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Purpose Pathways: Guided Pathways on Purpose

Purpose Pathways offer students the help they need to articulate their individual pathways on their own terms. 

College is a very expensive undertaking. The most important and stressful endeavor for students going to college is choosing a major. Recently, many institutions have instituted a program called Guided Pathways, which was developed to ensure that students have a specific path to follow that leads them to graduation. Students are asked to choose an area of interest (typically a career-related or major-related cluster) aligned with their interests, then follow a defined path that keeps them on track. Each pathway is geared towards specific learning outcomes to ensure that students can articulate their academic and non-academic learning opportunities. Guided Pathways assume that students are aware of their own interests and career aspirations. The problem is that most students who attend college don’t know what they want to do; they want institutions to help them figure it out. Unfortunately, Guided Pathways does not provide the mechanism to help them explore and time to figure it out. How do we help students get clarity on their future and develop a path that’s meaningful to them? How do help them lay out a path that allows them to take ownership of their educational experience?

The answer: Purpose Pathways. Guided Pathways are institutionally driven and focused on students selecting a path (major) to follow that leads them to graduation. Purpose Pathways take a more student-centered focus by helping students define and identify:

  • What they need to do to become the best version of themselves
  • How their unique gifts can profoundly serve others
  • The best path (educational, experiential, employable, and/or entrepreneurial) that leads towards success on their terms.  

Our data has shown that students embarking on a Purpose Pathway not only increase their likelihood of college graduation but also leads to clarity regarding employment and/or entrepreneurial opportunities.

The fundamental question to ask when cultivating a Purpose Pathways mindset is not “What should I do with my life?” but “How should/can I use my gifts to serve the world?”. Purpose Pathways provide students with introspective tools and activities to increase their level of self-awareness to create individualized, meaningful life plans that lead to success. In Guided Pathways, students ultimately pick a major and follow that path through to graduation. Purpose Pathways, on the other hand, have students identify and define their life purpose, and from there, construct their own path to self-defined success.  This path usually, but not always, includes formal education as well as external learning experiences that supplement and/or complement classroom learning. 

In Purpose Pathways, students are challenged to identify their gifts, define a problem to solve, and engage in meaningful work in order to make a positive difference on the lives of others. In the Life Design Catalyst Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, we engage in Purpose Pathways through which students spend time engaged in activities that help them:

  • Construct a story that illustrates how their past has shaped them thus far
  • Engage in various self-assessments to define who they are and what makes them tick
  • Define a specific problem to solve and what work they need to do to develop their educational, experiential, employable, and entrepreneurial endeavors
  • Learn (and implement) contemplative practices that enhance health and well-being
  • Create a compelling vision for the future that provides the focus to keep moving forward

We have found that implementing a Purpose Pathways framework not only leads to significant increases in retention and graduation rates (in less time), but students have stated that they are clear about their academic goals (including their choice of major), their involvement in co-curricular activities, and their plans for the future. Purpose Pathways require students to think differently about their education – instead of following a specific path determined by the institution, they are empowered to construct their own path and identify institutions and experiences that help them move forward on it.

Purpose Pathways enhance the most required skill for 21st Century: adaptability. Due to rapid changes in technology and the unpredictable employment economy, students need the ability to change quickly and adapt. Purpose Pathways help them build this key skill. Unlike a college major, which is structured and fixed, a Purpose Pathways mindset allows for adaptability by connecting every potential opportunity to purpose, always asking the question, “Does this allow me to improve my life and the lives of others?”. If the answer is yes, go for it; if not, don’t do it and move on. 

Purpose Pathways are not redefining how institutions work with students; Purpose Pathways reinvent the way students make choices about their educational, career, and life plans – and challenges institutions to provide the resources to help them develop those plans. Purpose Pathways encourage a more synergetic relationship with academic advisors and coaches because the conversations will be driven by purpose, vision, and lifelong learning, not registration, scheduling, and degree planning. 

Purpose Pathways are the most effective and meaningful way we can help students define what’s next. Let’s help students find the answers they need to move forward with confidence and purpose.


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