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Redesigning Your College Through Guided Pathways: An Interview With Davis Jenkins and Hana Lahr

Adults sit around a conference table smiling

Guided pathways consists of a number of practices that colleges can implement to transform how they help students enter and complete programs of study. But how to take that template and apply it to a specific college is not always clear. CCRC just released a set of case studies describing how colleges at the leading edge of implementing guided pathways went about convening staff, reorganizing programs, and collaboratively transforming practices. The individual case studies are accompanied by a report that synthesizes the lessons learned from CCRC’s research into the colleges.

In this podcast, CCRC Senior Research Scholar Davis Jenkins and Senior Research Associate Hana Lahr discuss what they found when they visited eight colleges participating in the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Pathways Project.


Elizabeth Ganga, CCRC communications manager: I’m Elizabeth Ganga, and I’m here with Davis Jenkins and Hana Lahr, who are leading CCRC’s guided pathways work. Guided pathways is a type of whole-college redesign that refocuses community colleges on helping students earn degrees and prepare for further education or careers. CCRC just released a series of case studies that detail how colleges are implementing guided pathways as part of the American Association of Community Colleges guided pathways project.

So tell me about the guided pathways project.

Hana Lahr: So, there are 30 colleges, but they represent 17 states. There’s some very large urban colleges, like Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland; San Jacinto College down in Houston, Texas, which is a multicampus district; and then there’s some small rural colleges, like Wallace State Community College [in Alabama] and Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee. We were interested in learning first about what these reforms look like at different campuses. So, what do meta-majors look like, what do program maps look like, what does advising redesign look like, and how does it vary at different campuses? And in this latest round of research, which is based on site visits we did in fall 2018, we’re interested more in the how. So, how were college leaders managing this change process, how were they engaging people in the redesign, how were colleges coming to a common understanding of what problems they needed to address and how would they reorganize and redesign in order to increase student success? We hope these lessons will then be useful to colleges who are either just starting out this guided pathways work or thinking about it. Because you can’t just launch into doing guided pathways. There’s a lot of foundational work that you have to do. So we were able to learn from these colleges about what was successful and what worked for them.

Ganga: Tell me a little bit about the foundational work. What kinds of things do colleges need to have prepared?

Davis Jenkins: So, every college in laying the groundwork engaged folks broadly within the college—not just faculty and student services staff but everyone—to look at student data and in some cases to talk to students. And the goal was to build a sense of collective responsibility, to recognize that, of course, at the end of the day, if the student doesn’t apply themselves, they’re not going to succeed, but that there’s a lot the college does to create barriers to student success. Not intentionally—this isn’t the advisors’ problem, [where] they’re giving the students bad advice. This isn’t the faculty’s problem. This is everybody’s problem. We need to step back together and rethink this work.

Lahr: You know, a lot of that early data work really focused on college-level outcomes, which are an important starting point. But what is really important and what a lot of colleges in this study started doing was, they started looking at program-level data as well—so not just looking at whole-college outcomes but having faculty look at data for students in their programs.

Jenkins: One of the most compelling data analyses that’s relatively easy to do, that everyone seemed to use, was to look at the number of credits that your associate degree graduates in the last year attempted, both remedial and college credits. And the faculty and advisors are shocked to see students with 80, 90 credits, because of course many of these are going to be transferring. And so they’ve earned all these credits, they’ve paid all that money, they’ve used up all that financial aid, and then, of course, everyone wants them to go on and get a bachelor’s degree. And they come in having depleted it and, in many cases, not having taken the right credits for their particular major. This was really eye-opening to faculty, especially, because it’s one of these analyses that points to: This wasn’t the students. These students applied themselves. They did what we told them to do, and look, they took all these credits. So we’ve really got to do something about that.

And then colleges started looking into what credits they took, and you can start to see, the faculty can start to see, these aren’t what they should be taking. This is a systemic problem, one that we really have to deal with from the start, from the time the student first contacts the institution.

Ganga: What do colleges do to address those extra credits and taking the wrong classes? What are the sort of fundamental building blocks of guided pathways that they’re putting in place?

Lahr: Over the last couple years of doing this research, what we’ve learned is one of the really fundamental pieces of pathways is helping every student build a customized educational plan. This is a big idea, the idea of helping every student build out their own plan that’s based on these program maps, but the program maps shouldn’t be what we are focusing on. Doing the maps doesn’t mean you’re doing pathways. Really, we need to help every student build a customized educational plan that accounts for any prior credits that they have, that accounts for where they want to transfer to, what electives they’re interested in taking, and their timeline for completion. You want to start with this map that’s been developed by faculty, by advisors, in collaboration and consultation with your transfer partners, with your employer partners, so that you know that students—if they follow this map, if they take the courses—they’re going to be able to transfer with junior standing at a university, or they’re going to be prepared for employment in this field. So, from there, you do have to customize it for every student.

