch program may dramatically improve 10 students’ odds of success, but on a campus of several hundred, thousand, or tens of thousands, that reach is minuscule.
The most progressive leaders have shifted away from expensive, boutique pilot projects that only benefit a fraction of students and instead are pursuing transformational institutional changes that touch every member of campus.
So…is your college actually doing Pathways?
Consensus: More structure is a good idea
Applicants face a dizzying array of steps, jumps, and hoops just to reach the first day of class. Nationally, community colleges lose over half of their applicants to this game of Chutes and Ladders, and those who remain through enrollment spend this time making poor decisions about their program of study, classes, and schedule before the term even begins.
If your college is serious about maintaining enrollments and fulfilling your mission by raising completion rates, then this open-door, hands-off approach to onboarding must be a thing of the past.
Organizations like the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the Community College Research Center, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have rightly championed the Structured Pathways model as a way to improve the student experience. The model includes clear curriculum maps to transfer and careers, guidance to help students pick the right academic program, and a coordinated support network to keep students on path to completion. Administrators, staff, and faculty all play a more active role in informing students’ decisions and supporting their progress to graduation.
Kudos to AACC leadership and their partners for generating widespread agreement about barriers to student success and a growing excitement about Structured Pathways. Consensus across the sector isn’t easy, particularly when we’re forced to look in the mirror and identify some ugly truths about our own institutional shortcomings.
Officially, 30 institutions have been selected for the three-year AACC Pathways Project, but based on the comments and conversations at this year’s League for Innovation and AACC conferences, I estimate the number of colleges interested in bringing Pathways to their institutions is three times that.
Truly ‘doing’ Pathways
Few institutions have achieved clear pathways to transfer and career, guided pathway selection, and relevant, effective supports to completion for 100% of students: the Pathways Holy Grail.
While no college has achieved “the Grail” yet, many are well on their way. Our team has helped Navigate members across the country with dedicated change management and technology, improving the student experience and connecting students to the support they need to succeed.
One Navigate member in the mid-Atlantic measured a 42% applicant attrition rate before the first day of classes. Using design thinking principles to uncover process challenges, EAB found a prolonged delay between acceptance and receipt of a student ID number, which is required to move forward in the enrollment process.
Three weeks after our team offered a solution, the college issued immediate ID numbers to accepted students in their admissions email. Contacts at the college reported that after implementing this practice with a fraction of their total applicants for the term, they saw an initial (1.3%) increase in new student enrollments and cost savings from ceasing to print and mail ID numbers through the postal service.
Connecting students to financial support
At one West Coast community college we work with, students complained that the financial aid office was too busy to give quality advice. Consequently, students skipped financial aid without understanding the consequences of doing so. EAB introduced a group of students to the part of the Navigate platform that explains financial aid in plain language and offers easy directions to apply online. About 25% of the students found Navigate so inspiring they started to apply for financial aid on the spot.
“I have been here for four semesters and had no idea I could apply online like this.”-Community College Student
Bringing the Structured Pathways model to life on campus requires initial change management, with comprehensive technology like Navigate to scale. Most importantly, however, success depends on strong, dedicated leadership from the president and team. Transformational institutional change means a lot of new ideas, bold decisions, open questions, and moving parts—the best leaders are the ones who set a clear vision for their institutions and galvanize campus towards that common goal.