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The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

Does Guided Pathways Lead Colleges to Cut Programs and Limit Student Options?

By Thomas Bailey and Davis Jenkins

getting advice from student services

The guided pathways model is a strategy for institutional reform designed to strengthen college programs and majors and help students achieve their end goals. There are four elements to the model: mapping programs to student end goals, helping students choose and enter a college-level program of study, helping students stay on and finish that pathway, and assuring that students are learning skills and abilities appropriate for their pathway and end goals.

Several hundred colleges in many states are actively implementing the model. But in some circles, guided pathways reforms have a bad image. They’re seen as the latest fad in college reform and as a way for administrators to juice their completion numbers at the expense of students getting the full intellectual college experience. In the most simple construction, some think guided pathways means handing students a list of courses they must take to graduate, preferably in an occupational field, giving them few if any choices. In the process, the argument goes, this gives college administrators license to cut courses and programs they deem unnecessary.

The recent news out of the University of Wisconsin-Superior didn’t help. Administrators there attributed part of their decision to cut nine majors, 15 minors, and one graduate program to wanting to streamline choices for students in the mode of guided pathways. The majors included core academic fields such as political science and sociology. Skeptics may wonder if Wisconsin’s move is an example of guided pathways’ dangerous tendencies.

But the changes proposed at the university are not the guided pathways reforms we advocate at the Community College Research Center (CCRC), nor do they represent the model being implemented by our partners in the AACC Pathways Project and in similar efforts nationally. Guided pathways does call for rethinking programs' content and structure to ensure that they prepare students to succeed in further education and employment. And it is clear that major reform projects like guided pathways can cause a lot of anxiety for faculty members who value the courses they teach and worry that students may miss out on important learning without them. But the faculty—and student services staff—must play a central role in restructuring programs under guided pathways. It is up to faculty members to build the programs and ensure that courses contribute to the overall learning objectives. In any successful effort to implement guided pathways, faculty members are brought into the planning process very early so everyone on campus can form a consensus around the need for reforms and the most effective way to implement them.

At the same time, to help students complete their programs efficiently and prepare them to succeed in further education and employment, sometimes courses or programs are eliminated, although others may grow or be added. As colleges create program maps, faculty and student services staff should cut or modify courses that do not clearly enable students to master skills and knowledge essential to the program or (in the case of community colleges) do not transfer toward junior standing in students' desired major. For instance, San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, dropped a genetics course that did not transfer or meet general education science requirements. Students said they were taking it because television shows like CSI had made it sound cool, but they did not realize that the course did not fulfill any requirements. San Jacinto faculty also thoroughly revamped their IT programs—eliminating some certificates and creating a more integrated core—because they found that they had not been meeting the evolving needs of local employers.

Moreover, as we have emphasized, program redesign and mapping is only one of the four elements of the guided pathways model. Guided pathways reforms require changes to the student experience from before students enroll to after they leave for another college or a job. The new student intake process is redesigned to help students explore their options for college and careers, get a taste of a field of interest early on, and develop a full-program plan. Thus, rather than limit students’ choices, guided pathways helps to clarify their options and guides them through an exploration process. Instead of a series of prerequisite courses that students see as a rehash of high school math and English, under guided pathways, academic support is integrated into college-level coursework, particularly in the key gateway courses in a student’s program of study. Advising is redesigned to help students make timely progress on their academic plans. And faculty work to improve curriculum and instruction in broad program areas, or “meta-majors.” The meta-majors provide a frame for faculty to ensure that students are taking the right general education courses to prepare them for upper division coursework in the students’ field of study—not just whatever courses they might choose from the typical general education distribution list. (For more see Implementing Guided Pathways: Early Insights From the AACC Pathways Colleges or the book Redesigning America's Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success.)

The goal of guided pathways is not to cut programs but to initiate a collective process to strengthen the relevance, quality, and educational coherence of programs offered by the college. Ultimately, it is designed to make it easier for students to find an academic and career path that works for them, develop a clear plan, and give them the guidance and support they need in and outside the classroom to master the skills and knowledge—and complete the credentials—needed to achieve their goals.

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