Report: Guided Pathways Show Progress

Colleges need to engage faculty and incorporate experiential learning to continue improving guided pathways programs, report finds.

September 15, 2020
 
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A college reform movement is gaining speed, but there's still plenty of work to be done.

The Center for Community College Student Engagement released a report today that shows guided pathways programs are improving some student experiences. The report also identifies challenges that colleges face when using guided pathways, such as faculty engagement.

Guided pathways is a reform movement that aims to improve college completion and student success by redesigning students' journeys through college. Community colleges have been adopting this program to help students choose a program of study and create a plan to either transfer to a four-year college or get a good job with a two-year degree. Pathways programs often include the use of "metamajors," which let students choose a broader path of study so they can explore career options, and intensive advising to help students create these plans.

As of spring 2018, more than 250 community colleges had committed to using a guided pathways approach, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The new report provides a baseline level of data on how students nationwide are experiencing this program, said Linda García, executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

"Even though it's a first look, we are seeing some momentum building," García said. "There's promise."

The institutions included in the report know there's more work to be done, but it's a marathon, she added. The report can show the colleges how far they've come and what aspects they need to focus on improving now.

"When people train for a marathon, they need cheerleaders," she said.

The findings show the framework for guided pathways is working, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

"Guided Pathways is a framework that incorporates what has been learned about effective educational practice; still, it demands continuous evaluation to ensure that supports implemented are yielding positive outcomes," Parham wrote in an email. "While implementing any large-scale change is challenging, the Guided Pathways work requires significant changes in institutional culture, as well as in policies, practices, and the structures that support them."

The work won't be completed overnight, she said, but reports like this one will help colleges continue to assess their programs and improve upon the frameworks.

Research shows that the practices used in guided pathways programs can lead to better outcomes for students. Students who enter a specific program earlier on in their time at a community college are more like to transfer to a four-year college or complete a degree. Florida State University's use of academic program maps increased retention and decreased the number of excess credits students took. Queensborough Community College in New York adopted metamajors and saw an increase in its three-year graduation rate.

The principles of the program are simple and necessary, not only to help students succeed, but to help colleges survive, said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center.

Community colleges have a duty to prepare students for good jobs or to transfer to a four-year college with junior standing as tuition costs continue to rise, he said. Right now, 40 percent of community college students drop out after the first few terms because the process to get started is confusing and many are forced to take developmental education courses. If they aren't taking an interesting course in their first year, they're likely to leave, he said.

"You have to help every student explore their options and develop a plan," Jenkins said. "It's unethical to not have them on a plan when you’re charging that much money."

The Center for Community College Student Engagement does annual surveys of institutions and students on engagement, and it adds new items targeting different issues each year. The guided pathways questions were added to the center's 2018 Survey of Entering Student Engagement, which received about 49,000 responses from entering students across 117 colleges, and the 2019 Community College Survey of Student Engagement, which received about 77,000 responses from returning students across 166 colleges. The results were aggregated at the institutional level in the report. The report also includes the results in the top quartile, which colleges can use as a benchmark, García said.

About 7,500 faculty also responded to a faculty-specific survey, which included some questions on guided pathways.

The findings are grouped under pillars for guided pathways programs: help students get on a path, help students stay on their path and ensure students are learning.

For the first pillar, 44 percent of entering students said their main source of academic advising was friends or family, and 43 percent said instructors or college staff were their main source of advising. Nearly 70 percent of entering students said they were required to meet with an academic adviser before registering for courses. About three-quarters of entering students had picked a career to pursue before registering, but only 20 percent said a college staff member had helped them pick a program or major, and less than half had talked with college staff about what jobs their major could lead to.

The data show that colleges could improve with specific guidance on completion. Just under half of entering students said college staff had talked with them about how long it would take to complete their program. Less than one-third of students said college staff had talked with them about what the total cost of their education would be. Thirty-two percent of students said they had not talked with a staff member about which of their credits would transfer toward their major at a four-year college.

Many colleges appear to be focusing more on advising, García said. The next pillar, keeping students on their paths, shows that 76 percent of returning students had met with an academic adviser at least once during the term, and 59 percent said they had reviewed their progress on their academic plan each time they met with their adviser. Nearly 80 percent of those students also said that the courses they need to take have been available.

The final pillar covered in the report looks at ensuring students are learning. More than half of returning students said their adviser had required them to participate in study groups, and 67 percent said they had worked with classmates on assignments outside class. Nearly 60 percent said they had talked with their instructors about readings or ideas outside class, as well.

However, only 21 percent of students said they had participated in experiential learning, like an internship or co-op experience.

This should be a key focus for the future, said Jenkins.

"Generally, to get a good job, you need some kind of experience," Jenkins said. "It's probably the least developed area of guided pathways, but a key next frontier."

The faculty survey revealed where there could be some improvements, García said. Nearly 60 percent of faculty who reported their colleges were using guided pathways principles said they believe it will improve student outcomes. But colleges need to engage their faculty more in this work, results show.

Of those faculty members who reported their colleges are using guided pathways, 36 percent said they are not involved in the program at all, and about half said they need more professional development on this issue. A little less than half of those faculty also said they know very little or nothing about the program.

"Students connect in the classroom first," García said. "It's so critical to include faculty in the process of guided pathways."

The results are still promising, she said, as the survey shows faculty members want to be involved with guided pathways programs. Colleges need to find ways to include adjuncts, who often teach the majority of classes but can have high turnover rates, García said.

Faculty can also feel fatigued by initiatives, but García tells them to think of guided pathways as an umbrella for everything they're doing.

Despite the challenges, campuses are seeing progress, said Tia Brown McNair, vice president for diversity, equity and student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"We all know that institutional change, especially a cultural change, takes time," McNair said. "But the idea of the guided pathways model is one that research has shown is a promising and sustainable practice that we need to support."

Colleges should be asking questions about how they can improve in these areas, ​but it's also important to acknowledge the promise of the framework, she said.

"What we’ve learned from previous evaluation reports is that doing the work on the fourth pillar to ensure students are learning has had additional challenges in moving forward, and is not moving at same pace as the first three pillars," she said.

Most of the member colleges in the Achieving the Dream network, which serves community colleges, are engaged in guided pathways work, said Karen Stout, president and CEO of the organization. This report provides benchmarks, but there are still some points that Stout worries about.

"Generally, the report places a lot of emphasis on changing student behaviors," she said. "We're hoping that colleges are also changing their behaviors. That's the only way to see significant gains."

For example, while the number of students meeting with advisers is pretty good, colleges should be thinking about what students are not meeting with their advisers and how that should be fixed, she said.

Institutions should also be using guided pathways as a framework for change, but not a silver bullet, Stout said. There are some fundamentals that need to be in place before the program can succeed. Some colleges still don't have the capacity to collect data, she said.

Some colleges do the organizing work -- like creating metamajors -- without focusing on the fourth pillar of ensuring students are learning.

"So what you get is almost a unitary focus on program maps instead of transformational learning experience," she added.

Colleges should be re-evaluating their business practices as well as creating metamajors, she said. ​

"A clearly defined program map or an advising appointment doesn't change the placement structure," she said, referring to how students of color are disproportionately placed in remedial courses that can set them behind on their path.

Colleges should reflect on their practices and collect their own data and data from student focus groups to determine how the redesign process is going, Jenkins said.

"A lot of colleges think that guided pathways is basically mapping out programs and putting them on websites and organizing them into metamajors," he said. "That might provide better information, but it doesn’t change the student experience."

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