Once you start to realize that—that every student needs this plan—you realize again the importance of helping students explore their interests, their goals, explore programs of study, and get them into a program that’s initially a good fit. So what these colleges are moving to is having a really facilitated, and intentional, and kind of a guided exploration process for all students when they first come to the college, so they can think about their interests, their favorite courses in high school. What are some of their hobbies? What are they good at? Learning more about what these programs are about, what they’ll learn in these programs. And then making an initial choice. We fully acknowledge that students are probably going to change their mind. Most students will, and that’s totally fine. But at least you’re starting with something. You’re starting to take some courses in that field to see if it is a good fit, and if it’s not, you can talk to an advisor and get some help in thinking about what might be a better fit.

Jenkins: Allowing the student themselves to see their full-program plan, we don’t have direct research on this, but there’s a lot of research in behavioral economics and psychology to suggest that this is really going to help them. We hear anecdotal evidence that when students see that their plan is four years, they’re like, “I can’t wait that long.” So they’ll work with their advisor maybe to take more summer credits, or to take a January term, or maybe get their kid some extra daycare so that they can take 12 credits instead of nine, or nine instead of six. This has really brought a lot more attention to colleges about time-to-degree, which is really critical. Students don’t know—frankly, they’re told that 12 credits is full-time because that’s what qualifies you for financial aid. We’ve talked to many students who’ve said, “I wish they’d told me that I couldn’t finish my degree in the four terms laid out in the catalog by only taking 12 credits.” They feel ripped off.

The other sort of mapping that we saw that’s really critical is mapping the student experience from the very start. And every time colleges did this, it was equally eye-opening as the program mapping, because you see at every single step there are barriers. San Jacinto found there was a meningitis vaccine required by the state that cost $100. For low-income students, that was causing many just to stop right there. They worked with financial aid to figure out a way for financial aid to pay for it. Other colleges were finding that students were having to come three, four, five, six times or more back to the college, in separate visits—that means going to their car, coming back—separate visits—they have kids, they have jobs—just to register. You know, it can get kind of depressing, but what all of these colleges did was say, “Okay, this is what we got. What is it that we want to guarantee as part of the experience that every student will have, fundamentally? We have limited resources. We can’t provide intensive case management for every student. And then how do we work together with our limited resources to do this?”

Ganga: What are some of the other kinds of obstacles colleges have found through this process?

Jenkins: Initially, colleges maybe sort of rearranged or maybe better mapped out what they had in the catalog. But I think over time, for program mapping, that they realized—and Hana alluded to this—that a program is not a program unless it either leads to a good-paying job directly, with further opportunities for advancement, or transfer with junior standing in a major. This is a big change for community colleges. And frankly, colleges realize that most of the degrees they give—which are the associate of arts, associate of general studies—and then many of the certificates—not all—don’t meet either of those. The associate of arts, students who get those degrees end up having to take excess credits for their major. They’re able to transfer a lot of credits as electives, but many of them don’t count toward their major. And many certificate programs—not all—don’t lead to living-wage jobs. So this mapping process has really led to a rethinking by colleges of fundamentally what they offer.

Lahr: San Jacinto College in Texas and Prince George’s Community College in Maryland both underwent a pretty elaborate process for looking at their programs. And they developed some rubrics to see what jobs are available in the area, you know, if you got this certificate or if you got this degree. And a lot of what they found was sometimes there was not economic benefit toward getting a certificate. Now, if a certificate is part of a larger degree path, then maybe that’s beneficial to get that degree, but the certificate by itself isn’t really that beneficial. So why are we offering this to students?

I would say one of the other obstacles is communication. It’s important to continue to talk about this. Colleges, sometimes they talked about how they spent time up front talking about guided pathways—what it is, what they were planning to do. And at some point, they felt like people understood what was going to happen, and then they sort of just stopped talking about it. That then set them back a little bit because people are then wondering, “Is this still happening? What are we doing?” And they had to go back and kind of reintroduce it. Plus, you have a lot of turnover at colleges, and so it’s important to keep on talking about this.

And the colleges’ plans evolved. They realized some things were working, some things weren’t working, they needed to change course. So it’s important to keep on talking about what they’re doing, what you learned about it, admitting when things don’t work. Community College of Philadelphia talked about this. It’s important to say, “We thought this was going to work, and it didn’t.” Just being upfront about those things is important. And when you’re talking about that, saying, “What are we going to do differently? What did we learn from this mistake?”

Ganga: What’s next for colleges that are further along in this work?

Jenkins: One of the important next frontiers for the guided pathways work is to improve the quality of instruction, especially in the first term. And so, one of the most exciting things we’re seeing is colleges that have created these meta-major academic and career communities are bringing faculty together to take a look at their entire curriculum, but especially in that first term, and to work together to create a really transformative learning experience for new students.

Lahr: Another important next frontier for community colleges that are implementing guiding pathways is extending their pathways both down into the high schools and then working with regional employers and their transfer partners to continue to refine and build these program pathways to ensure that they’re leading to good jobs in the region and to ensure that students are transferring with junior standing in a program of study at the four-year university.

Jenkins: This ultimately, both goals of mobility and equity and workforce and economic development, are what the community colleges were founded to do, and colleges that are moving in this direction are showing us how we can continue to realize this in the 21st century.

Ganga: Thank you for joining me today. I’ve been talking with Davis Jenkins and Hana Lahr. You can find the case studies and other reports on guided pathways research on our website at Thanks again.

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