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Guided Pathways is a seismic shift—here’s how to make sense of it

March 16, 2018

“With Guided Pathways reforms, you need to realize that you’re trying to reverse about 50 years of practice, ideas, and expectations, not to mention daily habit and work. This is a seismic shift in culture.”-CC President

Change does not always come quickly or easily for community colleges. But as a president shared with us, Guided Pathways reform requires us to rethink decades of ingrained practices and procedures.

Over the past several years, the Guided Pathways movement swept through the community college sector, bringing hope for administrators who want to offer students structure without sacrificing opportunities for exploration. But while it is clear that the traditional cafeteria model of program selection fails to address college students’ academic needs, many presidents and administrators are struggling to figure out where to even begin such a large-scale reform.

Without structured implementation support, reforms fall flat

In our conversations with presidents, administrators, and faculty, we discovered that the greatest implementation mistake is also one that we commonly see in the higher education sector: Sticking to the status quo.

Relying on institutional norms and faculty preference when building maps and meta-majors led to many negative consequences: Low transfer and job placement rates and a higher cost of advising. To break this mold, community college leaders should make sure that program map and meta-major design balances students’ noncompeting needs for structure and exploration. The best way to do this is to rely on principled design strategies and make pre-existing student data work for you.

Determine a hierarchy of student-centric design requirements

Traditionally, many colleges begin the program-mapping process by rolling over existing institutional requirements. However, they soon run into the problem of trying to make them comply with stricter external mandates. Relying on a structured design plan that starts with the least flexible constraints, such as those issued by governmental or accrediting bodies, means colleges cannot only improve program map efficiency but also guarantee that maps serve student goals. This exercise requires an awareness that departing from the status quo might be the most effective way to create program maps.

More on Guided Pathways

Use existing data to determine courses and sequences

Administrators frequently find themselves with “too many cooks in the kitchen” when constructing meta-majors. Competing priorities and differing perspectives results in a near-infinite list of possible program combinations, stalling the process indefinitely.

To bypass disagreements around meta-major composition, colleges should consider approaches that rely on easily accessed program data to construct curriculum maps. For example, gathering course frequency data can help administrators build maps that frontload the highest-frequency courses in the first semester of study, allowing students to switch programs without accumulating extra credits.

Taking on pathways reform is a monumental task. Willingness to break down long-standing habits and faculty-determined norms is essential to take a structured approach to create program maps and meta-majors, two critical pieces of Guided Pathways reform.

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