Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

What is Guided Pathways—and is it still worth the hype?

Prioritize these 4 tech-enabled Guided Pathways practices

April 23, 2024, By Allison Peeler, LMSW, Senior Analyst

Guided Pathways is arguably the most comprehensive framework for whole-college reform ever to hit the community college sector. Focused on clarifying students’ paths to their academic and career goals, ~400 community colleges have already implemented at least some of the recommended strategies. Nearly a decade after this movement first started, new research shows that scaling the practices can be challenging and the results on some early academic success indicators are mixed.

So, is Guided Pathways still worth the hype? Short answer: yes. There are obvious benefits to offering students clearly defined pathways to their educational goals: successful degree attainment, professional mobility, and avoiding excess courses. And community college students have the best outcomes when they are supported early and often across their journey. But with nearly 60% of degree-seeking students not completing a certificate or degree within six years of enrolling at a community college, there is a lot of opportunity to help students stay the course—Guided Pathways or no.

The latest research reinforces what many of us know: technology is a critical component in scaling campus-wide efforts. But community colleges may not need to implement every practice in the framework to achieve positive results. In short, quality wins out over quantity.

Whether your institution has stalled in Guided Pathways implementation or you’re just getting started, this blog will give you insights into new research as well as a few high-impact practices to build more momentum.

Quick Guided Pathways refresher and key research trends

What is Guided Pathways?

Guided Pathways, developed by researchers from the Community College Research Center in 2015, 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.

Assess your Guided Pathways implementation

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 does the latest research tell us?

The CCRC recently published two reports on Guided Pathways. Click to read a few highlights and key trends:

Innovating at Scale: Guided Pathways Adoption and Early Student Momentum Among the AACC Pathways Colleges

In one study, CCRC partnered with AACC to track 30 institutions across seven years, measuring level of implementation and “early momentum metrics.” In that time, 37% of schools adopted Guided Pathways at scale and another 40% achieved some progress in establishing the model.

  • Whole-college reform typically takes colleges around five years to implement—longer when considering challenges such as leadership turnover, as well as the time it takes to collect, disaggregate, and understand the related data.
  • Colleges that made the most progress on Guided Pathways implementation showed positive relationship to early momentum metrics such as credit accumulation and college-level math and English, but not persistence rates.
  • Even in fully scaled schools, the reforms did not close equity gaps, though outcomes across all student population improved.



Whole-College Reforms in Community Colleges: Guided Pathways Practices and Early Academic Success in Three States

In another report, CCRC surveyed three states with state-level adoption requirements–Tennessee, Ohio, and Washington–totaling roughly 70 two-year colleges. By 2022, nearly all of these colleges have adopted at least one practice at scale from each of the four practice areas.

  • Practices had different impacts when implemented. For example, program mapping received a lot of attention, but didn’t yield as much impact as practices like predictable scheduling, which had more payoff, but less adoption.
  • State policy can influence the speed of implementation but is not a guarantee of successful early momentum.
  • Adoption of complementary Guided Pathways practices, rather than widescale adoption, drove larger impacts in early academic success. For example, selecting high-impact practices from across each pillar that improve the experience for all students, such as redesigned onboarding, improved math pathways, and case management-style advising yielded more positive results.

Key takeaways from both studies

  • Labor Intensive

    It takes five years, on average, to fully scale Guided Pathways

  • Quality over Quantity

    Combining practices from multiple pillars had strongest associations with student success (vs. full-scale implementation)

  • Equity

    In fully scaled colleges, all ethnic/ racial groups improved in early credit completion, but equity gaps remained present

In a conversation with Christina Hubbard, a senior director on our Strategic Advisory Services team, she explained that many of our research partners attribute their success with Guided Pathways to a clearly defined strategy. They sought perspectives from around the college—faculty, staff, and even students— and hired or reassigned staff to prioritize Guided Pathways reforms. Nearly all started their work by assessing their current state and chose early tactics that would have the lowest resistance and a high impact. This allowed them to use the momentum of those successes to fuel subsequent strategies.

Scale four high-impact Guided Pathways practices with the right technology

How does technology support Guided Pathways reform?

As mentioned above, researchers found that some practices could have a higher return on investment than others. Selecting tools built with a Guided Pathways framework in mind can aid in making it possible to scale the most impactful practices—and yield increases in key outcomes such as persistence, gatekeeper course success, and completion.

