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Guided Pathways at Community College of Philadelphia: A Catalyst for Institutional Change

Students sit around a table in a library

This post is the second in a series by practitioners at AACC Pathways Project colleges describing their experience with implementing guided pathways reforms.

The road to developing, implementing, and then executing the tactical strategies of guided pathways is challenging. On our campus, it has required a shared belief and a commitment from people at every level; college leadership, faculty leadership, students, and staff have all gotten behind a proactive and unified vision of student success. The redesign at Community College of Philadelphia began with a commitment to improve student learning and related outcomes. Articulating that vision was the easy part. Implementing the reform, however, required a school-wide understanding of the principles associated with guided pathways and the strategies needed for us to make changes in areas including personnel, resources, program pathways, and college completion goals.

Our design would foster sweeping institutional changes to degree programs, departments, and—perhaps most importantly—our philosophical outlook on student success and college completion. We hoped our guided pathways work would encourage students to focus on their reasons for coming to college and how they expected to achieve their goals. The days of a laissez-faire education were, for the most part, over. The conversation about career goals would begin at the earliest stages of the students’ experience and continue through graduation.

Preparing for redesign through learning and debate

The college took nearly a year to prepare before making any changes. We became a community of learners and embraced Redesigning America’s Community College: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Bailey, Jaggars, & Jenkins, 2015). Faculty, the board of trustees, student development staff, and executive cabinet members all read the book, and in the first year of implementation, faculty leaders organized book circles and workshops. Lively debates centered on different chapters and the degree to which the proposed strategies could work for Community College of Philadelphia. Because we encouraged board members to read the book, financial support for our guided pathways work was never in question. Their support was based on a clear understanding of the vision and a willingness to embrace the strategies essential for implementation. Board members were fully behind the effort and continue to be involved.

Breaking down silos by integrating academic affairs and student affairs

One of our top priorities was aligning classroom learning and experiences with coordinated support services so that students experienced the college as a unified learning environment. We aimed to embed opportunities for personal growth and development in the institutional culture through student development services and community engagement. Ideally, the student experience would stem from a proactive attempt to help students become self-motivated and singularly focused on achieving their goals. It could not happen without organizational and personnel changes. We felt it was essential for student affairs and academic affairs to work together to avoid the institutional challenges of divisional silos, so we placed these divisions under the same leader. Doing so was a critical first step in ensuring that someone was giving voice to the goals and objectives of guided pathways and its related strategies. Articulating a vision that expressed the importance of the entire school becoming an active learning environment was crucial to the overall strategy.

Over the course of 18 months, we made several systemic changes to the college. Reorganizing the college by combining academic affairs and student affairs was no small task given the collective bargaining agreements that structure shared governance at the college. We also created an advisement department of 12 full-time academic advisors that were embedded in the college’s new meta-majors. As a result of these changes, advisors and faculty have reported higher levels of collaboration and cooperation.

Aligning curriculum, learning outcomes, and degree requirements

As part of the redesign process, the department faculty in each meta-major conducted a review of course curriculum, program learning objectives, and degree requirements. They worked on curriculum and program changes during the summer months and implemented those changes through the curriculum review committees during the academic year. For the most part, the process was surprisingly smooth and quite successful. Additionally, faculty leaders began to align the college’s general education curriculum and requirements to the guided pathways framework and meta-majors. They also joined forces with the college-wide outcomes assessment committee to ensure that general education learning outcomes are measured appropriately and cycled back into discussions about continuous improvement.

College transformation is a dynamic process. Some questioned it but gradually came around once they saw the academic progress reflected in early momentum metrics. Those who would lose coveted courses due to the program changes were encouraged and coached to remake their courses and develop their teaching and subject matter expertise in ways that would be consistent with the reform effort.

Advancing career exploration and entry into college-level courses

An important part of guided pathways on our campus is the multi-faceted transformation of developmental education and the “pre-college” experience. The college strengthened its relationship with the Philadelphia public school system, which has resulted in an expansion of dual enrollment programs and the creation of the Commonwealth’s first middle college program, an alternative high school program in which students take courses at the high school and the community college. Additionally, high school students are now engaged in discussions about careers and goals as early as their sophomore and junior years.

Because of the relationship with the school district, we have also arranged to have high school transcripts sent to the college so that we can evaluate several factors before making placement decisions for recent high school graduates. This has resulted in more accurate placement and fewer students taking unnecessary developmental education courses. We have found students who would have otherwise been placed in developmental courses to be on par with those placed into the college-level courses based solely on the placement test.

Additionally, faculty have developed concurrent enrollment strategies by implementing the ALP (Accelerated Learning Program). This, too, has proven successful, and initial outcomes of students in the ALP demonstrate they are performing on par or better than students placed directly into college-level writing. We believe this addresses the students’ skill deficiencies and, more importantly, the hit to self-esteem that occurs when students are placed into a remedial course, especially after successfully graduating high school.

Guided pathways has been the impetus behind a comprehensive reform effort at Community College of Philadelphia. We have been deliberate in not describing guided pathways as a “project.” It is ubiquitous, engages everyone at the college behind the goals of student success, and ensures that student success is driven by an articulation of goals and clear strategies for achieving them.

Want to learn more about guided pathways? Listen to our introductory podcast, or check out our case studies and full report on how colleges are managing the guided pathways change process.

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