4-year colleges are using Guided Pathways, too—here's why

A structured pathways approach isn't just for community colleges

Caroline Hopkins, staff writerCaroline Hopkins, staff writer

For a long time, higher education leaders believed in providing students with more options. Flexible schedules and the freedom to explore disciplines were considered to help retention and align with the spirit of the liberal arts.

But lately, both four-year institutions and community colleges have been taking the opposite approach, adopting more structured Guided Pathways—and finding that the model helps them retain and graduate more students.

Melinda Salaman, director of strategic research with EAB, explains, "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." 

Here are some of the elements colleges are building in to their Guided Pathways—and how each one helps retention.

1. True full-time enrollment

Schools are offering incentives for students to take 15 credits instead of 12, which was previously the common standard for full-time attendance but does not keep students on track for timely graduation. For example, the University of Hawaii (UH) has established a campaign called "15 to Finish" that incentivizes students to enroll full-time by offering 15 credits for the price of 12.

Why it works

According to Tom Sugar, president of Complete College America, "part-time students just don't graduate." Sugar explains that the longer it takes for students to achieve a degree, the more likely it is that life will get in the way and students will stop out.

Through 15 to Finish, UH educates students about the benefits of taking 15 credits, such as:

  • Better grades;
  • Earlier graduation; and
  • Increased earnings.

According to EAB research, the simple message of the 15 to Finish campaign can be especially effective in clarifying expectations for first-generation students, who might not know that graduating on time calls for 15 credits per term or 30 credits per year. 

2. "Meta-majors"

At colleges in Tennessee, students are required to select a meta-major upon enrolling. Each meta-major encompass several majors within a broader umbrella.

Meta majors might include:

  • Science;
  • Business;
  • Education; or
  • Social science.

The meta-majors students choose require them to take general course requirements their freshman year, which are then applicable to most of the majors under the meta-major umbrellas.

Why it works

With the majority of institutions offering more than 100 courses, students may be overwhelmed by the vast amount of options available to them. That's why, when it comes to course selection, "choice can sometimes be the enemy," Salaman explains.

Tristan Denley, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Tennessee Board of Regents, says "People are simply more committed to something when they feel the purpose of what they're doing." With meta-majors, students have time to choose a major, but they have a stronger sense that their early courses are contributing to that major.

In addition, students in each focus area automatically form "cohorts," which function as built-in friendships and support systems and contribute to increased retention.

How other institutions have implemented Guided Pathways

3. Whole program choice

At the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT), students enroll in programs that automatically dictate each course they take. Each student's path to graduation is already mapped out—students are told which classes they will take each semester and what time those classes will meet. The approach has helped TCAT achieve an 82% graduation rate.  

Why it works

Whole program students only need to make one choice in their academic careers. This eliminates a great deal of pressure and minimizes the possibility of falling behind on course requirements.

Some colleges that want to give students more time to choose their academic program are still implementing whole program choice during the first year, and offering recommended or default scheduling options in the following years. 

Guided pathways are worth the effort to implement

4. Giving up remedial courses

In Tennessee, no students are required to take prerequisite remedial courses. Instead, they enroll directly into college-level, for-credit courses, but might take additional workshops on the side.

Why it works

Remedial courses don't count for credit, which gives students little-to-no motivation to do well—or even complete them. Denley says students in remedial courses feel like they're "treading water," since they're paying for courses that don't feel like they're bringing them closer to a degree.

Only 10% of remedial students at community colleges graduate within three years, but with the new system in Tennessee, that number has significantly increased.

5. Intrusive advising

Georgia State University (GSU) uses real-time data to monitor how students are doing. When the data flags student performance that is atypical, advisors can immediately jump in and help students get back on track.

Why it works

While intrusive advising requires an investment to implement (schools must hire additional advisors), it pays off in the long run. At GSU, the model helped raise retention rates by roughly five percentage points—which translates to $10 to $15 million in revenue (Rosenberg, New York Times, 3/28).

Focus your advising efforts on students who need them most


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