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New research offers some clues about how to implement guided pathways in ways that keep students on track to transfer or graduate.

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The guided pathways model has spread rapidly at community colleges across the country in recent years, reaching at least 400 institutions as they’ve embraced policies intended to keep students on clear paths to graduation, or to transfer to four-year colleges.

But there’s a dearth of comprehensive research showing how well this relatively young model works and which of its practices are most effective.

The Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College released two evaluations of the guided pathways model on Wednesday in hopes of starting to answer some of these questions. The two studies offer new insights about how colleges are implementing guided pathways and which combinations of reforms appear to be linked to early academic momentum for first-time students.

Guided pathways practices range widely from mandating academic and career planning to organizing programs by “meta majors” or areas of interest to providing extra academic support in college-level math and English classes. They’re intended to help students save money and time by not taking extra courses.

Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, noted that guided pathways isn’t an intervention or academic support program that helps just a subset of students but requires major policy shifts that affect the entire student body.

“It makes common sense that if you’re going to improve outcomes for students at scale, you’ve got to make large-scale changes that change their experience … right from the time they touch the college all the way through,” he said. Guided pathways is “an effort to do that with what we think is the largest whole-college reform movement in higher ed in decades.”

To better understand the spread and impact of the model, one study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, tracked how 30 colleges across 17 states adopted guided pathways as part of a national initiative launched in 2015 by the American Association of Community Colleges, as well as tracking student outcomes. The other study, funded by the National Science Foundation, examined early student success metrics at 62 community and technical colleges between 2010 and 2020 in three states with statewide guided pathway initiatives: Tennessee, Ohio and Washington State.

A Long but Worthwhile Road

The AACC study found that guided pathways take considerable time and coordination to implement. Of the 30 colleges that participated, 11 had implemented most of the model at scale by 2021, reaching at least 80 percent of programs or at least 80 percent of entering students, while a dozen were still in the process of scaling up these practices at the time. Another six had started mapping out programs and redesigning onboarding experiences but hadn’t scaled up reforms to developmental education in math. Colleges generally took at least five years to put a guided pathways model in place.

Implementation requires “sometimes an additional several years of colleges really looking at their data together, understanding who their students are, what is the student experience, disaggregating their data,” said Hana Lahr, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center. It requires “coming to this kind of common understanding across the college that the college is really contributing [to] and creating barriers to student success in many cases.”

Laurel Williamson, president of San Jacinto College in Texas, said when her college participated in the AACC initiative, every employee received a copy of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, a book by CCRC researchers about the model, and read through it and discussed it together. The college was part of the group that scaled up quickly. Among other reforms, it rolled out a mandatory orientation for students, which included time devoted to career exploration, regular advising about transfer and career paths and corequisite supports, extra academic help in college-level math and writing.

The college enrolls upward of 30,000 students so these changes were “no easy lift,” Williamson said. Some staff members also worried reforms such as mandatory orientations could deter enrollment but ultimately concluded “you need to look at outcomes. How many students are staying on the path, completing the path, going into the workforce at a family sustaining wage, are going to transfer institutions with no loss of credit and junior status? Those became our goals.”

Heidi Leming, vice chancellor for student success at the Tennessee Board of Regents, the community and technical college system in the state, said as an early adopter of the model, the system found that another challenge was “staff capacity to do the work.”

“Community colleges are serving a student population that is arguably the most needy in the sense of needing support, needing wraparound services, needing extra assistance,” Leming said. Staff members have to be able to juggle their “day-to-day” with facilitating “systematic change.”

She said stable leadership is also key, so working on these reforms statewide under system leaders gave Tennessee an advantage. Otherwise, staff turnover can disrupt the years-long process of putting these policies in place.

Complementary Reforms

Both studies indicate that guided pathways are linked to some metrics that signal early academic momentum, though the NSF study had more mixed results. The studies also suggest that multiple guided pathway reforms in specific combinations correlate with indicators of student success, while not all reforms benefit students on their own.

