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Operationalizing Guided Pathways: Completion Teams or Not?

The field has been asking many questions about the completion team model to effectively operationalize Guided Pathways. This Q&A is a resource to help inform colleges of how Bakersfield College (BC) successfully implements this team model to move the needle on student success.

Figure 1: Meta-Major Completion Teams

Figure 2: Affinity Group Completion Teams

[Note: Affinity groups are completion teams for identified student populations considered at-risk or disproportionately impacted per BC’s equity plan. They also have full teams around them just like the meta-majors. In some cases, members of meta-major completion teams also serve on affinity group teams.]

How did the completion team model come about and how long have they been in operation?

Through Bakersfield College’s participation in the AACC Pathways Project, the college learned of various models throughout the country designed to support students in entering and staying on path.  By utilizing elements of these proven models and conducting an in-depth review of our own practices supported by data, the college began cohorting students and assigning dedicated support in spring 2016.  Our early cohort work allowed us to identify needs and implement solutions in the development of our meta-major Completion Coaching Community model which began at an institutional level in fall 2017.

What are the titles, roles and responsibilities for each team member?

Counseling and Advising Experts
The primary role of Counselors and Ed Advisors is to become experts on the coursework, internships, and employment associated with the pathway.

Counseling and Advising experts:
Counsel students in educational planning and transfer decisions;
Recommend effective course placement;
Develop and conduct co-curricular activities, workshops, forums, etc. relevant to Affinity Group or pathway areas in collaboration with the career center, job placement specialists, transfer center, etc.;
Work with students flagged for intervention (i.e., probation, SOC, early alert, etc.);
Provide educational advising and assistance, including placement, registration, and important date reminders;
Distribute progress reports to faculty each semester;
Collect and compile progress report data for pathways and disseminate to completion team members

Data Coach
The primary role of the Data Coach is to support other coaches within the completion coaching team using cohort and unitary data. 

Data Coaches will:
Assist teams in framing and answering questions with accurate and relevant data; 
Find and interpret data or act as a liaison between the origin of the data and the coaching team;
Coordinate data reports for completion teams and aid other coaches in the creation of reports.

The primary role of the Dean in the meta-major Completion Coaching Communities is to coordinate its diverse and multiple functions in a cohesive way. 

Meta-major Deans:
Obtain and maintain a thorough knowledge and understanding of the coursework, program requirements, transfer options, and career opportunities of his/her Affinity Group or pathway;
Staff, organize, and assess the effectiveness of pathway completion teams through the use of student success metrics;
Identify bottlenecks in enrollment patterns and adapt course scheduling accordingly;
Monitor pathway courses to ensure current local and state approval of curriculum;
Ensure the assessment of Student Learning Outcomes and Program Level Outcomes; 
Apply assessment results to provide leadership for continuous quality improvement;
Address and resolve systematic barriers to student success within their pathways;
Communicate pathway resource needs to the Executive Leadership Team

Discipline Faculty Experts
The primary role of the Discipline Faculty Expert is to share their discipline and pathway expertise with students. Discipline faculty experts may:

Act as a resource for students by becoming experts in the coursework and broader pathway requirements for certificates, degrees, and employment in their pathway;
Explore and stay current on student transfer and career options;
Collaborate with high school outreach efforts;
Refer students to relevant support services;
Review and promote thoughtful scheduling of courses based on student progression;
Report systemic issues to the completion team (and its administrator)

Financial Aid Experts
The primary role of the Financial Aid Expert is to provide tracking and financial aid information to students within the meta-major pathway. 

Financial Aid Expert will:
Guide students throughout the financial aid process;
Provide relevant financial aid updates to the completion teams;
Inform students of the impact of financial status and impact of decisions, like withdrawal;
Track students within meta-major or affinity group for missing financial aid documentation.

Student Support Experts
The primary role of the Student Support Experts, comprised of library, writing, tutoring and other specialists, is to share expertise and intrusive guidance for support in the academic career. 

Student Support Experts will:
Collaborate with faculty to develop supports tailored to fit specific needs of the pathway;
Develop extensive understanding of the support services and their role with regards to a specific pathway;
Monitor student use of support services within specific pathways and suggest improvements and process changes.

What were the challenges to adopting this team model? 

Ensuring all teams are adequately staffed with members representing each of these areas requires ongoing oversight by the Guided Pathways Implementation Team.

The only team member funded specifically to do this work is the Data Coach as the role requires ongoing training.  Data coaches are funded by Student Equity & Achievement Program (SEAP) funds at a rate of $30/hour, if eligible.  Only faculty are eligible for compensation as data coaches.  All other team members either volunteer (such as discipline faculty) or are assigned as a part of the regular work assignment (such as deans, financial aid experts, etc.)  

The Completion Coaching Community model allows counselors to develop a level of expertise in the area of their assignment--to truly know the faculty, the curriculum, the transfer opportunities, the job opportunities, and the students.  Counselors and advisors appreciate the opportunity to engage in the deep work related to the meta-major or affinity group.

