The Mixed Methods Blog

Perspectives from our researchers, highlights from recent studies, and other news about CCRC

Guided Pathways at Kirkwood Community College

Kirkwood community college students stand in snow

By Judy Stoffel

This blog post is one of a series from colleges that participated in CCRC’s Guided Pathways Summer Institute on how their guided pathways reforms have evolved.

Before embracing guided pathways, Kirkwood Community College, one of 15 community colleges in Iowa, had implemented a number of initiatives and pilots that generated positive outcomes for small groups of students. But to improve the experiences and outcomes for all students, the college acknowledged the need to take a coordinated and systematic approach.

In 2016, Kirkwood engaged in a comprehensive self-study of the first-year and transfer student experience and associated policies and processes. This work generated over 100 recommendations. The college’s leadership chose the guided pathways framework to organize the intertwined reforms.

Kirkwood gained traction with learning and planning for the adoption of the guided pathways framework through the Guided Pathways Implementation and Learning Network, which was initiated by the Iowa Department of Education through a grant. The college formed a guided pathways steering committee in 2019, leveraged consulting through the National Center for Inquiry & Improvement (NCII), and actively pursued opportunities such as CCRC’s 2022 Guided Pathways Summer Institute, which focused on using data to launch large-scale reform. Collectively, these structures, resources, and learning opportunities provided space to challenge the college’s thinking and advance its efforts to increase student persistence, retention, and completion.

Leading up to the college’s participation in the CCRC summer institute, the steering committee prioritized design and implementation planning to clarify the path to students’ end goals and help students get on the path, two of the four pillars of the guided pathways framework. In preparation for the fall of 2022, the college established program areas (meta-majors), and faculty used data—particularly information on students’ initial major and changes to their major—to align their programs with a program area. The college also assigned advisors to program areas, increased the number of advisors, centralized advising under the leadership of a new director of advising, and developed shared practices among advisors. These structures were necessary components of redesigning the student experience.

The college also made numerous changes to student onboarding, with an emphasis on helping students get on a path. The admissions application is organized by program area and offers students the option to identify as still deciding on a program. The admissions team partners with career services staff to provide personalized outreach and support to deciding students, helping them identify with one of the eight program areas. All students are provided a personalized checklist of tasks to complete in preparation for orientation. Program area advisors reach out to students prior to orientation to help them complete any remaining tasks, with the goal of optimizing their experience at orientation.

One of the tasks students complete is a holistic needs assessment that connects students to resources on campus based on their responses and informs program area advisors of students’ needs as they support them in planning for their first semester. Students are oriented by program area, which creates a sense of community among students who share interests. Upon registering for their first term, students are assigned an advisor who follows up with them post-orientation, begins forming a working relationship, and supports them through their time at the college.

While the onboarding strategies and advising reforms were in development and plans were underway to implement them at scale in the fall of 2022, a cross-functional team participated in the CCRC summer institute. The institute provided a structured approach to using data to reflect on our progress and areas where we could focus our work. Below are the areas we decided to target for improvement.

  • Supporting the matriculation of high school concurrent enrollment students. High school concurrent enrollment represents 34% of all enrollments at the college. While overall enrollment is declining at Kirkwood, high school concurrent enrollment is on the rise. We learned through the data that these students are predominantly in unstructured programs. High school students may take concurrent courses offered at their high school, online, at a Kirkwood Regional Center, or on the main campus. High school students also have the option to take a collection of concurrent courses in a career area, referred to as a Career Academy. We have since developed clearer pathways from high school Career Academy programming to credit programs. The college is focused on designing advising practices that support seamless matriculation into credit programs at the college.
  • Recruiting adult students from continuing education. The college has seen a steep decline in students age 25 and older, though the college is continuing to serve this demographic in continuing education courses. The college is developing plans to create greater alignment between non-credit and credit pathways and paths to family-sustaining employment. This planning involves creating a financial model for credit and non-credit articulation that results in sustainability for the college and success for students, developing opportunities to transition easily between non-credit and credit programs, and advancing advising structures to support students along non-credit and credit pathways.
  • Inspiring students to explore career interests and define an academic goal. We identified the need to engage all students in meaningful career exploration and career-connected learning that inspires them in their first term and aids them in defining an academic goal. The college engaged faculty in professional development this fall and will continue offering professional development to support faculty with developing a sense of community for students in the classroom and providing academic support to students.

Our data analysis also illuminated the need to address the issue of students in unstructured liberal arts programs. We learned that the median earnings of students in these programs, two years post-graduation, are in the bottom third in our community, and Black students are disproportionately represented in this group. In February 2023, teams of deans and advisors participated in a two-day workshop to evaluate curriculum across programs in the same program area so that they could identify a common first semester that included a “light-the-fire” course that ignites students’ passion for learning. Teams were challenged to create a map that visually illustrated the decision points a student faces from term to term to complete a program. Each team also identified an action plan to support the use of these maps for deciding students. Three of the eight program areas have begun using these maps at new student orientations; the remaining five program areas are actively working to make the map student-ready.

To monitor progress, the college is evaluating early momentum measures leading up to implementation of onboarding strategies and advising reforms in the fall of 2022. The college has preliminary data that suggest improvements in persistence among a cohort of first-time degree-seeking students. Participating in the CCRC Summer Institute provided the college insight into specific strategies that can continue the college’s momentum. Kirkwood is committed to this work and is eager to continue the transformation needed to increase student persistence, retention, and completion of programs leading to family-sustaining employment.

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