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What we can learn from Guided Pathways skeptics

June 1, 2017

Hoax. Trend. Empty. Meaningless. Silly. Mandatory.

These were just some of the words college leaders used to describe their frustration with Guided Pathways to me at community college conferences I’ve attended this year. I was surprised, to say the least. These feelings contrasted so deeply with the focus, fanfare, and adoration for the model that are so often expressed by progressive college administrators and industry thought leaders.

Behind the scenes, however, many college leaders expressed anxiety about implementing an ambitious new model for student success on their campuses that they felt ill-prepared to execute (or at least execute well.)

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

There’s no evidence that the current “cafeteria style” approach to student success is working. According to the National Student Clearinghouse analysis of students who began college in fall 2010, fewer than 40% earn a credential in six years. With increased pressure from state legislators, employers, and the general public to produce better student outcomes, colleges can’t afford not to act. As one president said, “If I don’t do something, my college may not exist in five years.”

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Without the option to stand still, community colleges must innovate. But the path to realize the promise of Guided Pathways is murky, to say the least. Why waste financial and political capital when the payoff is so unclear? Another senior leader I spoke with pointed to her colleagues’ exuberance as the reason the theoretical discussions overshadowed discussions about implementation: “Talking about the problem of ‘cafeteria colleges’ was cathartic in a way. We all needed that moment of clarity and looking in the mirror to realize we were doing things wrong…but that’s all we ever talk about now, and it’s not enough. I can’t reorganize my school away from something bad without knowing that we’re headed towards something good. It’s not fair to the students.”

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This tension between abandoning old practices and adopting a new theoretical model of the institution has been gaining some traction, albeit quietly. In fact, many college leaders use hushed tones—literally—when casting doubt on the ability for Guided Pathways to solve the student success challenge institutions face. Being a Guided Pathways skeptic is an unpopular position these days, but there’s reason to listen to these naysayers.

The nays have it

I’ve personally written many pages devoted to the promise of Guided Pathways in the community college sector, and even I must admit the skeptics have a point. There is no shining example of a college who has fully accomplished all four pillars of the Guided Pathways model for 100% of their students. The City University of New York’s ASAP program and Guttmann Community College are close, but their selective enrollment requirements mean their impressive outcomes forever have an asterisk next to them, at least in the minds of leaders at the helm of open-access institutions where most students are part-time, working, non-traditional age degree-seekers in need of developmental education and academic direction.

The art of effective student communication 

Implementation guidance, at least up until now, has been few and far between for most colleges. While some lucky institutions have been selected as part of the AACC Pathways Project and other selective cohorts acting as innovation “incubators,” the vast majority of community colleges must find the path forward themselves. We recently released a whitepaper to provide leaders with some research on the origin of the Guided Pathways movement and a few dozen practices to get started—but that alone will not be enough unless colleges invest in bringing these innovations to scale.

Skeptics are right that innovation today is much more high-risk and politically uncertain than student success redesigns in the past. Guided Pathways is particularly risky because of the expansiveness of the movement—thought leaders from progressive organizations are calling for nothing short of revolution. One-off improvements, whether focused on advising, course scheduling, or early alert, are not sufficient in the absence of a greater strategy that puts all institutional redesign efforts in concert with one another, ensuring that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole (or, in private sector-speak, 1+1=3).

Turning skepticism into entrepreneurial drive

The skeptics are right that “buzz” and “excitement” around Guided Pathways won’t be enough to make meaningful change. But there is reason to believe that all is not lost, and turn that skepticism into productive energy. This means adopting an entrepreneurial mindset to identify solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

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Any successful entrepreneur looking to “disrupt” an industry or transform an organization at the scale that Guided Pathways supporters suggest must answer three primary questions:

  • How can I create a product or service that addresses a real need? For community colleges, the “product or service” of interest is the array of academic offerings: courses, programs of study, and credentials. The challenge is creating a streamlined academic experience that sets students up for success in transfer or career.
  • How can I assemble a team to create, advocate for, and support this product or service? The team of people within the organization that can create, advocate for, and support the academics are the advisors and the faculty members that interface with students on a daily basis. Many college leaders have close relationships with these groups, but struggle to motivate teams feeling initiative fatigue.
  • How can I nudge my end-users to use this product or service early and often to solve their problem? College leaders must abandon the old “wait and see” model and instead build interventions to assure students are making the best possible decisions for academic success. This includes putting lessons from behavioral economics into practice.

These are difficult questions, and ones that managers, leaders, and CEOs deal with on a daily basis. Through ongoing change management engagements with our members, we’ve made significant progress helping leaders of EAB Navigate cohort colleges find answers that make sense for their institution.

Skeptics are often disregarded as “curmudgeons” in higher education, and a few years ago, a host of literature and think pieces were written on how to effectively prevent these voices from slowing innovation on campus. When it comes to Guided Pathways skeptics, I recommend avoiding the “curmudgeon” label. Instead, consider how these dissenting opinions can fuel an entrepreneurial spirit. College presidents and their executive leadership teams are not people-pleasers, they are the owners and managers of student success on campus—every skeptic can become a thought partner and co-innovator, if leaders are willing to listen.

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