Colleges in the AACC study that fully scaled up guided-pathways practices saw notable increases in various student success outcomes five years after the initiative started compared to before, including the number of students earning at least 12 credits in their first term and at least 24 credits in their first year. First-year students at the colleges also completed college-level math and English courses at higher rates than before they started implementing these models compared to those at colleges that didn’t fully scale up practices, according to the study.

However, while these kinds of early academic momentum metrics increased across all student groups at these colleges, gaps between racial and ethnic groups didn’t close.

Matthew Campbell, president of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom in Washington State, said that was the case at his college, which was one of the AACC cohort.

“We thought if we’re clarifying the path, those who have perhaps the least educational capital … to navigate our structures, that’s going to benefit them disproportionately,” he said. But while student outcomes rose across the board—the graduation rate doubled from 19 percent to 38 percent from 2012 to now—achievement gaps for students of color remained.

“We started to reframe that guided pathways structure with sort of explicit intentionality, if you will, around racial equity, around social justice …” Campbell said. It’s important to ensure students of color are thriving, not just ensure “some students are learning or ensure white students are learning.”

He said the college has been focused on instituting inclusive pedagogy practices and hiring faculty members with a “demonstrated commitment to Black and brown student excellence” so that supports for these students are “embedded” in pathways.

Similarly, at San Jacinto, student outcomes improved overall, but achievement gaps proved particularly stubborn for Black male students compared to their peers—even though these students also earned C grades or above at higher rates and their fall-to-fall retention rates improved, among other positive outcomes. The data has prompted “deep” reflection on what steps come next, Williamson said.

The NSF study also tells a nuanced story. Overall, it didn’t show a strong linkage between the “intensity” of colleges’ guided pathways adoptions—embracing five or more guided pathways practices—and positive student outcomes. For example, students in Tennessee earned more credits after the start of the statewide guided-pathways initiative, and increases were more notable at colleges that adopted more practices, but the total number of credits earned didn’t significantly budge at colleges in Ohio and Washington State regardless of how many practices the colleges’ adopted.

However, the NSF study does suggest that specific practices and complementary combinations of practices appear to yield positive results.

For example, corequisite supports for college-level math classes were associated with students earning more credits in their first year in Tennessee and Washington State, and developing math pathways correlated with significant increases in math credits earned across all three states. In contrast, other practices on their own, such as mapping career and technical education programs or mandatory educational planning, didn’t help with persistence and even seemed to slightly hinder it.

But implementing certain combinations of practices across different “pillars” of the guided-pathways model appeared to make a positive difference. For example, combining practices that focused on “clarifying paths to student end goals” and “keeping students on a path to completion” nearly increased twofold the college-level credits earned in Tennessee. The combination of these practices plus practices designed to help “students get on a program path” was linked to increases in math and STEM credits earned in Tennessee and Washington State and with student persistence in Washington State.

Jenkins said these findings indicate that it’s not about the quantity of practices implemented but which ones.

“You need to implement a complementary set of practices that align to change students’ experience, especially in exploring, choosing, planning and gaining momentum in a program of study,” he said.

Also, both studies found that average persistence rates didn’t increase with the adoption of guided pathways, which may have to do with the effects of the pandemic, Jenkins said, but it's nonetheless “problematic.”

Those data points indicate even if students are being successfully shepherded on to clear paths, they need more help staying on them, Jenkins said. He also wants to see colleges doing more to create clear course schedules and “redesigning programs and developing new ones to make sure that the programs are worth completing—that is they lead to better jobs and transfer with no excess credits.”

Campbell said a key takeaway is “it’s not like you implement guided pathways, and it’s done.”

“I think a lot of institutions look at it as … if I go through, and I tick all those boxes, I’m good. I’ve implemented guided pathways. Or if I implement some [practices], I’ll get some of the benefits,” but it’s about “whole institution transformation.”

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