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The national pathways movement represents the new normal for transforming the student experience and improving college graduation rates. Pathways is a comprehensive and systemic redesign of the student experience -- from the student’s initial connection to the college all the way to completion and graduation. Based on our experience with a pathways program at our institution, Tallahassee Community College, we’d like to share five key coordinates that may help other administrators foster an environment receptive to such transformational change.

One of the primary reasons why the pathways movement has become so revolutionary to how colleges do business is because it focuses on the common-sense premise put forth in the Community College Research Center’s “What We Know About Guided Pathways”: “College students are more likely to complete a degree in a timely fashion if they choose a program and develop an academic plan early on, have a clear road map of the courses they need to take to complete a credential, and receive guidance and support to help them stay on plan.”

Sounds simple, right? Just build a road map that is easy to follow, and they will succeed. What you learn through this work, however, is that once you start diving into institutional policies, procedures and sacred cows, what looks simple is actually complex and requires mutual understanding and collaboration between academic and student affairs leaders.

The crucial lesson learned as we have navigated from an overgrown walkway to a more landscaped pathway for students (pun intended) is the importance of leading and managing through change. In our efforts toward that end, we have identified five key coordinates that moved us forward in transforming students’ experiences.

Coordinate No. 1: Culture. Organizational culture and a willingness to adapt to change are key factors that determine whether pathways work truly transforms the student experience or just tweaks a few processes. Transformational change takes time, years even, so you should tackle small goals that eventually lead to where you want to be. (“Start with the end in mind” is a key phrase in pathways work and applies here, too).

It is essential to build your case on your campus for why students need, and expect, new ways of onboarding and progressing through degree or certificate programs that lead to their career objective or university of choice. You will need people throughout the institutional community to buy in to the success of this effort, as well as develop a core leadership team from all areas of the campus who can help create a student-centered culture that’s more receptive to embracing the change.

Several strategies we’ve implemented have included:

  • The restructuring and realignment of departments and divisions tied to the completion by design phases of connection, entry, progress and completion -- or in other words, what fits together best to monitor a student along the pathway. We’ve also adopted a service philosophy, because we recognize that organizational structure does matter;
  • Reinstating “Ask Me” tents throughout the campus, staffed by employees, during the first two days of the term to help welcome and direct students to classes and resources;
  • Creating a “Pathways Council” with representatives from multiple areas on campus and co-chaired by the provost and the vice president for student affairs;
  • Hosting campus summits focused on professional development, data and research, and strategies that align with the pathways movement, such as an annual professional development day, a summit focused on student performance in gateway courses and appreciative advising; and
  • Launching the Growth Mind-Set Assessment and activities in our first-year college-success course, as well as developing plans for campuswide engagement.

Coordinate No. 2: Communication. Leaders should never underestimate the value of communication. A proverb reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” In higher education a better translation might be, “Where there is no vision, the people make up their own version, and your initiative shall perish.”

The provost and head of student affairs must have a shared vision of the intended outcomes and the why of transformative change. They should consider what campuswide strategies they have to keep people informed of the work and the progress being made toward the goals and ensure there are opportunities for intentional, planned, cross-departmental meetings.

Thus, at Tallahassee Community College, we set aside time each month to meet and discuss projects, results and areas of confusion that must be resolved in order for people to move forward. Managers in both our divisions jointly identify any barriers for students, assess the effectiveness of various strategies, share data and plan for future tasks. A wide range of committees and councils are also engaged in project-based tasks aligned with our pathways programs, which allows more people across the campus to become informed and engaged.

Coordinate No. 3: Community. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and pathways projects also require a village to bring about change at the breadth and depth needed to improve student performance, retention and completion. Two of the basic premises of pathways programs are (1) to remove barriers and obstacles for students so that they can be successful and (2) to ensure that the students’ education ultimately prepares them for jobs that produce family-sustaining wages or the chance to transfer to a university to obtain a baccalaureate degree. Therefore, key partnerships both on and off the campus become more important for ensuring alignment among educational partners and with the business community.

To that end, our strategies include offering precollegiate grants in our service district to help prepare middle and high school students for college, a summer bridge program, and high school visits and on-campus preview days to describe the benefits of college to high school students. We’ve also established better articulation agreements with our university partners to help improve transfer student outcomes (including reverse transfer), data sharing and joint support services. Finally, our associate degree programs in science use business community advisory councils, job shadowing and internships to ensure our graduates can fulfill the needs of our local businesses.

Coordinate No. 4: Collaboration. The definition of collaboration in the Google dictionary is “the action of working with someone to produce or create something,” but the word is often misused in organizations. Discussing or sharing information is not necessarily collaboration. The art of collaboration is fully realized when people come together to produce or create something different from what was originally designed.

Collaboration can occur without direct authority when leaders empower people by sharing a vision, assigning tasks and allowing them to collaborate to produce strategies that will generate wins for collective work. Instead of reinforcing siloed departmental approaches, colleges should periodically review committee structures and objectives and intentionally promote opportunities for diverse people to work together.

That is probably where we’ve had our greatest successes. We’ve expanded our committee and council structures that allow for broader-based participation, assigning specific topics and projects to work groups. In addition, our departments have worked collaboratively to design a first-year experience program that is more than just a course and includes a new student convocation, Welcome Week, college success courses and activities throughout the year to engage and connect our new students to programs and support that will help them be more academically successful.

In our revamped early alert system, our faculty members serve as “first responders” and, when appropriate, make referrals to interventionists from multiple departments of the institution. Gone are the days of an adviser reaching out to an at-risk student about all issues. Learning support staff handle academic performance issues, mental health and behavioral concerns are referred to student services, the financial aid staff manages students’ financial concerns, and the list goes on. The design has been intentional to tailor the level of support to each student’s behavior and needs.

Finally, as a part of our pathways work, faculty subject matter experts and advisers have collaborated to produce academic program maps that clarify the students’ paths and ensure they know what requirements they need to complete their certificates or degrees. And they also offer semester-by-semester recommendations for out-of-class engagement.

Coordinate No. 5: Celebration. Finding time and ways to celebrate successes with your campus community helps sustain the level of commitment and work for pathways programs that’s needed over the long haul. It’s important to acknowledge the people who work day in and day out to support your students. At our college, for example, faculty members and administrators can be nominated each year for Eagles RISE (Respect, Integrity, Success, Engagement) awards, which highlight how those individuals contribute to the culture we want to be known for.

On a personal note, we received awards last year from our college’s Student Government Association for our support of students. Those awards speak volumes about the work that’s been done to move the institution toward a culture where every decision is made in light of how it will impact the most valued members of our campus community: students.

We’d like to offer these final thoughts to help others embark upon their own pathways endeavor:

  • Pathways is about the entire student experience. It’s long-term comprehensive reform, not a short-term initiative or fad.
  • The key to working with students is providing them the guidance they need and want to help them be successful.
  • Campuswide engagement is fundamental to success.
  • Technology is a key component of being able to develop your pathways program to its fullest potential. In times of limited resources, using technology to track and monitor when students are falling off the path, to send students “just in time” notifications, and to connect them to supports will allow better use of human capital to serve those who need it the most.
  • Colleges must evaluate their programs and certificates to ensure they lead to family-sustaining wages.
  • We must help more students gain real-world experience within their chosen career paths by offering more opportunities for internships, job shadowing and project-based learning.

Last, but definitely not least, you should know that the work is hard but meaningful and productive. In fact, it can become an exciting adventure on your campus as you embark upon evaluating everything anew through the lens of your students and their needs.

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