Community colleges reinvent their academic programs to help students graduate

Administrators question the 'cafeteria' of course offerings

Many community colleges across the country are facing challenges. They're receiving less funding from state governments, and their enrollments are declining as unemployment rates improve.

"That's why many community colleges are working to reinvent themselves," Jeffrey Young writes for EdSurge.

To better measure their value during a time of uncertainty, community colleges have begun to focus on completion rates instead of enrollment rates. And to improve their completion rates, many community colleges have found success through escorting students along through their many options using Guided Pathways.

With Guided Pathways, advisors help students pinpoint their goals, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and create a customized academic path that takes these factors into consideration.

3 ways to help students find the perfect academic program

"What we need to do is help and talk to students about, what do you want to do?" says John Hamman, the dean of the two-year Montgomery College. Hamman describes how, if a student struggles with math, for instance, they should could consider switching to an academic path that requires less math.

But the problem is that students might not know such options exist.

Melinda Karp, the assistant director of the Columbia University's Teachers College's Community College Research Center, likens the traditional community college courses to a "cafeteria"—students can choose from a seemingly endless selection of courses with a great deal of freedom.

But Karp argues that this model is not as helpful as it seems. "We've since realized that too much choice is actually overwhelming," she says. "Too many students are unable to put together a program of study that gets them where they want to go."

Guided Pathways programs are one solution to the dilemma—which is why a growing number of community colleges are adopting them.

Melinda Salaman, a director of strategic research at EAB, explains that the purpose of structuring an institution around Guided Pathways is not the same as “creating a crystal ball that tells students their best-fit major.” Instead, she writes, Guided Pathways should “take [students] through the thoughtful process of evaluating their interests, academic skills, and career goals, and show them how each of these considerations weigh into the final decision about a program.”

The challenge, Salaman notes, is how to accomplish this at scale given limited advising resources and growing student needs; this question has led many progressive institutions to consider technology to scale personalized attention. 

Read more on EAB's approach to Guided Pathways

The exploration of new models for supporting students has many college leaders feeling optimistic, Young writes.

"This is [community colleges'] moment because they are the access and equity engines of higher education," Karp says. In fact, many experts think the new national focus on American jobs could benefit community colleges—since they are closely tied to development in the workforce.

"In this age when we're talking about how do we open up access to higher education but also make sure our labor force is prepared for the kind of jobs of the future, [community colleges] are in the ideal position," Karp argues (Young, EdSurge, 2/13).

How to tell if your Guided Pathways efforts are paying off

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