Here we’ll explore four practices we recommend amplifying with technology as you plan your next phase of Guided Pathways efforts.

Practice 1: Improve recruitment onramps

As EAB community college expert Tara Zirkel has shared, “retention really starts on day one with: how do we recruit, onboard, and engage our students as they’re beginning their journey?” Gone are the days of the ‘if we build it, they will come’ mentality. Successful recruitment onramps are key to connecting with students and clarifying their path to goal early.

Technology such as Navigate360’s Recruitment Management enables leaders to foster connection with interested students from first contact, guide them through enrollment, and ensure they understand their pathway options before they even apply. Some schools such as Cerro Coso Community College are already seeing high-impact results in a short time—doubling inquiries received and increasing communication without the need to hire additional staff.

Practice 2: Customized onboarding

Customized onboarding is another high-return practice we’ve seen transform the student experience, and again, technology is a critical piece of the process. Current (and future) community college learners have higher expectations for tech-enabled and personalized, step-driven processes to guide them through choosing and entering the right program, making this a can’t-miss practice.

Schools such as Germanna Community College used to struggle with a fragmented onboarding process and knew it was causing them to lose prospective students. They used Navigate360 to create a unified “one front door” approach to onboarding—whereby students in both credit and non-credit programs were onboarded through identical steps— and saw double-digit improvements in enrollment and applicant-to-enrollee conversion.

  • Partner Spotlight: Germanna Community College

    By streamlining enrollment and onboarding processes with Navigate360, Germanna’s “one front door” approach drove:

    • 16% increase in enrollment
    • 17% increase in applicant-to-enrollee conversion

    Read the blog to replicate their practices

Practice 3: Improve math pathways

Developmental math can be a barrier for students in their pursuit of a college credential; but supporting struggling students early is key to helping them stay on the path. Technology that enables early intervention, case management, data and reporting capabilities, and connection to just-in-time resources can ensure your students aren’t deterred by roadblocks in early coursework.

Broward College leveraged Navigate360 to launch an early intervention strategy in developmental math, empowering both staff and faculty to be proactive in helping students maintain momentum in the gatekeeper course. They saw increases in both pass and persistence rates.

  • Partner Spotlight: Broward College

    Using Navigate360’s powerful intervention and reporting tools, Broward enhanced retention and persistence in college algebra:

    • 7% higher pass rate
    • 2% higher persistence rate

    Read the case study to learn how they did it

Adam Derosa, Associate Dean, Student Services, Broward College

Practice 4: Focus on predictable scheduling

To ensure students are learning, many Guided Pathways schools have shifted to a predictable, student-centered approach to course scheduling. If a necessary course is only offered at a time (or in a modality) that isn’t realistic for the students who need it most, this is an obvious place where they can lose momentum. Institutions are using tech tools to help make predictive scheduling decisions based on student demand.

Bakersfield College (BC), part of the California Community College System, leverages EAB’s Starfish student success technology and other data tools to predict when and how students prefer to take high-demand courses. This led them to increase online course offerings from 10% (pre-pandemic) to over 30%.

  • Partner Spotlight: Bakersfield College

    With EAB’s Starfish platform and a focus on timely advising and completion practices, BC improved student outcomes at every stage:

    • 18.9% increase in enrollments from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022
    • 33% increase in degrees and certificates awarded in one year

Reigniting the Guided Pathways “hype”

Despite the challenges whole-college reform may bring, the benefits of Guided Pathways still far outweigh them. No matter where your college is in terms of implementation, having the right tools in place will help you take your efforts further. Share these practices and success stories with your team as you plan improvements to your enrollment or student success strategies.

Ready to learn more?

Reach out to our community college team today.

Allison Peeler

Allison Peeler, LMSW

Senior Analyst

Read Bio

More Blogs


Avoiding ‘fight or flight’ behaviors in student onboarding

Learn how to prevent students from exhibiting ""fight or flight"" behaviors during onboarding.

Moving beyond traditional customer service training to turn the dial on enrollment

Learn to progress beyond traditional methods of customer service to encourage students to enroll.
Community College Blog

The art of effective student communication

Melinda Salaman sat down with Rebecca Gholson, Executive Director of the Center for Plain Language, to discuss how…
Community College Blog