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Blog Post · May 12, 2017

Guided Pathways in Community College

photo- Diverse Students Walking and Talking

In California and across the country, community colleges are working hard on reforms aimed at increasing college completion, particularly among students historically underrepresented in higher education. Yet many promising innovations have not moved the needle. One reason is that many of these reforms, while innovative, focus on only a small proportion of the student body, or improve only one part of the students’ college experience. As a result, colleges have begun to adopt a more comprehensive institutional reform known as “guided pathways.”

Guided pathways are based on a set of scalable design principles, outlined in the 2015 book Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. These principles include

  • Helping students choose and enter a program pathway
  • Mapping pathways to students’ end goals
  • Keeping students on path
  • Ensuring that students are learning

Implementation may occur in a variety of ways, but colleges have found it essential to focus on the following areas:

  • Guided exploration for undecided students. This includes clustering hundreds of programs into a handful of broad focus areas. In addition, some colleges offer foundational courses to help students select a major. In some cases, all students enroll in a foundational course within their broad field of interest. Mentored by faculty, students may research different careers, interview or shadow individuals in a particular field, and get a taste of the different competencies within each major while honing their research skills.
  • Clearly delineated program requirements. Cross disciplinary teams of instructional and counseling faculty, staff, and administrators create “program maps” to show the path necessary for labor market success and further education. Students may take elective courses that are not on the program map, but they will also know which courses each program requires.
  • Proactive and integrated academic and non-academic support. When support services are optional, students may fail to identify the services they need or lack the confidence to ask for help. Services can take many forms, from embedding academic support in the classroom to providing specialized counselors. At Guttman Community College in New York City, an entering group of students is split into “houses,” and a team of instructional faculty, counseling faculty, and peer mentors is responsible for each house. Faculty and peer mentors meet regularly to discuss individual student progress, coordinating their actions and communications with each other and the students.
  • Developmental education transformation. Developmental education—also known as remedial education or basic skills—has traditionally focused on courses such as college algebra and English composition. Reforms would create accelerated pathways aligned with a small set of broad programs (e.g., liberal arts, STEM, business, and health). Our recent research has found that the reform efforts happening across the state—for example, as part of the California Acceleration Project—are well positioned to create developmental education pathways that are better aligned to programs of study. PPIC’s ongoing research aims to shed light on the most promising developmental education reforms.

Opportunities for California Community Colleges
The last six months have seen tremendous momentum and support for guided pathways in California. This support has emerged at all levels, including the governor, legislature, the Chancellor’s Office, national foundations, and college faculty and administrators. Last month, with the support of the College Futures Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the Teagle Foundation, the Chancellor’s Office awarded grants to twenty colleges as part of The California Guided Pathways Project. Last year, three community colleges in California were awarded the American Association of Community Colleges Pathways grant to assist them with planning and implementing a pathways framework. In addition, the Governor’s Budget proposal for 2017‒18 includes $150 million one-time Proposition 98 funds to support new guided pathways programs in community colleges. Finally, Senate Bill 539, introduced during the 2017 legislative cycle, proposes to use an incentive grant to help establish guided pathways that would boost completion and transfer. Given this wide-ranging support, much can be learned from the experiences in other states and systems. It will also be critical for colleges to conduct deep examinations of how existing college initiatives, such as those involved with the Basic Skills Student Outcomes and Transformation program, can be integrated into guided pathways. In an upcoming blog post, we will explore how developmental education reform intersects with the guided pathways framework..


California Community Colleges Completion developmental education Equity Higher Education remedial education transfer Workforce Needs