Guided pathways in the COVID era

A new Center for Community College Student Engagement report offers the first national baseline data on student and faculty perceptions of guided pathways practices. Here’s what researchers learned and why the pandemic has made such practices even more important.
By: | September 15, 2020
Photo by Owen Kemp on UnsplashPhoto by Owen Kemp on Unsplash

The guided pathways reform movement­—which involves intensive and continual academic advising, early career exploration, structured academic and career-focused communities, and active and applied learning experiences—has been adopted by many community colleges over recent years. Now a report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) offers the first national baseline data on student and faculty perceptions of guided pathways practices. While the report’s findings are based on data collected pre-pandemic, it’s clear to researchers that COVID realities have been less challenging for institutions where guided pathways have been implemented at scale.

Such colleges have “found it much easier to pivot to the COVID environment because every student has been helped to explore interests and options, connect with faculty and other students in a program of interest, helped to develop a full-program completion plan and are assigned an advisor in their field of interest who helps them progress on their plan and intervenes when students show signs of struggling off path,” says Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “When COVID hit, students knew who their advisors were and vice versa and advisors could more easily reach out to students.”

In addition, because class scheduling at colleges with guided pathways “is aligned to students’ completion plans, students had no trouble registering for summer and fall classes they need to move ahead on their plans,” adds Jenkins, who wrote the foreward to the report, which is titled “Building Momentum: Using Guided Pathways to Redesign the Student Experience.”

The COVID era has also brought equity issues within education to the forefront, and equity has always been part of the guided pathways conversation. “The work of guided pathways has continuously influenced our conversations and actions to address student equity gaps,” says Linda García, executive director of CCCSE. “COVID-19 has exposed inequities among students at a deep level, and there is now added urgency for colleges to act quickly to help students move forward toward their academic goals. Guided pathways can help colleges with this crucial task.”

Jenkins advises institutions implementing guided pathways reforms to focus on four areas to help support students, who are likely facing financial difficulties and higher levels of trauma than usual:

  • Program value: Work with employers and universities to backward design programs and sure that all programs lead to good job or transfer with junior standing in student’s major field of interest.
  • Purpose: Help every student (including high school dual enrollment students) explore interests/ strengths and connect with faculty, experienced students, alumni others in fields of interest from the start.
  • Empower: Ensure every student takes a “light the fire” course on topics of interest in term one.
  • Plan: Help every student develop an educational and financial plan by end of term one.

The report points to the need for more effort by institutions in scaling up guided pathways. Following are a few highlights from the data, which comes from nearly 50,000 entering students who responded to a guided pathways item set on the 2018 Survey of Entering Student Engagement, more than 75,000 students in at least their second term who responded to a guided pathways item set on the 2019 Community College Survey of Student Engagement, and more than 7,000 faculty members who responded to a guided pathways item set on the 2019 Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement:

  • More than two thirds (68%) of entering students reported being required to meet with an advisor before registering for classes
  • Two thirds (67%) of entering students said they were required to follow an academic plan that specified the courses they needed to take.
  • Nearly 8 in 10 returning students said the courses they needed were available when they needed them.
  • 48% of students said someone had talked with them about how long it would take to achieve their goals
  • Less than half (44%) of entering students said that someone at the college had talked with them about the types of jobs their pathway of study would lead to.
  • Only 41% of entering students reported using their college’s website to explore career options.
  • Of faculty members who reported that their college is implementing guided pathways, 36% said they are not at all involved in the efforts and 49% said they need more professional development about their role in the initiative.

“We’re not seeing all students experience pathways at scale yet, even at colleges furthest along in the work,” says García. “Implementing institution-wide change takes time, but we must continue our commitment to change the experience for all students and close the gaps in outcomes for those who have been historically underserved.”

On October 5 at 1 p.m. CT, García and Davis, along with Tulsa Community College President & CEO Leigh Goodson, will speak in a webinar on the Building Momentum report.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.