Guided Pathways boost graduation rates

The Push for Guided Pathways


Guided Pathways Gaining Traction

Guided Pathways is not a particularly new idea, but it is rapidly becoming the buzzword for universities and colleges attempting to improve student outcomes. With graduation rates remaining stagnant and funding dollars directly tied to this key metric, institutions are doing everything they can to move the needle.

One of the biggest challenges higher education students face is financial limitations. They rightly save and budget for what they believe their education will cost. If they didn’t consider all of the extraneous costs and/or enroll in courses that aren’t necessary or do not qualify for financial aid, they can quickly find themselves in over their heads. Some students often traverse through a portion of their educational journey before realizing their savings are depleted. In order to complete their degree requirements, they will have to pay for an entire extra year they didn’t bargain for, thus leading to dropouts.


Guided Pathways is an initiative to solve some of the biggest pain points students (and therefore, institutions) have – those roadblocks that contribute to students giving up and leaving school before they’ve reached graduation. By laying out the most efficient path towards graduation, step by step, and providing the needed support along the way, institutions hope to boost student success by improving outcomes.


A National Crisis?

California is an example of one state that is taking Guided Pathways seriously. According to an article from EdSource, California had 2 million students in the state’s community college system in 2016 and just 48 percent of them left with a degree or certificate, or transferred after six years. California’s community college board plans to leverage the Guided Pathway concept to help its 114 community colleges in 72 districts reach several lofty goals:


  • Increase the number of community college students who acquire associate’s degrees, specific skillsets, credentials or certificates “that prepare them for an in-demand job” by 20 percent in five years.
  • Increase the number of community college students transferring annually to a University of California or California State University campus by 35 percent in five years.
  • Increase from 60 percent to 69 percent the number of students completing career and technical education programs who get jobs in their fields of study.
  • Reduce the number of course units students accumulate before earning associate’s degrees from 87 to 79.


Why the urgency? By 2030, California reports it will need 1.1 million additional workers with bachelor’s degrees to remain economically competitive – just the motivation the board needs to jump on the Guided Pathways bandwagon.

California isn’t alone in recognizing the future needs of its state. A CareerBuilder study discovered that 61 percent of hiring managers across the country are requiring higher-level education to fill their skilled positions. Similarly, new research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently found 55 percent of well-paying jobs in today’s economy are going to workers who have four-year or associate degrees.


“Americans with no more than a high school diploma have fallen so far behind college graduates in their economic lives that the earnings gap between college grads and everyone else has reached its highest point on record.”CBS News


Higher learning institutions are the breeding ground for our economy. Without these higher education degrees and skills, the nation will become less competitive, less innovative and less able to fill the positions of tomorrow.


3 Things to Know about Guided Pathways

A Guided Pathway program may not solve every challenge of improving student outcomes, but it is giving higher education institutions a reason to be optimistic. By providing students with clear roadmaps, creating on and off ramps for their success, and establishing a support system at every level of their journey, students and institutions are experiencing much greater success rates.

Related: Shifting Perspectives: Guided Pathways and On-Time Graduation


There is plenty to understand about Guided Pathways, but here are three critical elements to help shape your perspective:


1. The pathway is individualized per each student’s needs.

Every student comes to school with different needs, life situations and goals. Their Guided Pathway should be just as unique. It should not be a one-size-fits-all solution, while at the same time, institutions don’t need to recreate the wheel for each student. Implement a set of standardized processes and technologies that provide the foundation for which customized paths can be designed.  For instance, full-time students will have a different roadmap than part-time students holding down a job or caring for a family.


2. The pathway is not set in stone.

Just as in life, circumstances frequently change. Things don’t always follow a plan. Guided Pathways are flexible, meant to enable students to visualize and conceptualize a multitude of possible routes to their end goal of graduation. The best pathways offer students the ability to play “what if” scenarios so they can see how taking a course (or not) will impact their goals, budgets and timelines. They can play around with their schedules and sequencing of courses. The key is that the pathway is intentional, focused and informative – giving the student everything they need to make the best decisions for themselves.


