A refresh: Guided career pathways


In the wake of the 2008 recession, community college leaders were faced with a vexing problem. Enrollment was dramatically spiking, but completion rates were stagnant and career outcomes for the influx of learners remained uncertain.

One promising solution emerged: guided pathways. The model placed structured choices around academic and career planning at the center of the community college experience.

Over a decade later — thanks to a coalition of organizations including the American Association of Community Colleges, the Community College Research Center and Jobs for the Future — more than half of community colleges use guided pathways.

Today, community college leaders are once again responding to a period of profound economic change. The Covid-19 pandemic has upended the labor market for workers and employers alike. Institutions are facing record declines in enrollment. It would be tempting to rely on the tried-and-tested guided pathways model as an answer to our new employability imperative, but the world of learning and work has changed dramatically in the years since the framework first emerged. 

Guided pathways are rooted in a two-year, semester-based model that does not reflect the current need for rapid reskilling and a world of work being transformed by technology. It is not tailored for today’s community college students, who are older and often balancing family and career obligations alongside their education. The once-groundbreaking guided pathways approach is in need of a refresh. To make good on the promise of community college completion, it’s time to reimagine guided pathways for today’s learners and labor market. 

Create pathways to employment

We know there is much more work to be done to close racial equity gaps and promote a stronger focus on career outcomes. In the aftermath of Covid-19 and its disparate economic impact on people of color and those from low-income backgrounds, ensuring all students can identify and remain on a clear path to a credential has grown all the more urgent. To boost the employability of community college graduates, guided pathways should be combined with another popular reform from the last decade, the career pathways model. 

JFF was among the authors of this model, creating the first career pathways toolkit for the U.S. Department of Labor in 2011. The model encourages close collaboration between institutions, employers and community partners to create education and training programs that lead to high-value credentials in specific industries.

Career pathways help bridge gaps between noncredit and credit-bearing adult basic education programs, and they are intentionally designed with multiple on-ramps customized for learners of varying ages, educational backgrounds, and levels of work experience. They include robust support services to help students identify a career path, complete a credential, obtain employment and economically advance. By combining guided pathways with career pathways, institutions can help learners develop in-demand labor market competencies, quickly earn credentials and build practical skills. 

Importantly, the approach must be designed so as to ensure students from underrepresented backgrounds are not funneled into lower-wage career pathways. Black students remain underrepresented in college majors associated with the fastest-growing and highest-paying occupations. We must intentionally guide more students of color toward pathways leading to higher-wage jobs.   

Connect to prior experience

Today’s students are arriving on campus with years of learning and experience gained throughout their academic and professional lives. It is not enough to help students choose their pathways — we must also design programs that take into account what they already know, award them credit for that prior experience, and enable them to complete their coursework more quickly. 

Connecting learning to prior experience is an important equity strategy that benefits working adults, learners from low-income backgrounds and Black students by helping them save time and money.

In a study on the impact of prior learning assessment (PLA) among adult learners conducted by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, students who earned credits for prior learning had a completion rate of 49%, compared with 27% among students with no prior learning credits. Fifty-five percent of Pell Grant recipients in the study with prior learning assessment credit completed a credential, compared to only 27% of Pell Grant recipients without PLA. Forty percent of Black students with PLA credit completed a credential, compared to just 17% of Black students without PLA credit. 

Design with flexibility and support in mind

A growing number of today’s learners are juggling family and work responsibilities. About 80% of community college students work while enrolled, with nearly 40% working full-time. About 30% of community college students — 2.1 million — are parents. These learners need pathways that allow for greater flexibility in coursework, support and re-enrollment. 

About 36 million Americans have attended college without ever earning a degree. More than 60% of community college students do not earn a degree or credential within six years. When those students attempt to go back to college, they are often met with a complex and intimidating re-enrollment process.

Institutions must ensure that learners who choose to continue their education can do so easily. Students at St. Petersburg College in Florida, for example, are able to earn short-term stackable credentials that can quickly lead to high-quality middle-skill jobs. This approach enables them to immediately apply the skills they have learned on the job, and then seamlessly return to college to further their education. 

Once enrolled, students must have easy access to resources that can help them stay on track. Colleges can collaborate with workforce development boards and community-based organizations to provide the holistic support and case management services many students need. In New Jersey, for instance, community colleges partner with local community-based organizations to provide students experiencing financial insecurity with resources like housing and food assistance.

Equity must be the core of efforts to design guided career pathways

The important reforms of the past decade have helped community colleges ensure more students are on a path to a credential and a career, but far too many barriers remain. As we work to recover from the pandemic, there’s no better time to build upon that earlier success, creating a new culturally competent system of learning tailored to the academic and socioeconomic needs of today’s learners. 

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Dr. Tonjua Williams is president of St. Petersburg College in Florida. Jennifer Freeman is a senior director at Jobs for the Future.

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