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What is Guided Pathways—and why are we still talking about it?

April 24, 2019

In 2015, researchers from the Community College Research Center published Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, which brought a new term to the fore: Guided Pathways.

It wasn’t an entirely new concept (or even a wholly new term), but nonetheless it became ubiquitous in a matter of months.

Four years later, Guided Pathways is still the gold standard for community college reform, but implementation is not as widespread as we might have hoped. Even in states like California where legislation enacted it into law, or Ohio where several community colleges are leading the national movement, momentum for full-scale pathways reform has been slow.

Two years after we published our 2017 white paper about Guided Pathways, I wanted to provide a refresher on what Guided Pathways is, why it has been so challenging to implement, and profile the most promising strategies.

What is Guided Pathways?

Guided Pathways is a movement that seeks to streamline a student’s journey through college by providing structured choice, revamped support, and clear learning outcomes—ultimately helping more students achieve their college completion goals. The reform recognizes that the current self-service model of community colleges leads many students to unintended dead ends or unforeseen detours in the form of excess or out-of-sequence credit.

The four pillars of Guided Pathways

  • 1. Clarify pathways to end goals

  • 2. Help students choose and enter pathways

  • 3. Help students stay on path

  • 4. Ensure students are learning

What makes implementing Guided Pathways so challenging?

One reason Guided Pathways is so challenging to implement is the lack of clarity around what it is. As you might suspect from reading the list above, the pillars of Guided Pathways outline broad principles but leave the specifics of implementation up to interpretation. Despite the wealth of available resources (and funding) from foundations and various organizations like Complete College America and the American Association of Community Colleges, campus leaders still struggle to describe exactly what success looks like when implemented.

What’s more, the prospect of leading a redesign as large as Guided Pathways—especially at community colleges with budget constraints—can feel daunting, if not impossible. For faculty and staff, this kind of innovation feels removed from the day-to-day responsibilities and challenges they face.


What works in Guided Pathways implementation?

Our white paper uncovered 25 successful strategies that various two-year schools adopted to implement Guided Pathways. Our hope is that these concrete practices serve as achievable inspiration for how to conduct your own Guided Pathways reform. To give you a better sense of how to activate the Guided Pathways principles, we’ve highlighted one strategy that aligns to each of the foundational pillars.

Pillar #1: Clarify pathways to end goals

Guide students with program maps

Current cafeteria-style offerings provide endless choice, but leave students confused about what to choose and how to navigate the different branching requirements for their degree. A Guided Pathways campus simplifies students’ choices with default program maps that show a clear pathway to completion, transfer, further education, and employment.

Sample strategy: Create a standardized internal protocol for editing program maps at your college

At Indian River State College, leaders require that any course included in a meta-major course map comply with a short list of requirements, such as ensuring the course is a general education requirement and is offered both in-person and online.

Pillar #2: Help students choose and enter pathways

Redesign traditional remediation

Even before students embark on their chosen programs and pathways, required remedial courses frequently set them back, adding time and cost but no progress toward their degree. The experience alone can discourage them from continuing. Guided Pathways adopters redesign traditional remediation as an “on-ramp” to a program of study, aligning math and other foundation skills coursework with program of study.

Sample strategy: Match developmental courses to programs

At Jackson State Community College, department chairs review descriptions for each developmental math module and determine which are necessary for success in the major. As a result of their efforts, the average number of developmental modules required dropped from nine to six, and the number of students completing the developmental sequence increased by 24 percentage points.

Pillar #3: Help students stay on path

Provide flexible class options

Many challenges can emerge on a student’s path, and some prove challenging enough to derail students. Often, students who start at community colleges leave without finishing their program or successfully transferring. By providing flexible class options, you can help students continue when life gets in the way.

Sample strategy: Offer blended learning options for post-traditional learners.

At Lakeshore Technical College (LTC), students can transition between online and in-person learning as needed. For example, if a part-time student loses childcare and can’t sit for class, the student can watch a recording of the class session online when it’s convenient—and isn’t penalized for doing so. Since this flexible program was implemented, LTC has seen the retention gap between full- and part-time students close by 63 percentage points.

Pillar #4: Ensure students are learning

Support career development

Roughly half of employers do not believe students are equipped with the skills necessary to be successful in the workplace, according to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers 2018 Job Outlook Survey. To combat this, schools need to establish program-level learning outcomes that align with requirements for success in employment, help students develop soft skills, and aid them in continuing their education beyond graduation.

Sample strategy: Build experiential learning maps

Since we profiled Georgia State University’s co-curricular map, a growing number of colleges and universities have created learning maps that articulate how academic and non-academic learning opportunities fit together. Queen’s University created their own maps to nudge students toward active learning: providing experiential and service-learning opportunities, online resources, and suggested career fields. Maps are revised annually to maintain relevance and 95% of surveyed students agreed that the maps help them understand the skills and careers associated with programs.

How to build your own experiential major maps

Of course, each school’s unique climate will influence how and when you implement Guided Pathways. We hope that our white paper and other resources help your team get started.

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