A community college’s success hinges in large part on the effectiveness of its teaching faculty, no more so than in times of major organizational change. However, any large-scale foundational shift requires institutional buy-in, with the onus on leadership to create an environment where everyone is working together toward the same endpoint.
Administration-backed faculty engagement has been the modus operandi for colleges selected by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to participate in its Pathways Project. The initiative, funded through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, implements a model for guiding learners on a course of study that keeps them on track for timely degree completion.
College presidents may be leading the top-down charge to implement Pathways, but it’s faculty who must enact day-to-day change in the classroom, program proponents say. With that in mind, administrators at Western Wyoming Community College (WWCC) and other Pathways colleges are getting their staff directly involved in an ever-evolving transformation process.
“This is a faculty-to-faculty change, and we now have a strong faculty group that acts as our core Pathways team,” says WWCC President Karla Leach. “And let’s be honest: People would rather listen to their peers than they would administrators, so we just went ahead with it.”
Where changes were needed
WWCC and the other selected colleges received funding from a three-year, $5.2 million grant as the first participants in the Pathways initiative, which launched in 2015. The project is designed to streamline programs of study with a student’s employment or educational goals. Through the guided pathways approach, learners are encouraged by their advisers to select at least a general area of study, if not a specific discipline.
Many two-year science degrees, for example, have similar course requirements, so participants on a science track will have a clearer idea of what courses they must take to complete their degree, even if they’re not certain of what discipline they too many general-interest course credits that may not move them closer to a finished degree.
WWCC, which offers certificates and two-year degrees in the oil, gas and mining industries along with other disciplines, had students in its old academic model graduating with a cumbersome 80 credit hours through programs that only required 64 credit hours to complete.
“Other people weren’t graduating at all because we didn’t have courses structured for them in a logical order,” Leach says. “Or we didn’t have those credits offered when students needed them. We had to be more strategic.”
Pathways gives WWCC’s 3,500 students a program map they can navigate online or with the aid of an adviser. The college then assists its young charges in identifying a large program group called a meta-major, with the aim of getting students into more focused academic areas somewhere down the line.
“If a student gets into a preferred program of study earlier in their career, they’re less likely to get lost,” Leach says. “We’re helping them find efficiency in their path.”
Coming from a “cafeteria” model of education that maximized choice via a dizzying array of courses and credential options, WWCC was challenged to integrate a new, institution-wide approach that not only simplified student decision-making, but engaged faculty in the transition as well.