Were completion teams phased in over time or were they adopted all at once for each meta-major? 

In spring 2016, the college began its work to cohort students and provide teams reports that helped the staff monitor student progress and intervene accordingly.  The reports required extensive manual work.  For the next two terms, the 30+ cohort leads met regularly to identify best practices and barriers. Upon the hiring of a fully-staffed Office of Institutional Effectiveness, the college was able to more efficiently pull the data needed to cohort students by program of study and provide automated reports to the teams.  By fall 2017, the college launched the meta-major and affinity group Completion Coaching Community structure.

How often do the completions team meet and for how long? What’s a typical agenda like?

Most teams meet bi-weekly for an hour.  Some teams meet more frequently, while others have sub-groups focused on a particular event or project that may meet in between the large group meeting.  For instance, our Business meta-major pathway recently hosted an industry summit which required more frequent meetings to organize the details.  Our Education meta-major pathway has a sub-group that actively pursues grants to advance their work and they meet in between the large group meeting.

As the administrator, the meta-major dean calls and leads the meeting.  Agendas always include a review of the current data around our momentum points and discussion on steps forward or an action plan to address the students not on-path.  

In addition, the Guided Pathways Implementation Team developed a high-level communication plan which details actions the team members can take on a weekly basis to reinforce important, timely messages.  Meta-major and affinity group Completion Coaching Communities may utilize this plan to guide their priorities.

Do the teams serve as both inquiry teams and student support teams? 

Yes. The primary responsibility of the Completion Coaching Communities are to ensure students are reaching our institutional momentum points.  However, identification of barriers--particularly systemic barriers the college has unintentionally created--has proven important in opening pathways and removing bottlenecks to completion.  For instance, the Education meta-major pathway uncovered a scheduling issue with the math course education majors need to complete their pathway and influenced scheduling almost immediately.  Other concerns may be passed along to the Guided Pathways Implementation Team or onto the dean to address with the administrative team.

Given limited capacity and personnel at small colleges, what, if any, recommendations do you have to help them configure their completion teams? 

The Completion Coaching Community structure does not necessarily require large numbers of people but instead demands the intentional organization of those people to work together to advance a common goal.  The Guided Pathways framework challenges us to be thoughtful and innovative in how we spend every moment of every day to serve students.  Our president has challenged us to rethink how we use the time we have rather than adding new offices or personnel: if each employee has 40 hours a week to serve students, what will those 40 hours look like using a guided pathways lens? Is a counselor meeting one-on-one with students for 8 hours a day the most efficient way to serve students at scale?  Or can we rethink the tools we can use to communicate, the people power we have to reach students, and tech solutions that help us to be more efficient.  Bakersfield College staff recently began utilizing Google Voice (it’s free!) to message individual students to resolve quick issues.

We have a meta-majors with approximately 4,500 students with one counselor and one financial aid expert assigned.  At a smaller college, a counselor could be assigned to multiple meta-majors.  

In addition, we heavily rely on our student employees to support our communication campaigns.  For example, each semester we identify students who haven’t yet registered in 15 units and pursue an active campaign to get as many students as possible on path.  With scripts prepared by counselors and administrators, student employees make individual calls to students and send individual texts in an effort to get students to 15 units.  Counselors receive referrals from these calls for higher-level issues, but the students assist in triaging first.

Please describe the personal and career explorations “meta-major.” 

Our goal is to work this meta-major Completion Coaching Community out of a role.  In other words, we are consistently working to reduce the number of students enrolling in that meta-major by getting them on path and enrolled in their true area of study. 

From fall 2017 and fall 2018, we massively reduced the number of FTIC students in the Personal & Career Exploration meta-major from 450 to 191 which indicates the students remaining in this Learning & Career Pathway are declaring their programs of study earlier. 

Completion Coaches for this meta-major focus on early interventions to help students identify their interests and declare a program of study.  The counselor assigned conducts career interest inventories with the students, helps them to enroll in a Summer Bridge, etc.

How did the completion team model impact your existing structures?

We believe Guided Pathways is not about creating something new but instead rethinking how we all go about our day-to-day work to advance student outcomes.  So, our Guided Pathways work is about both intentionally designing formal structures AND intentionally designing operational structures.  In other words, we certainly are focused on creating formal structures to reflect this work by hiring and reorganizing, but find are able to be agile and responsive to needs through our operational structure that exists to move day-to-day work in our Completion Coaching Communities.  It is both the institutional expectation and the institutional culture that we work in a networked structure where we all collectively support the institutional priorities, regardless of formal reporting structures.

Our formal structure includes the Guided Pathways Implementation Team (GPIT) which works to monitor, support, advocate for, and advance institutional guided pathways priorities.  Members of the GPIT represent constituent groups across campus including Academic Senate, the Accreditation & Institutional Quality Committee, Classified Union, Budget Committee, Curriculum Committee, Assessment Committee, and more.  Each member of GPIT is responsible for serving as a communication liaison to and from those constituent groups similar to what you might see in a College Council structure.  Members are not necessarily the boots-on-the ground folks implementing but instead providing feedback and shaping the direction of the work using a GP lens.

