Early challenges, successes on guided pathways

Timothy Renick of Georgia State University highlights the university's success with guided pathway during a spotlight session at the AACC annual convention. (Photo: Pat Garin)

NEW ORLEANS — Community colleges engaged in creating guided pathways for students are facing some expected challenges — from difficult conversations with faculty, to improving career counseling — but the changes are yielding results, even early on in their efforts.

Leaders of several community colleges involved in pathways — including institutions new to the effort, as well as those that have already laid the ground with similar efforts over the past decade — shared their experiences during a session on pathways at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) annual convention.

“The work of pathways reform is burgeoning around the country,” said Kay McClenney, a senior advisor to the president of AACC who is leading AACC’s Pathways Project.

Many of the 30 two-year colleges selected to participate in the Pathways Project are “going all in” and making progress toward developing the structures for pathways at their institutions, according to a report released last week by the Community College Research Center, one of the partners on Pathways.

At Sunday’s spotlight session, college leaders highlighted efforts at their institutions, from gathering and analyzing data, to better preparing students for college through orientation and first-year experience programs.

One common thread among the presenters was their emphasize on the importance of involving faculty and staff, from having them champion the effort, to helping create academic pathways (also called meta-majors), which often includes the difficult conversation of which programs to eliminate.

Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of the San Jacinto College District in Texas, and Davis Jenkins of the Community College Research Center (Photo: Pat Garin)

Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of the San Jacinto College District (SJCD) Texas, emphasized the importance of faculty involvement. Like other colleges in the Pathways Project, SJCD nixed late registration and created mandatory orientation for new students among its initial changes. Now, it’s in the heavier work of creating the pathways, with the goal of having all new students in fall 2018 in a pathway.

“There is no part of our institution that will not be affected by this,” Hellyer said.

Focus on advising

Some colleges have focused on improving advising by hiring more advisors, who are helping students select a pathway and stay on it. For example, the Community College of Philadephia has embedded career advisors among its seven meta-majors.

Guy Generals (left), president of the Community College of Philadelphia, and Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College (Photo: Pat Garin)

Miami Dade College (MDC) in Florida created a three-tier advisement process that includes advisors assigned to all area high schools to help students, families and even teachers become familiar with college requirements. MDC students then have an academic advisor assigned to help them through the first quarter of their degree completion. After that, a faculty mentor is assigned to the student. So far, the college has some 450 faculty mentors, all of whom do so voluntarily, though the college does provide incentives.

Several colleges using the guided pathways model are already yielding promising results. Lorain County Community College in Ohio has seen a 48 percent increase in associate degrees over the last five year, according to President Marcia Ballinger. At MDC, black and Hispanic students have graduated at a higher rate over the past four years than the average student body, noted its president, Eduardo Padrón.

“This work is hard. It has to be intentional. You have to believe it,” Padrón said.

What the future holds

For inspiration, community colleges involved in the early stages of guided pathways can look to Georgia State University (GSU), which over the past decade has implemented significant reforms resulting in eye-opening results. With less state funding, fewer students prepared for college-level work and more low-income students, GSU — which has similar student demographics to many community colleges — included guided pathways among its reform efforts to improve student retention and success, said Timothy Renick, GSU’s vice president for enrollment management and students success and also its vice provost.

AACC Pathway 2.0: AACC is accepting applications from colleges to participate in Pathways 2.0, which aims to help community colleges design and implement guided academic and career pathways at scale for all students. The deadline is June 1.

The university looked at student data to determine areas for improvement. Although technology was used in many areas — such as developing career portals, using text to send answers to frequently asked questions and tapping predictive analytics — GSU also invested in more trained counselors, which Renick said was the university’s biggest single investment.

“Students at GSU are getting more personal attention than ever before,” he said.

Renick also emphasized the importance of buy in from faculty, who are critical in not only ensuring pathways’ success but can also serve in different ways to help students. For example, at GSU faculty can suggest to students who need academic help to seek out a student mentor. Students are more likely to do something if a faculty member tells them to do it, Renick said.

Renick noted that the reforms at GSU were not targeted just toward at-risk students but for all students.

“Don’t make it a program just for those students; make it the way you do things,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily.