The pathway to academic success
It’s full steam ahead for college freshman Taylor Marino. Currently, Marino is attending Southeastern Community College and is working toward her lifelong dream of becoming a second-grade teacher. Since her senior year at Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Marino has been taking college credit classes that can be applied to a future four-year degree in elementary education.
It seems her academic and career path is clear. With help from the college, she knows what courses she needs to take and what timelines are involved. More important, she knows that she is taking classes that will have credits that are eligible for transfer when she decides to move on to a four-year Iowa college or university.
“Southeastern Community College helps me get some of the basic courses out of the way,” Marino said. “I like to plan, so it was helpful to see the courses mapped out to make sure I’m not taking classes I don’t need.”
Marino is just one student in the state’s community college system who is benefiting from a statewide effort called guided pathways. The concept of guided pathways is a model for institutional transformation that draws on research in an effort to improve graduation rates and narrow gaps in completion among all student groups. The pathways include not only mapping program options for students, but also getting them on a path and keeping them on a path.
For Marino, she notes that she initially chose Southeastern Community College as her next step in education because she went to a smaller high school and it seemed like a natural fit. Thus far, it has been an easy transition and has provided her with the confidence to continue her academic journey.
The 15 Iowa community colleges want all students to have the ease of experience like Marino and, as a response, they are implementing the new support model of guided pathways into their campuses. Guided pathways are intended to better aid students and help point them toward success.
“We provide direct support to the students and provide guidance on many things like academics, financial aid and career paths,” said Holly Luttenegger, student success advocate at Southeastern Community College. “We (student success advocates) are often the first person that students meet. We can go through their whole academic career for them, and they know that we are someone they can come to for any questions about programs.”
Guided pathways change the way community colleges interact with students who attend their campuses. Its model requires a more proactive approach to keeping students engaged and on-track, which can often lead to a program of study being completed more quickly. Students meet regularly with a student advocate for support and to choose a clear direction for what they want to achieve during their time at the college.
With assistance from their advocates, students identify what skills and interests they have that will help direct their academic and career paths. Instead of a cafeteria-style process where students may haphazardly choose classes that are disconnected from their academic and career goals – which can prolong the number of credit hours needed for completion and incur additional and unnecessary tuition costs – a guided pathway maps out what courses are needed for the whole program and when the courses are scheduled in the academic calendar.
“Kids can’t be what they can’t see, but through our guided pathways work, we will be strategically partnering with K-12 districts to provide structured, focused opportunities to expose students to the career opportunities that exist,” said Ashlee Spannagel, dean of career and technical education and workforce development at Southeastern Community College. “Guided pathways will provide more direction for each student and support them for success.
At campuses like Northeast Iowa Community College, a clearer direction through course mapping and personal support is intended to help students feel more connected to the school, which can be a motivating factor for overall enrollment in a college as well as staying in program and completing courses on time.
“This will definitely help with recruitment and enrollment as well as retention of students between semesters,” said Kristi Strief, director of enrollment operations at Northeast Iowa Community College. “The hope is to streamline the process and have students feel confident and comfortable completing their academic goals, and we are already seeing results.”
Along with recruitment and retention, guided pathways will also allow community colleges to tailor the student’s experience and identify gaps in equity.
“Our focus is about the right enrollment fit, and the guided pathways model has caused us to dig deeper,” said Wendy Mihm-Herald, vice president of business and community solutions at Northeast Iowa Community College. “We have started collecting data on race, ethnicity, disability, first generation students, socio-economic status and so forth to look at potential equity gaps and how we can improve.”
On a larger scale, guided pathways – which often includes work-based learning opportunities – may ultimately affect Iowa’s future workforce, too. By having more students reach program completion faster or being eligible to transfer more credits towards a four-year degree, community colleges and Iowa universities will be able to produce more personnel with the skills needed for a ready and trained workforce.
“Students have so many choices in education, but because of the cost of education and workforce shortage opportunities, it is important to visualize what you want to do,” Mihm-Herald said. “For instance, you may not know what exactly you want to do in health care, but you can gain insight through exposure in work-based learning programs and the support of guided pathways.”
For Marino, guided pathways have definitely given her more insight into her own academic needs and timelines. After a break this summer, she plans to return to Southeastern Community College for her sophomore year and to make final decisions on where she will transfer to and continue her journey.