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Guided Pathways: Addressing Concerns

(A. Solano)

Many colleges throughout the nation are either in Guided Pathways planning or implementation mode. In California, which by itself is the fifth largest economy with 114 community colleges serving 2.1 million students, Guided Pathways is well underway. But after a year of workshops, inquiry, and opportunities to learn more about the framework, many California community college professionals are expressing concerns.

These are the most prominent concerns I’ve heard in the past year:

Guided Pathways is a corporate take-over of colleges [mainly because private foundations have ties to corporate entities that support Guided Pathways]
Along with a proposed performance-based funding formula and the multiple-measures mandate, Guided Pathways is part of an overall scheme to undermine colleges
Guided Pathways eliminates students’ ability to wander, adversely impacting student equity
Guided Pathways is a heavy-handed, top-down mandate from the state

How should those concerns be addressed?

First: Genuinely listen to the concerns. Don’t discount them. There are many reasons why people feel the way they do. Ask them why. When I have asked, I’ve learned that, more often than not, the institution could have done a much better job of ensuring clarity and coherence. Absent those two things, consensus is nearly impossible to attain. In the context of Guided Pathways, clarity is about creating a series of touchpoints throughout the year for teaching and informing, in order to create a common language and facilitate a clearer understanding of a new framework (see Guided Pathways: Starting on the Right Foot, Unpacking the Meta-Major Concept, and Guided Pathways: What it Means to Redesign the Institution). Once there is common language and understanding, the path to coherence involves working collaboratively to glean how existing (and new) programs, projects, grants, and resources fit into this new student-centered framework. But it’s important to ensure ongoing coherence, and that process isn’t easy. There are often difficult conversations that need to take place, and without clarity, those discussions are rarely productive.
Second: One effective way to offer clarity is to provide facts. One might showcase a college that has experienced positive results through faculty-led and administration/staff supported planning and implementation of the Guided Pathways framework. In California, the evidence is clear at one college in particular: Bakersfield College has doubled the associates degrees it confers, almost doubled transfer rates, increased enrollment by 35%, and, when the data is disaggregated, African-American males and other groups are experiencing increased success rates. Bakersfield will be going into their fifth year of Guided Pathways in 2018-19. The journey has been filled with implementation roller coast rides, but despite them, Bakersfield has clearly shown positive results for students through the Guided Pathways framework. And guess what? They’re still ironing out the kinks, because Guided Pathways requires a continuous improvement mindset.

Let’s stop here for a moment.

Guided Pathways was not mandated for Bakersfield. No corporate entity came to tell them what, when, and how to serve students. Bakersfield learned by doing that the Guided Pathways framework forced them to make student-centered decisions. Bakersfield grasped that the current generation of students were not wandering and exploring. When the college took the time to ask students, they found that students were lost. By contrast, students can now choose an area of potential interest (e.g., meta-major) with its own support system. If through general education courses, work study, faculty mentoring, follow-up counseling, peers, etc., students switch to another area of interest, then they’ll transition from one community that provides them support to another one that also provides support. You might think of it as structured and supported “wandering,” if you will. This approach does not compromise student equity, as the data has shown. Rather, it strengthens it.

Student-centered decisions have an impact on enrollment, persistence, degree completion, and transfer. When you think about it, these numbers generate revenue for colleges. Students, in effect, pay community college professionals’ salaries. It’s a win-win for students and college professionals to make student-centered decisions. By implementing a Guided Pathways plan that is faculty-led and administration/staff supported, institutions will be in a better position to meet performance-based funding. 

Third: Encourage all people who are concerned about Guided Pathways to be a part of the process of shaping how the framework will look at the institution. Each college has, or is in the process of creating, structures for Guided Pathways. Some use the six-design teams described here, others configure teams according to the elements they are addressing in their Guided Pathways workplan, and yet others are modifying existing structures. Invite those who are concerned to participate in determining the structure and participate in it. This is key, because many people who have expressed concerns learned how some states did, in fact, mandate Guided Pathways in a heavy-handed way, even to the point of telling colleges how to configure the meta-majors. California is taking a different approach.

Let’s stop here for a moment as well.

While other state legislatures have decimated, and continue to decimate, higher education budgets, some colleges have found a way to implement the Guided Pathways framework without additional funding. California is the only state providing significant funding to plan and implement Guided Pathways and giving colleges the flexibility to shape the framework for their own contexts. Furthermore, while there are concerns about Assembly Bill 705 (mandating California colleges to implement multiple measures such as high school transcripts instead of relying solely on tests only for student placement into math and English), many colleges outside of California learned experientially that multiple measures are essentially part of the Guided Pathways framework to help students succeed, presuming they also receive support when enrolling in transfer-level math and English. Other states did not need to enact such legislation. The colleges “did the right thing” on their own, because the evidence was clear that, with appropriate support, students experience significantly higher success rates with a multiple-measures approach.

Fourth: Teach - I repeat, teach - that Guided Pathways is a redesign. I understand that “redesign” can be a scary word for some people, but please be transparent about it. Call it what it is. As human beings, we tend to be highly visual creatures, so use a graphic if you need to teach. Below is one such effective visual.

Bakersfield’s redesign meant configuring meta-majors each with accompanying support teams (e.g., Completion Coaching Communities). Each institution has the power to configure the teams that work best for their context. California is not mandating how to do it, and colleges are not compelled to copy Bakersfield’s configuration exactly. Remember, many institutions already have this design in some of their programs. More often than not, Career & Technical Education (CTE) already mimic the Guided Pathways framework and meta-major concepts, so this kind of student-centered, common-sense approach should not be foreign to most campuses.

As part of teaching, it is important to understand that, while the four pillars model of Guided Pathways is helpful, it has also caused confusion at many campuses. When I have asked why there has been so much confusion, I’m told that people are interpreting the pillars differently. That’s why teaching about the redesign is key. It’s configuring the teams for each meta-major that helps to unpack and operationalize the four pillars more effectively. 

On a related issue: unless a campus is already comfortable with the term meta-major, “school” tends to be a more appropriate term. Think about it: students who transfer will most likely be part of a school at a university (e.g., School of Sciences, School of Business, School of Social Sciences, School of Engineering, School of Education, School of Humanities, School of Agriculture, etc.). Each of these schools have a student support system. Why not have a consistent language for community college students that describes the communities they will be a part of?

I hope these four tips prove helpful for your context. As noted earlier, California is a tremendously large state. By itself, it is the fifth world’s largest economy. That said, rolling out a new framework for the largest community college system in the nation is challenging, to say the least. There have been mistakes, and guess what, there will continue to be more. The key is having the leadership at ALL levels of a campus ensure that they continually work on what I like to call the “Three C’s”: Clarity, Coherence, and Consensus.  


I'd like to recognize a faculty member who has taken a leadership role with Guided Pathways at Bakersfield, Dr. Janet Fulks. It has been a privilege to co-present and collaborate with her on activities at events and campuses. I've learned a lot from her that has informed my training, coaching, and facilitation work.

Contact me about customized trainings and ongoing coaching support to help your campus plan and implement guided pathways.  Use the contact form on the right (bottom of the page for mobile users).


(A. Solano)

1 comment :

  1. Very informative thoughts and ideas for the future of Guided Pathways and all future re-designs. Barbara.


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