Community College Blog

How to achieve liberal arts outcomes with Guided Pathways

by Melinda Salaman

A useful education?

As a liberal arts alumnus myself, and the proud sister of an English major who graduated this past weekend, I’m used to questions about the value of the liberal arts. Though definitions vary, most agree that a liberal arts education is marked by a general education core spanning multiple disciplines and the focused study of specific arts and sciences disciplines (i.e., the humanities, sciences, social sciences).

Liberal arts advocates argue that this type of education is vital to exposing students to real-world challenges and developing critical thinking skills. Its detractors dismiss the liberal arts as the luxury education of the upper-middle class, with no practical value for students who need to focus on their post-graduate careers and salaries.

On the plush lawns of traditional university campuses and in the stark classrooms of cash-strapped institutions, the debates rage on. But outside of academia, political leaders are heralding the German apprenticeship model, millions of grant dollars go to STEM and technical training, and there’s a swell of support across public and private sectors for building pathways to guide college entrants to and through school as efficiently and effectively as possible.

On the surface, it may seem like liberal arts advocates have lost, but in reality, there are no losers. Structured pathways are not in diametric opposition to the principles of a liberal arts education.

Students can and should achieve liberal arts outcomes, such as real-world problem solving and critical thinking, within a Guided Pathways model. With the right implementation all community college students, regardless of discipline, can graduate with a liberal arts mindset.

A much-needed model for real-world decision making

The Guided Pathways model teaches students how to approach real-world challenges in a thoughtful manner befitting any liberal arts graduate.

Take the difficult, elusive, and just plain stressful decision of choosing a career.

Historically, students chose their major based on family pressures, recommendations from friends, or pop culture phenomena (think about the surge of forensic scientist-wannabes in the wake of the CSI television series). Misguided decisions like this cost students time and money: The average student earns 20+ excess credits pursuing a 60-credit associate degree. Nationally, students pay $7.7 billion dollars a year for courses that do not count towards their credential.

Related: 3 ways to engage students in the perfect academic program for them

Using a Pathways model, we can teach students to conduct thorough research before making important decisions—skills that will last a lifetime.

In the SSC-Navigate platform, we intentionally avoided creating a crystal ball that tells students their best-fit major. Instead, we take them through the thoughtful process of evaluating their interests, academic skills, and career goals, and show them how each of these considerations weighs into the final decision about a program.

Students are pleased with the results: At one institution, roughly one-quarter of pilot students switched majors after finding a better match using Navigate. More importantly, they’re learning to think critically, just like a traditional liberal arts student.

A liberal arts education for anyone and everyone

Colleges can use the Guided Pathways model to engage all students in the liberal arts in an entirely new way.

Even before students set foot on campus or register for classes, college leaders can create a ”liberal arts experience” within every program and pathway. This could mean required liberal arts coursework or maybe a commitment to including problem-solving, critical thinking, constructive debate, and innovation in every academic offering.

College leaders should consider applying design thinking principles to this curricular innovation project, and ensure proper representation from the faculty, who are critical to brainstorming and implementation considerations.

The beauty of the Guided Pathways model is the insistence that it is built for 100% participation—all students enter and experience a pathway, and benefit from the structure and cohesion it brings to their studies. In this way, pathways are much more accessible than the traditional liberal arts model.

Community college students who are traditionally barred from a liberal arts education—whether by choice or circumstance—can now learn to tackle real-world challenges through critical thinking and problem solving. Perhaps my bias is showing, but more liberal arts-minded students is a boon to our colleges, our workforce, and our economy.

Ready to lead the charge on your campus?

SSC-Navigate can help you in your institutional commitment to building and scaling Structured Pathways. Designed by students for students, Navigate is a student-facing platform that offers personalized yet scalable guidance via mobile devices and the web. Learn more about how Navigate helps students find the best path for them, from onboarding through completion.

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