3. The pathway is not remote.

A student’s educational journey is complex. They need support, resources and services to help them through each step. From admissions to financial aid, from course enrollment to degree planning, students need advisors, technology and access to information. The more they are connected to their institutions and the easier those connections can be had, the greater the chances students will flourish. Students should never get lost or feel alone during their journey. Schools must partner with students to get them from point A to point B, even if it’s vis a vis point C.


Start with Students in Mind

Whichever way you approach guiding your students through their pathway of education, be sure to keep them first. Design programs and support services around their needs and what specifically they require in order to be successful.

Is it streamlining and easing the financial aid process? Will providing them real-time access to their financial aid and course eligibility information be a benefit? Would equipping students with mobile access to perform most of the many required administrative tasks save them time? How would sending students push notifications to remind them of upcoming due dates impact follow-through? Would identifying at-risk students early on and then providing the necessary support to get them back on track improve outcomes?

These are but a few of the advantages a solid Guided Pathway program can bring students while enabling institutions to be more responsive to student needs. Take a look at available and emerging technologies to discover how your institution can deliver more than just lip service but a truly guided pathway towards graduation.

Guided pathways to on-time graduation

Shifting Perspectives: Guided Pathways and On-Time Graduation


Are Guided Pathways The Key to Graduation?

When students enter their post-secondary journeys, they begin with the end in mind: graduation. They apply, enroll and begin their experience in the hopes that in two, four, or six years, they will graduate their program of study and move into the workforce prepared. They understand there are logical steps to get them from point A to point B, but few students set out with a detailed plan on how to navigate that journey.

Even though the expense of higher learning can be one of the largest investments in one’s lifetime, it’s rather amazing to see how ill-prepared students can be. If you were to plan a trip abroad, for instance, you would likely have a plan for every day of your trip. You would know the time and dates of your flights. You would have completed all of the necessary tasks to get your passport and currency exchange. You would have booked rooms at hotels, purchased tickets for museums, planned an itinerary for all of the sightseeing, and even researched the best restaurants along the way.

All of this planning is for a trip that may last a week or two and cost a few thousand dollars. Why isn’t the same care given to the much larger investment of time, money and energy in college? Much of the reason isn’t laziness or apathy; it’s twofold – students believe they will “figure it out along the way,” and that the institution they will be attending will help them.

This perspective isn’t always wrong, it’s just naive. Many schools lack the appropriate guidance capability or resources to hold every student’s hand along their higher learning journeys. They offer advisors to a limited degree, but there isn’t much structure or intentional processes in place to establish guided pathways for each student, particularly beyond their first year. The institution can offer support, but it’s generally student-initiated after the first year and can come too late.

“While students certainly make choices about enrollment based on personal circumstances, the many course and program options and the limited guidance currently provided by community colleges likely contribute to students’ meandering and varied pathways through college.” – Community College Research Center


More Structure and Support with Fewer Options

While the Community College Research Center is focused on community colleges, even four-year universities are taking notice of the problem. Both are adopting the guided pathway approach which provides a much more structured, relevant program for each student. These guided pathways promise to support the students whether the students seek out that help or not. It requires the different departments within the institution to work collaboratively and communicate more frequently so that students never “meander” but are highly focused on goals that set them up for on-time graduation.


Related: Guided Pathways Are Better Than Going at It Alone


Research backs up the claim that when students are given fewer options and more support, they do better. Here are a few findings:

  • Having too many choices leads to indecision, procrastination, self-doubt, and decision paralysis.
  • People handle complex decisions better if they are helped to think through options hierarchically, in manageable sets.
  • Reminders, assistance and feedback can increase desired behaviors.
  • Academic plans with defaults help students make course choices that will move them towards their goals, while still permitting them to customize their schedules.
  • Monitoring student progress and giving them frequent feedback about next steps helps students make choices.
  • Students benefit when they have clear learning goals and a concrete sense of how they are progressing towards those goals.
  • Providing students with a big-picture overview and how courses fit together improves learning.


