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Collaborative Pathway Development in Higher Ed

Providing learners with pathways to employment requires collaborating with industry, offering students support and championing new initiatives.

A learner’s journey today is never linear and doesn’t have a single entry point. Instead, a learner’s journey in higher ed must reflect a pathway with many entry and exit points that allow learners to get the education they need when it’s most convenient for them. In this interview, Sarah Gardenghi discusses why it’s important to prioritize seamless pathways, how to bring people together and what her institution is implementing for STEM students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to prioritize seamless pathways for learners?

Sarah Gardenghi (SG): There are specific words in this question that are noteworthy. First, higher ed. That’s a group of practitioners who need to understand the student base and know who they are serving. It also means prioritizing students and their goals. It’s important to promote learning pathways for those who may not recognize the opportunities they have.

The second word—seamless—is also noteworthy because we don’t want students falling off the pathway. Employers have a need and connecting that with these pathways will really help support the student through their education up to the moment of employment.

Evo: What are some of the challenges to develop and scale seamless pathways and even resources for learners?

SG: One challenge is listening and understanding the environment—knowing when to scale a program that’s tangible and meets learner needs. We built the STEM Ready Pathway program by listening to employer needs, so we could create relevant programming that prepares students for future STEM careers. It’s also been a large lift but worthwhile to engage in with students at the community colleges and high schools.

We bring everyone at the institution together to have that level of transparency when building a new program. It’s a challenge to be one voice, but it is a goal. If we can represent our institution with a pathway program that leads students to employment, then that’s a win-win for everyone.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome these obstacles and start bringing everybody together?

SG: There has to be a champion for the institution. With our STEM Ready program, our institution was the liaison, bringing everyone to the table and setting up committees to work on the pathway. We need faculty, program directors, student affairs, marketing and data experts all helping to find the best way to serve learners through a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

When you create pathways, you work with different maturity levels because students can come in as high schoolers or adults. We need everyone at the table who understands and can speak to those various constituents. It’s a best practice to meet frequently and document what we’re doing while giving everyone a voice.

Evo: How can institutions foster that collaboration with other institutions and employers to effectively create those pathways?

SG: We run the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) pathway program at the Universities at Shady Grove campus. They’ve already built strong partnerships with employers, and we’re able to leverage those relationships while implementing best practices from already successful programs. The goal is to provide opportunities to learners who might not know they exist, and each of our institutions brings valuable resources to create and manage this type of pathway program.

Evo: How is UMBC creating seamless pathways for STEM students?

SG: We’re focused on having an underlying foundation for our pathway that creates a great set of skills and competencies for students. We call it STEMpowerment, and we’re able to highlight how the student not only needs academic competencies but also career skills, industry credentials and experiential learning. We’ve built pillars that go into the pathway and the foundation is STEMpowerment.

Each cohort provides support services for students, and they have a program coordinator or coach, someone with whom they can bounce ideas. Students attend different field trips and work on showcase projects and, in return, receive digital badges for their work. With high school students especially, it’s important to put the carrot in front but also nice to have some dessert along the way.

We want to support students throughout their journey and make them feel empowered. Many students will face challenges, so we want to ensure they have all the information they need to navigate the college experience. These pathways allow them to take the courses they need at their own pace and continue to have a support system during their time here.

Evo: What impact are you seeing or are you hoping to achieve with these pathways?

SG: We’ve been out in the community listening and learning, as well as finding new supports for students. We want ROI to be applicable for everyone. Our goal is to provide the Montgomery County region with a strong workforce prepared for tomorrow’s workforce challenges.

We’re finding that companies who do internships not only train students while they get their degree but are more likely to employ them in the end. The impact on our students is that they’re able to stay in their local environment. Many students live at home, take public transportation and do not have the financial means to move away. So, everything comes full circle in the end.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SG: We’re about to implement a new pathway program focused on social work that will leverage digital credentials and field placement. We’ll track the student’s experiences and empower them along the way, so their digital credentials stack into academic requirements. This model can be implemented across the board with other programs. We’ll look at the STEM Pathway program structure and modify it as we go because we’re not going to have it be one-and-done. There’s always room to improve. We want students to access these educational pathways at their own pace and feel that they’re supported at every stage of the program.

Sarah Gardenghi will be presenting on this topic at the Digital Credentials Summit in March.