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Guided Pathways: Are Colleges ‘Student-Ready’?

The EvoLLLution | Guided Pathways: Are Colleges ‘Student-Ready’?
Students often wander and get lost in credit offerings—guided pathways eliminate that stress and help students earn their credentials or degrees fast and efficiently.

When selecting courses, it’s easy for students to get lost in the never-ending list of options, which usually ends in frustration with a bad experience. Guided pathways are a way for colleges to guide their students through their credential or degree, while giving them the room to still make their own decisions. In this interview, Ann Buchele discusses the importance of guided pathways, the challenges to creating these program maps and how pathways can apply to a vast demographic of learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): When talking about a modern student experience, why are offering guided pathways so important to meeting the needs and expectations of learners?

Ann Buchele (AB): The guided pathways concept is really important because what we’ve been doing in community college for decades hasn’t been working. At my own particular college, five years ago when we started our work on guided pathways, we had an 11% completion rate in three years for students. It didn’t get much better after four, five or six years–we only reached about 24% after four years. That would slowly increase over many years.

Now, my college is very similar to other community colleges throughout the nation. This was something that we’ve been grappling with nationally for a long time. Since we are open access, it’s about finding ways to help students find their individual paths and career focuses. So, we launched guided pathways to help with students’ access and completion.

College is expensive, and it doesn’t make much economic sense to have a student find themselves while receiving higher education, like it used to be 50 years ago. Students really can’t afford to meander for years. With guided pathways, someone is there to work with them and help make connections to a path laid out for them. It really helps meet the student’s needs.

Now, if a student wants to wander, we’ll gladly let them, but we want them to wander with purpose. At Linn Benton Community College, about 78% of our students check a box saying they want a degree or certificate. That means that 78% of students want to graduate, and we need to get them there.

Evo: From the college’s perspective, why is it beneficial to create very clear roadmaps and pathways for individuals to successfully attain a credential or degree?

AB: Our roadmaps, or program maps as we call them, are pretty amazing and have evolved over the past few years. One thing to keep in mind is that students typically take advice on course selection from family and friends. That can be great, but they won’t be able to successfully help the student with prescribing what to take when. Students were leaving our college with a lot of unnecessary credits, which created a financial burden. Oftentimes, students could be earning credits for years without realizing they weren’t earning the right credits to be put toward their degree or certificate.

Like many colleges, we have a complicated catalog with many, many choices. Having to choose from a variety of lists can cause frustration and confusion. So, what our program maps do is help guide a student from beginning to end when selecting their courses for each term. Students receive a list of highly curated course choices for each of their electives.

Program maps also allows the college to create schedules that students’ needs.  Program maps allow faculty to see what courses students need to graduate and from there, they can schedule courses on the desired days and at the desired times.

Another aspect of the program map is helping students who come to college with below-college-level math or writing skills. Data shows that students often procrastinate taking writing and math, but our program maps have students completing their writing and math in their first year. Studies have also shown that those who get their math and writing completed early on tend to graduate at higher rates.

Lastly, our program maps are autogenerated based on each student’s math and writing skills. This way, students get individualized education plans.

Evo: How have these roadmaps and pathways help solve some of the barriers you’ve previously faced?

AB: One barrier that these maps have removed is having to make course decisions from lists of 20 to 30 options. Our maps narrow down options to give limited choices. If a student isn’t interested in a specific course, then other course options will appear. It’s a highly curated list that prevents students from becoming overwhelmed by choices.

This interactive approach is really helping students, parents and academic advisors to visually see the path the student needs to take. The maps also help us audit different bottleneck areas. They pull from a data repository that shows us how many of which types of courses we need. A few years ago, we learned that we had bottlenecks in some different areas, for example, in science. Our maps have allowed us to bring in additional faculty in departments that we weren’t offering enough to students. I think it’s really done a lot for our college and our students when it comes to student success.

Evo: How automated are the guided pathways?

AB: We’re getting there, and it was certainly a heavy lift in the early years. Now, we have a system that, during catalog updates, allows department chairs to make their program map updates, and they go into a central database. Our program coordinator can then pull from that. Again, the developmental education map now auto calculates, so that’s all automated. Do we want to do more? Yes, so we continue to work on making everything as seamless and easy as possible.