By implementing a guided pathway structure, one large university was able to:

  • Improve year-to-year retention rates from 86% to 92%
  • Improve four-year graduation rates from 44% to 61%
  • Reduce students graduating with excess credits from 30% to only 5%


Students Need Help

The Advisory Board Company, a research and consulting organization including 800 member colleges and universities, identified four key issues when it comes to student success:

  1. Colleges and universities face new pressures to improve graduation performance.
  2. College students take too many credits and too long to finish.
  3. The traditional focus on first-year success misses the majority of the problem.
  4. Some schools are now focusing on progress, not just persistence.


4 issues when it comes to student success


The strategies they note to guide progress:

  1. Maximize credit attempts
  2. Reduce lost credits
  3. Simplify course selection
  4. Preserve flexibility


The report also cites research showing the average student completes an unnecessary extra semester worth of courses, often due to issues stemming from a lack of sufficient advisement. These are credits students are paying for that do not contribute to their program of study, only to their student debt.


Give Students What They Need, When They Need It

Students need to be given the tools and technology that set them up to succeed from the beginning of their journey until they graduate. This includes the ability to map out their goals based on their program of study with realistic timeframes, costs and schedules. Like a detailed travel plan, no student should ever wonder what’s next.

Whether the student is young or old, full-time or part-time, they deserve to go into school with a clear understanding of their “trip.” There should be no confusion about exactly how many hours they need to take each semester, which courses are eligible for both their degree requirements and their financial aid, the order in which they should enroll in those courses, and how any deviation from their plan will impact their goals and their budget.

They should be able to easily build their schedules and monitor their progress, ideally via a degree map they can view on their mobile device. If students can access their specific road map on the device they carry with them and use multiple times a day, they are more likely to stay on top of their own journey. Asking them to schedule appointments with advisors to get anything accomplished only leads to the procrastination mentioned above. Mobile apps serve as their GPS, directing them step by step to their end destination.


Is Automation The Answer?

The cost of not implementing this type of technology is significant. The Advisory Board Committee found that the estimated cost of adding the number of advisors that would be required to support students in a similar way would cost anywhere from $0.5M for a small institution to nearly $2M for a large institution. How can institutions provide the level of structure and support students need without breaking the budget?

The more automation schools can bring to their processes, the more students can be helped with fewer required resources.

Higher learning institutions are in a tough spot, negotiating the pressure from the Department of Education, the desire to help students succeed and often limited resources. Institutions may find technology is a life raft. If they can strike a balance between technology and academics, they will be better positioned to offer students the academic support they need via programs and channels students now require.

Guided Pathways Are Better Than Going At It Alone

Guided Pathways Are Better Than Going At It Alone


What Are Guided Pathways?

Higher learning institutions are hearing quite a bit these days about guided pathways. According to Community College Research Center (CCRC), “College students are more likely to complete a degree in a timely fashion if they choose a program and develop an academic plan early on, have a clear roadmap of the courses they need to take to complete a credential, and receive guidance and support to help them stay on path.”

This sounds logical and straightforward, yet some schools struggle with this prescription. Community colleges, in particular, can find it challenging to break out of their “cafeteria” approach. They often present students with a host of course options without regard to how these courses are related or will fulfill degree requirements. While students may see the multitude of options as attractive, they are not aware of how easily these options can derail their graduation and budget plans.


“Having too many choices leads to indecision, procrastination, self-doubt, and decision paralysis.”¹


When students choose courses like they’re filling a plate from a buffet, they often pick courses that look good but won’t count towards their degrees and aren’t eligible for financial aid. Their plates are full and they can even eat dessert first, but when they get to the end of their meal, they realize they paid for more than they could eat and much of the food will be tossed in the trash.

This is no way to approach perhaps one of the largest investments in a student’s life. Once they choose a degree focus, they should understand exactly what courses they are required to take, which will get them closer to their degree goals, and which order they should take them for maximum efficiency. This is what student success is all about. This is the intent of a guided pathway.


Related: How Do You Define Student Success in 2017?


