The Mixed Methods Blog

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

Looking Ahead at the Next Questions About Guided Pathways Reforms

students walking campus pathway

Since the publication of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, CCRC has continued to conduct research on guided pathways reforms, which involve clarifying program pathways and implementing a comprehensive suite of reforms to better help students explore options, plan a program of study, and complete programs in a timely and affordable manner. A key focus of our work thus far has been to better understand what practices colleges are implementing as part of their guided pathways reforms and how are they managing the change process. We summarize some of our key findings to date in a new series for practitioners, What We Are Learning About Guided Pathways.

The spread of guided pathways reforms nationally has both generated questions about their effects on students and colleges and created a laboratory for researchers to address these questions. CCRC is partnering with colleges involved in the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Pathways Project, as well as with Student Success Centers and state agencies in California, Ohio, Tennessee, and Washington, which are leading pathways reforms in their states, to examine questions about the effects of guided pathways.

The Next Set of Questions Around Pathways Reforms

Do guided pathways substantially improve student outcomes?

Perhaps most important to the continued scaling and spread of guided pathways is the question of whether guided pathways reforms do indeed substantially improve student outcomes. We have seen promising preliminary descriptive evidence from individual colleges and state systems, such as the 13 Tennessee community colleges. Guided pathways reforms are now far enough along in a growing number of colleges that we can begin to examine with more depth and rigor the effects of the reforms on student outcomes—both on short-term leading indicators that are predictors of longer term success and on longer term outcomes, including completion, transfer, and employment.

Can guided pathways reforms help colleges close equity gaps?

On one hand, guided pathways reforms seek to break down barriers, such as excessive remediation and inadequate advising, that have impeded success for disadvantaged students. On the other hand, there is a concern that guided pathways will reinforce traditional patterns of tracking by race/ethnicity and income. Data on student progression and completion rates from early adopters of guided pathways does show substantial improvements for students of color; however, because White students’ achievement has also increased, achievement gaps sometimes persist. The question remains as to whether guided pathways reforms can be carried out in ways that close gaps in achievement among students by race/ethnicity, income, age, and other factors.

What specific guided pathways practices are most effective?

There are also related questions about what specific practices as part of larger pathways reforms are effective in enabling students to enter and complete a college-level program of study. Of particular interest to practitioners are the following questions: How do we help students explore options and choose a program of study that is a good fit for them? How do we enable poorly prepared students to take and pass critical program gateway courses? How do we monitor, advise, and otherwise support students’ progress so that they complete their programs on time and affordably?

How do students experience guided pathways reforms?

Colleges are making major changes in practice, but how are students experiencing those practices? How do different students experience pathways reforms: older versus younger students, White students versus students of color, students who are working more or less? What are effective approaches to improving students’ understanding of pathways and the impact of pathways practices on student behavior? 

How can colleges best structure program pathways?

As colleges map out programs, questions arise about optimal course-taking sequences for completing particular programs, the place of general education courses as part of programs in particular fields, and how students can avoid taking excess credits.

How can community colleges strengthen partnerships with high schools, four-year institutions, and regional employers?

Some community colleges are building on their guided pathways reforms to strengthen program pathways from high schools and other feeder programs, on one side, and to four-year institutions and career-path employment on the other. The aim of these efforts is to create educational pathways for community residents to career-path employment in fields of economic value to their regions. This raises questions about how these partnerships can be organized most effectively.

CCRC has done a lot of work recently on transfer pathways. Moving forward, we are especially interested in the potential for building pathways “forward” to careers and “backward” into high schools through dual enrollment and other high school partnership strategies. We believe that helping students begin to explore options and prepare for academic and career paths while in high school will be necessary to address equity gaps in college success.

What are the costs and benefits of guided pathways?

Even if guided pathways reforms are effective, they are unlikely to be sustained if they are too costly. CCRC has modeled the effects of student pathways on operating costs and revenues. More research is needed to do a more precise accounting of the costs of guided pathways reforms. Are they cost-effective? What are the economic implications of these reforms for students, colleges, and taxpayers?

Ongoing Research on Pathways

Other researchers, such as our colleagues at the Center for the Study of Community College Student Engagement, are studying guided pathways. Beyond formal research, colleges themselves are building know-how on how to implement these reforms. National and state organizations, including AACC and the state-based Student Success Centers, have created learning networks that provide knowledge sharing, professional development, and technical assistance among practitioners engaged in reforms on their own campuses. Both formal and informal knowledge development and sharing will be critical if the field is to realize the potential of guided pathways to substantially improve outcomes for students.

What are your biggest questions about guided pathways? Tweet us at @CommunityCCRC and let us know.

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