Evo: What are some of the most significant challenges that you ran into in the developmental and launch phases of this project and how did you overcome them?

AB: One of the biggest challenges, which we did successfully face right away, was create that sense of urgency. Launching our work disrupted student entry, advising and curriculum flow. It was really making some foundational changes in the academic area. We had to get people on board, but it wasn’t hard once I showed our poor retention and completion rates. This created momentum, and a core group of managers, instructors and faculty became real champions for this redesign work.

Another challenge was having great ideas but not having the infrastructure to support them. We needed to make sure our informational services department was part of many of the conversations.

Another challenge was getting faculty on board. When you think about program mapping, it’s only one part of the bigger work of creating guided pathways. But in regards to program mapping, faculty feared that courses would be eliminated. We used a couple of our program map drafts to show faculty what they would mean for courses and to see if there were any courses that would be eliminated. But we found that that didn’t happen.

The way that we were doing student intake and advising was another worrisome area. Making advising more mandatory, we were worried that making students talk to someone would drive them away. How do we make it easy and accessible especially for students who are uncomfortable with face-to-face interaction? With the pandemic, we’re now looking at phone calls, zoom meetings or emails as alternatives. We’ve been forced to interact with students in a variety of ways that I think has been good for us.

Evo: What impact does your approach to program mapping and guided pathways have on staff efficiency and job satisfaction?

AB: I think staff see that every year we get better, more efficient, and it frees up their time on the backend so that they can spend it with students. That’s the beauty of trying to automate as much as we can.

Evo: What impact do learner pathways and degree maps have on the student engagement and experience you’re able to deliver?

AB: We certainly have done student focus groups, and they feel that there’s more clarity now and that they don’t feel lost when they try and register. Students are also reaping the benefits of this work—they don’t have to wake up at 5 AM to enroll in a class that becomes full in the matter of seconds because we are offering enough of the courses they need. We also have a system through which we waitlist students and when that fills up, we open another one.

Students feel like we’re providing them the classes they need when they need them. One goal we have is for the program map to be a guarantee for students. For example, if a student needs a class for a term, they’re guaranteed to get that class. Again, we’re not quite there yet.

Evo: Do you think this approach to pathway design could be adequately applied to the non-credit workforce education world?

AB: There are certainly a countless number of elements in guided pathways that fit within non-credit and workforce training, specifically adult basic skills. Pre-college students will know what courses they need to brush up on their skills. Having a pre-path that an adult basic skills student could embark on would prepare them for a program path.

When it comes to non-credit community education, I don’t see a place for guided pathways. Maybe I’m just not creative enough, but I don’t see a path there. That learner is someone who loves to learn and wants to spackle their experience with different opportunities. Do they need an advisor? Who knows, there could be something there.

There are definitely opportunities, though, for the workforce—particularly in post-college, workforce and incumbent worker training. We haven’t touched on this yet, but the next stage is there. Graduates would be able to see all of the different opportunities available to in their respective fields. We are truly creating lifelong learners, and employers would do well to embrace it. They can tell us the next steps coming up in their existing workforce, and we can see how we would be beneficial to them.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the idea of guided pathways and any advice you’d share with other leaders looking to implement a similar structure at their own institution?

AB: This isn’t a fast process. Rather, it’s a ten-year process to truly do it well, and it’s something that you have to stay on course for. Also, keep in mind that you won’t see immediate results because you’re trying to turn a huge ship, but don’t get discouraged. For schools to integrate pathways successfully, you do need some champions. Faculty champions are the best spokespeople for this kind of work since they work directly with students all the time. There’s a vast group of community colleges that have been immersed in guided pathways for a few years now–don’t be afraid to reach out to peer institutions.

Lastly, keep the student at the forefront of all of your decisions. It’s not: “Are students “college-ready?”, it’s: “Are colleges “student-ready?”. As long as all of your decisions revolve around what is best for that student, you’re going to do the right thing.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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