Redesigning the student experience
Davis Jenkins is a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center (CCRC), a center at Teachers College, Columbia University dedicated to studying community colleges. He works with colleges and states across the country to find ways to improve educational and employment outcomes for students, particularly students of color and those from low-income families. Through this work, Jenkins has become a leader in the national guided pathways movement, an approach that provides college students with educational plans based on clearly structured and educationally coherent program course maps and support services aimed at improving retention and more timely and affordable degree completion.
Jenkins will be in Iowa on Oct. 26 to share his knowledge and expertise with leaders from each of Iowa’s 15 community colleges who are responsible for developing guided pathway plans at their respective institutions.
Below, Jenkins discusses guided pathway reforms, the impact they have on student success, and why more colleges are changing their mindset about institutional practice and policy on student outcomes.
What are guided pathways?
Guided pathways are a model for institutional transformation that draws on research in behavioral economics, organizational behavior and cognitive science in an effort to improve graduation rates and narrow gaps in completion among student groups. Rather than providing students with isolated programmatic interventions, guided pathways require community colleges to redesign their programs and support services in ways that create more educationally coherent pathways to credentials designed to prepare students to advance in the labor market and pursue further education in a field of interest. This work involves redesigning the new student experience to help students explore options and interests and develop a full-program plan based on maps developed by faculty and advisors with the course sequences, progress milestones and program learning outcomes aligned to the requirements for employment and further education.
What is the most compelling evidence supporting guided pathways reform?
A growing number of colleges that were early adopters of guided pathways have seen substantial increases in what we refer to as first-year student momentum – a key factor leading to higher completion rates in the long term. This includes three areas that colleges can use to gauge whether institutional reforms are improving student outcomes: credit momentum, gateway momentum and program momentum.
Credit momentum is defined as attempting at least 15 semester credits in a student’s first term or at least 30 semester credits during the first academic year. Gateway momentum involves taking and passing pathway-appropriate college-level math and English during the student’s first academic year. Program momentum requires a student to take and pass at least nine semester credits in his or her field of study during the first academic year.
We have highlighted data trends in early momentum in a recent report on the guided pathways reforms currently being undertaken by Tennessee’s 13 community colleges. We are also beginning to see substantial increases in completion rates of the longer term in colleges that have been at this work for some time. We highlighted several of these colleges in a report that we just published in April, What We are Learning about Guided Pathways.
What are the implications for future guided pathways research?
While early indicators provide promising descriptive evidence that guided pathways work, documenting definitive evidence will take more time and in-depth analysis. CCRC is doing research on the efficacy of guided pathways in three states — Ohio, Tennessee and Washington – where we are comparing data on the scale and timing of practices adopted by colleges in those states with multivariate analysis of student outcomes by college using student unit record data shared with us by those states. Over the next three years, we plan to release a series of reports based on our research in these and others states on the effects of guided pathways on student outcomes and institutional performance. In addition to examining the effects of guided pathways on student success overall, we are also examining the effects on underrepresented students, particularly students of color, low-income students and older students.
What have you learned as more colleges implement guided pathway reforms?
Early on we put a lot of emphasis on program mapping. However, we found that in some cases, once colleges mapped out their programs, they thought they had “done guided pathways.” Often the maps they created were only for full-time, college-ready students. In some colleges, the mapping process didn't lead to a questioning of current programs to consider whether they do in fact enable students to both advance in the labor market and pursue further education at the bachelor’s level and beyond. Instead, they mapped out existing programs, renamed current academic divisions meta-majors, but left program structures unchanged.
Ideally, in mapping programs, colleges should work with employers and university partners to examine whether their programs are structured in ways that lead to labor market advancement and efficient transfer and to make necessary revisions so that they prepare students to advance in both careers and further education. These maps should serve as guides for students and advisors in developing for every student a customized full-program plan – ideally by the end of their first term.
Even more than the maps, ensuring that every student is on a full-program plan customized to his or her situation and goals is central to implementing pathways effectively. With every student on a plan, both the college (advisors, faculty, etc.) and students themselves can monitor students' progress. The college can schedule classes based on the courses on students' plans rather than on schedules rolled over by deans/chairs from previous years. Colleges that are doing this are finding that they can actually increase full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment even when headcount enrollment is flat or declining because scheduling this way allows students in a given term to take more of the courses that they need to progress at times convenient to them.
Of course, to have every student on a plan, colleges need to rethink the entire front-end experience, from application, to orientation, to initial advising and first- and second-term coursework in order to help students explore career and academic interests, choose an initial direction and develop a full-program plan. Redesigning the new student experience in this way is one of the biggest change involved in pathways for colleges.
What advice do you have for community colleges who are considering guided pathways work?
Implementing guided pathways effectively takes a team approach and involves the work of many people across the college.
Faculty: In a guided pathways model, faculty take responsibility for student learning and advising beyond the individual courses they teach. This means that they will need to a) work with other faculty across disciplines, advisors, employers and university colleagues to map programs to employment in related fields and transfer with junior standing in a related major (with no excess credits); b) work with student services colleagues to redesign the front-end new student intake experience to help students explore options and interests and develop a plan; c) be actively involved in new student marketing, recruitment, orientation and first-year experience courses to recruit students into their programs; and d) serve as advisors/mentors to students on how to enter and advance in their fields.
Staff: Professional advisors and student services staff need to work with faculty to map out programs and redesign the front-end experience and on-going advising to help students explore, choose, plan and complete programs of study in a timely way. Staff involved in IT, registrar, financial aid, admissions and marketing must also be involved in the mapping and redesign process. Finding time for all of these staff to do this work is a key challenge in community colleges where everyone already feels overworked. Colleges that have been successful implementing pathways have involved other staff, including departmental secretaries and groundskeepers to understand the larger vision for student success.
Leadership: It is imperative that college leaders give faculty and staff the time, space and support needed to do the extensive redesign mapping, planning, formative evaluation and training necessary to implement pathways reforms at scale. Some colleges have set aside Fridays for required professional development for both faculty (including adjuncts) and advisors and other student services staff. (These colleges have moved to class schedules on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays (or in some cases Friday nights and Saturdays), which helps improve predictability of scheduling for students. This requires a substantial investment, but these leaders believe that they will get a return on investment through increased FTE retention. And we are starting to see colleges that have the patience and the courage begin to reap these returns.