The June 23 edition of Inside Higher Ed featured a thoughtful essay by Mike Rose titled “Reassessing a Redesign of Community Colleges.” The essay discusses the guided pathways reform model that we described in our 2015 book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success.
We wrote the book because we perceived that more than a decade of reform in community colleges had failed to improve overall student outcomes. We attributed that failure to the organization and culture of the colleges, which were originally designed to expand student access to higher education rather than promote student completion. Under the typical arrangement, what we called the cafeteria-style approach, students face a sometimes bewildering array of courses, programs and support services without clear guidance on how to navigate them effectively.
The guided pathways model we described provides an organizing framework to pull together several intersecting reforms that affect the student experience. Those reforms encompass not only changes in college and program structure but also changes in pedagogy, advising and student support. The model we outlined is an integrated approach to college redesign aimed squarely at improving student completion and learning.
Rose speaks favorably of the overall model but raises two potential problems. First, faculty resistance may thwart the implementation of guided pathways, and our discussion of how to engage faculty members seems abstract. Second, students arrive at college with many outside challenges and little idea about what they want to do academically, and they will thus inevitably take a variety of different paths through college. Rose rightfully argues that some problems at community college will not be solved by the recommendations presented in the book and that those barriers may prevent the model from living up to its potential -- leading to discouragement and perhaps a backlash.
There is no question that guided pathways reforms will encounter many implementation challenges, and we did not intend to minimize the difficulty. In the book, we suggested that the implementation of guided pathways is at least a five-year process even under favorable circumstances. The structural reforms we recommend need to be coupled with real-world problem solving in the context of each college to overcome the challenges.
In fact, we are devoting the next phase of our research to refining what works and what doesn’t as colleges attempt the reforms. But we have already learned a lot from the field since the book was published. Institutions that seem to be making progress in implementing guided pathways reforms have leaders who have worked for a long time laying the groundwork for change -- any sort of change, not just guided pathways. Even in those institutions, dealing with the political and cultural dynamics that Rose describes is a constant (but necessary) process.
Many of those colleges have taken the first steps by engaging faculty members to examine and rethink their programs in light of what students need to learn to prepare for further education and employment -- in some cases, working with employers and faculty members from four-year colleges in the process. Colleges are bringing together advisers with academic departments to redesign the intake and first-year experiences of students to better help them explore and choose a program of study.
Recent work by Melinda Karp and other Community College Research Center researchers on the implementation of e-advising technologies (which are central to guided pathways) provides insight into the conditions under which colleges can accomplish such “transformational change.” They found that transformative change requires leadership at both the college and initiative levelswith a unified commitment to a shared vision for the reform and its goals. Still, we have far more to learn about how to effectively mobilize faculty and administrators in the implementation of guided pathways.
The Pressures on Students
Rose’s second point concerns the tremendous out-of-school challenges community college students can face that serve to undermine their academic success. As a result of those pressures, many students take convoluted pathways through colleges, stopping out and changing their purposes and goals. Guided pathways are not going to make those outside pressures fade away, but the reform model may indeed have more to offer the students who face such challenges than the smaller number of community college students who are well prepared, know what field they want to pursue and can attend full time and continuously.
First, the guided pathways model places particular importance on helping students explore and choose programs of study and potential careers. To be sure, many will change their minds, and that is fine. As it is, colleges do very little to enable students to explore options in a purposeful way so that they can see what is and what is not a good fit for them. Clarifying program pathways and improving the monitoring of progress for all students (especially by using default maps for program course sequences and tools that allow students to monitor their own progress) will be particularly helpful to part-time students or students who have to stop out.
More coherent pathways may also reduce the time to degree and thereby the probability that life events will derail a student’s college experience. And strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the guided pathways model increases the amount of quality time advisers spend with students, because they use less time scheduling students and more time talking about their plans. Early alert systems and predictive analytics are also being used to identify struggling students who need support but who probably would not have been identified in the past.
Rose certainly offers some important cautions. At the very least, he points to the need to make it clear that implementing guided pathways is a heavy lift that will take several years. In that process, will reformers be able to engage faculty members and administrators to redesign their colleges into coherent programs, and will they be able to help students overcome the difficult barriers they face, both in school and outside of it?
In the months since we published our book, reforms based on the guided pathways model have proliferated. We have identified numerous efforts by colleges in a majority of states to implement guided pathways at scale in their institutions. In almost all of those cases, the colleges are making such reforms without substantial grant funding.
At CCRC, we are now engaged in evaluations of some of those reforms in several states with an explicit goal of analyzing their successes and failures. Thus, over the next several years, we will get a much better sense of the ultimate effectiveness of the model. And we will be able to develop much better answers to the questions concerning implementation that Rose has raised.
Thomas Bailey is the George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and director of the Community College Research Center. Shanna Smith Jaggars is director of student success research for the office of distance education and e-learning at the Ohio State University in Columbus and former assistant director of CCRC. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at CCRC and directs its work on guided pathways.