The Key to Guided Pathways: You Need to Get Started
Higher education’s promise is being undercut by low completion rates—especially among less-advantaged Americans who could most benefit from a degree. At the same time, students who are able to earn a degree often waste significant time and money. On average, community college graduates earn 22 credit hours more than needed.
Guided pathways have emerged as a promising strategy to increase on-time completion, with broad support from states, foundations and institutions. Research continues to validate the idea that students are more likely to graduate if they have a clear path – or degree map – rather than being asked to choose from among a vast array of courses.
All of this adds up to an urgent need to implement pathways at both breadth (all programs) and depth (all requirements needed to graduate). Yet, most institutions—even those that passionately embrace the potential promise of pathways—are stuck in the planning phase.
A better approach? Just start.
Pathways require institutions to make many difficult decisions—which courses to include in the pathways, costs to harmonize general requirements, how to potentially integrate meta-majors, what best practices to follow regarding undeclared students, and so on. Often, arriving at the best approach requires iteration—some answers just aren’t clear until you start.
Even relatively limited progress can pay dividends. Moving pathways from a static form to one that is fully integrated into advising, student planning and course scheduling is game-changing. Advisors and students gain critical experience integrating pathways into their planning. Also, departments can begin working out modifications to course schedules and other critical changes.
NorthWest Arkansas Community College has seen the benefits of this approach. The college defined “meta majors”—and then dove right in. Implementing, managing and improving pathways on the fly requires a high level of collaboration across the college, but it has allowed the institution to quickly make advances in creating stackable pathways. Many necessary changes—including the full scope of technology integration, changes to course requirements and sequencing in several programs—weren’t evident until the work began.
The iterative process can be challenging, but it has allowed the college to make much faster progress than if it had tried to anticipate every need before moving forward. Both college leaders and on-the-ground staff and faculty have realized that learning as you go is inevitable. Embracing that idea allows institutions to move from theoretical discussions to actual analysis of how students are progressing.
On-going analysis can show an institution:
- Students who do not have a defined pathway to completion
- Opportunities to leverage meta majors or a general studies pathway to create routes to graduation for all students
- The number of course options available in each requirement in the various programs
- The number of students attempting to complete each program or requirement
- Opportunities to refine course offerings based on the critical mass of students needing to complete a requirement or program
- Opportunities to leverage “structured scheduling,” where students have a predictable and consistent schedule, to increase course access and clarity for subpopulations of students
The most exciting opportunity for leveraging pathways is the ability to track the progress of each student all the way to degree completion. We call this degree velocity.
For each student, a dashboard can show the following:
- What percentage of their pathway they have completed;
- Their degree velocity or how quickly they are moving toward a degree;
- An inferred completion date;
- A potential completion date (if they took 15 productive credits per term moving forward).
Degree velocity can be aggregated and benchmarked against peer institutions. It can also be used to identify completion bottlenecks in every program and direct the interventions needed to address those bottlenecks, such as course availability, advising and student preparation.
Identifying and triaging bottlenecks is incredibly powerful. Usually, institutions can focus on two to five courses in any program and see significant improvements in degree velocity. This information can not only direct advising, planning and course scheduling, but also can drive faculty allocation and hiring. Research shows that when degree velocity improves, retention and completion rates improve. Students respond well to the sense that they are making progress.
Accelerating time to degree also reduces cost. After all, the cost to complete a degree in four years is 20 percent less than if it took five years, assuming a student is taking a full load. This is perhaps the greatest opportunity to boost affordability.
We know pathways work. However, we must have the courage to get started and use data to refine pathways along the way. We have to get comfortable with flying the plane while we’re still building it.