Guided pathways are worth the effort to implement, authors say

'We did not intend to minimize the difficulty'

The authors of "Reassessing a Redesign of Community Colleges" take to Inside Higher Ed to defend their book against critiques printed in the same publication last month.

Davis Jenkins, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Thomas Bailey say they wrote the book "because we perceived that more than a decade of reform in community colleges had failed to improve overall student outcomes." They argue guided pathways can lead to increased retention, transfer, and graduation rates.

In June, Mike Rose, a University of California, Los Angeles research professor, wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed examining the strengths and weaknesses of guided pathways. He said the system is worth the effort to implement, but launching a program means overcoming three main challenges:

1. Faculty resistance can slow down implementation;
2. Students don't always know what field they want to study; and
3. Students often face challenges at home that affect them at school.

Getting faculty on board

"There is no question that guided pathways reforms will encounter many implementation challenges, and we did not intend to minimize the difficulty," Jenkins, Smith Jaggars, and Bailey write in Inside Higher Ed. "The structural reforms we recommend need to be coupled with real-world problem solving in the context of each college to overcome the challenges."

Revving up guided pathways takes at least five years, even under good circumstances, they say.

Q&A: How members implement Guided Pathways

They've found that implementation is smoothest at schools where leaders primed faculty for change—regardless of what kind of change, be it guided pathways or something else.

Those institutions engage faculty by asking them to rethink their programs to ensure students are learning what they need to continue their education and land a job. Some colleges even bring in employers, four-year college faculty, and academic advisors.

Helping students stay in school

Many students stop-out of school due to responsibilities and challenges at home, and many don't know what they want to study when they arrive on campus. However, the authors write, guided pathways can ease the transition in and out of school—even if someone ends up changing majors later on.

How well is your college actually doing Pathways?

"More coherent pathways may also reduce the time to degree and thereby the probability that life events will derail a student’s college experience," they say.

"Strong anecdotal evidence" shows that using guided pathways increases the ability for advisors to spend more "quality time" with students, rather than using meetings with students to simply schedule classes.

The debate around whether guided pathways help students with non-academic challenges is a particularly interesting part of the discussion, says EAB Associate Director Melinda Salaman.

"While Rose argues that guided pathways isn’t enough to overcome the tremendous barriers many students face to timely completion, the CCRC researchers instead propose that the incremental benefits of the guided pathways model are much better than the traditional ‘cafeteria-style’ model," Salaman says. She encourages leaders to pay special attention to this point, because they're likely to face similar discussions on their own campuses.

"It's important to acknowledge the limitation of the guided pathways model—it is not a silver bullet—but let's not allow its shortcomings to hinder progress," says Salaman.

"Eliminating the socioeconomic factors that present barriers to community college student success is hard work. Rather than pass on every opportunity to improve students’ lives until ‘the big one’ comes around, it is an inherent part of the community college mission, its DNA, to support students in every way possible. Right now, the guided pathways model offers a framework for doing so. College leaders should take the opportunity for what it is, and do as much good for their students as they can with the resources at their disposal" (Jenkins, et al., Inside Higher Ed, 7/18).

More on pathways: Balancing liberal arts education, student choice, and guided pathways


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