In addition, our executive leadership team has been clear in their expectation that classified staff and managers participate in the whole-college effort of our Completion Coaching Communities.  Each manager submits an annual Work Plan which details how they will use their 40+ hours/week to advance the work and, as such, how they will empower their direct reports to do the same.  For instance, our Director of Financial Aid understands and embraces that each of her Financial Aid Technicians on staff will serve on a team and must therefore be creative in their day-to-day work to ensure they adequately support the institutional goals and departmental tasks.

While there is some overlap in the deans’ departmental oversight and their responsibility as administrative leads of the meta-major Completion Coaching Communities, it isn’t an exact science.  Many deans formally supervise departments that do not actually fall into their meta-major assignment.  This is, in part, due to workload distribution.  However, in many ways, this truly facilitates the work by enabling the deans to be a part of a team without supervisory dynamics at play.  As leads of their Completion Coaching Communities, they’re able to be at the table with discipline faculty and other staff as colleagues intent on advancing student outcomes around our momentum points.  

Each person on campus has a responsibility for student success. You’ll notice we haven’t hired a Director of Guided Pathways; we haven’t reassigned a full-time faculty to implement Guided Pathways.  Even our GP Implementation Team isn’t responsible for doing the work in a silo.  Instead, we have looked critically at how we can utilize our time to intentionally advance the work as a collective team across the entire college.  

Anything else you would like to add?

Tableau pages might be of interest: 
First-time students by Learning & Career Pathway: Click HERE
Scroll to the bottom for links to other reports by our momentum points

A few key elements that were critical to move from discussion to action:

1. Leadership that embraces ambiguity, is agile in responding to issues, and open to iterative processes
2. Refusal to allow the concept of perfection to stifle momentum (So, the book says to tackle x, y, or z in this order but x will completely halt momentum on our campus on y, and z.  Let’s table it and come back to it later)
3. Transparency, broad communication, and a commitment to building trust across campus

A special thanks to Lesley Bonds and Grace Commiso for completing the Q&A. If you have any questions, please contact Lesley Bonds at

Some last insights.

As I travel to visit California colleges and garner candid responses from those neck deep in Guided Pathways work, two things have become clear: most colleges still don't understand what Guided Pathways is exactly (yes, after two years many still lack clarity), and most don't know how to operationalize it. Another key finding shared with me is the difference between colleges claiming to do Guided Pathways versus those who are working on Guided Pathways. Let's unpack doing versus working. 

Many argue that Bakersfield College is perhaps the only California community college actually doing Guided Pathways because they found a way to operationalize the four pillars of Guided Pathways and they've gotten significant results per its current data compared with baselines from five years ago. Meanwhile, other colleges that claim to be doing Guided Pathways are actually only working on it. This realization came as a result of community college representatives' visits to "Guided Pathways campuses" (or via video conferencing, discussions at conferences, etc.) only to learn that the colleges that have been highlighted as exemplar may have key findings as it relates to highly specific areas of Guided Pathways (i.e., meta-major development, multiple measures, program mapping, etc.), but they're not getting results yet per student success data. In other words, while these colleges should be lauded for their hard work and willingness to share information, they have yet to learn how to create a structure that effectively operationalizes the totality of Guided Pathways in order to significantly move the needle on student success.

Furthermore, many visitors also learned that they can't possibly implement what some colleges are working on. One example brought to my attention is investing heavily in in-house computer programmers to develop a home-grown multiple measures program to place students in math and English. Small colleges would struggle mightily to make the investment and find the capacity to implement such a program. 

Given that many in the field agree that Bakersfield College has operationalized Guided Pathways, it is my hope that this Q&A sheds light on how colleges may consider operationalizing Guided Pathways. Interestingly, after explaining the completion team model to colleges in-person, some have candidly shared with me that there's no way they'll implement it. They argue that it's been difficult enough to plan a highly perceived mandated framework, but to then have to redesign the college on top of that? No way! On the other hand, I've visiting colleges that are highly open to the completion team model and are working hard to develop the buy-in and ownership to create a completion team configuration that fits their context. 

We'll see where colleges land in terms of operationalizing Guided Pathways. I’m reminded of a group of people we called “salty dawgs” in my Marine Corps days. They’re “salty” because they’ve been out in the sea for long periods of time, landing on countless beaches. In essence, a “salty dawg” is someone who’s done and seen everything. Long-established organizations have their own versions of “salty dawgs.” One thing seems to be sure for many, if the strategy was that all colleges would be getting results from Guided Pathways by the time the new performance-based funding formula (aka, Student Success Funding Formula) kicked in, as some community college salty dawgs recently told me: "It ain't gonna happen." 

Which colleges will prove the salty dawgs wrong?


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


(A. Solano)

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