How Can Institutions Provide Guidance?

Higher learning institutions want to provide students with a wide range of course offerings. This is understandable and helps these schools remain competitive. While there is nothing inherently wrong with expanding course offerings, institutions have an obligation to help their students navigate such a dizzying array of options.

Students, particularly the younger students with little independent life experience, can be easily distracted by shiny courses that peak an interest or sound interesting. There may be a place for those courses somewhere in the student’s journey but they should at least understand how taking the class may impact their overall goals and budget. They can then determine whether it’s worth it to them to enroll or if they should stay on their structured path.


“A simplified set of options that includes clear information on costs and benefits – or the provision of a “default option” – can help people make more optimal decisions.”²


Advisors can work with students to choose a program of study, devise a plan, and build their schedules. They can provide students with highly structured roadmaps that visually depict the most efficient route a student can take to achieve their academic and career goals while keeping their budgets in mind. Students can check in with these roadmaps to see how they are progressing and to conduct “what-if” scenarios to see the detour that rogue class might present.

CCRC suggests three key features of a successful guided approach:

  • Clear road maps to student end goals – academic goals are clearly mapped out by faculty to create educationally coherent pathways with clearly defined learning outcomes that are aligned with requirements for further education and, in occupational programs, for career advancement. Students are given a default sequence of courses to follow for their chosen programs based on maps created by faculty, although they can still opt out to follow an alternative path. Rather than restrict students’ options, the guided pathway approach is intended to help students make better decisions so that they will be more likely to achieve goals.
  • On-ramps to programs of study – mechanisms are in place to help new students develop or clarify goals for college and careers and to create an academic plan that shows a recommended sequence of courses that students should follow to complete their programs.
  • Embedded advising, progress tracking, feedback, and support – students’ progress relative to their academic plan is tracked, and frequent feedback is provided to them and their advisors and instructors. “Early-alert” systems signal when students are struggling, and they set in motion appropriate support mechanisms.


Even with such guidance, there will be students who will fall into the “at-risk” category. They will need additional support which begins with early detection. These red flags should be automated, particularly at the larger schools who do not have the capacity to watch every student.

An early warning system may flag a student who is consistently late in completing required tasks, such as financial aid payments or course registration. Students who are hovering between passing and failing a class, especially those required classes, should receive early intervention before it’s too late. A system should be in place to alert administrators of students who are taking courses that do not qualify for financial aid – before they’ve paid for the course and purchased the books.

This level of intervention will require personnel, of course, but also modern technology. Automation is key. Higher learning institutions can not rely on outdated systems, manual entries and cross-checks, or homegrown applications that are slow to scale. They can also do more to give students the ability to monitor their own progress on their mobile device. Students are always on the go and want access to instant information. Allowing them to register for courses, verify class eligibility, track their roadmap progress, perform required tasks and many other activities goes even further to ensure the greatest opportunity for success.


Related: Why The Mobile Experience Matters


Who Stands to Benefit?

Both the student and the institution will benefit from guided pathways. For schools, they are able to offer a wide variety of courses to attract students and the support students need to choose the best classes for them. Students who stay on the pathway are more likely to graduate on time, have better student outcomes, and have a more positive perception of their school.


“Students benefit when they have clear learning goals and a concrete sense of how they are progressing toward those goals.”³


Students need direction, whether they admit it or not. Age and experience don’t matter. Every student can be easily overwhelmed. They are often balancing work, families, other commitments, and/or their first time away from home. It’s like being thrown into a new country without knowing a soul or the language. They can’t be expected to know their way around unless there is a local willing to guide them.

Guided pathways are similar to a tour guide who has all of the tricks, tools, and tips to get them where they need to be when they need to be there, and within the budgets that they have saved so hard to build. No one ever enrolls in college with plans to drop out or incur more debt than they ever imagined. Higher learning institutions can do much to guide students along their pathways to give them the best opportunity to succeed.

1 Thaler & Sunstein (2008). 2 Scott-Clayton (2011). 3 Grant & Dweck (2003).