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 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).
New Administration, New Financial Aid Scrutiny

New Administration, New Financial Aid Scrutiny


The Challenges for Students and Higher Learning Institutions

We’ve heard so much about President Trump’s first 100 days – what has been accomplished, what has yet to be accomplished, and new policy changes. Every U.S. president is subjected to scrutiny when it comes to this 100-day milestone. One of the hot issues for this administration comes under the education headline. The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary guarantees plenty of changes to many education policies, many of which are centered around financial aid.

Student loans and financial aid has always been complicated. President Obama attempted to simplify it but even after eight years in office, its complexity still looms. Everything from applying for financial aid to paying it off (or not) is equally confusing. With the new administration firmly in place, it doesn’t look like it will get much easier any time soon.

Higher learning institutions are in the crosshairs. They have increasingly more students applying for financial aid, yet the process has become so burdensome, there are still billions of federal student aid unclaimed every year. Nearly $3 billion of unclaimed federal student aid is attributed to students not filling out the required FAFSA. That totals nearly $6,000 of Pell Grant funds per high school graduate that was never claimed. To make this application process more daunting, the IRS has suspended its Data Retrieval Tool that made it somewhat easier for students to automatically pull their tax information to the FAFSA paperwork.

Another issue for students is paying off the loans they do obtain. Trump/DeVos policies may make it more difficult for defaulted borrowers to avoid high fees or be “forgiven” of their loans under certain circumstances. It may also be more complicated to manage multiple student loans because there is no centralized platform where students can repay their loans.


What It Means for Higher Learning Institutions

Higher learning institutions may not be able to do as much as they’d like to help shape the politics or policies surrounding education, but they can do plenty to help students incur less debt and ultimately be more successful as they navigate their student loans. With the cost of tuition increasing, colleges and universities must find ways to make obtaining financial aid easier. They must also go a step further to helping students stay within their financial aid requirements, enrolling in only qualified classes that are covered under financial aid.

The single best thing a higher learning institution can do to help students is to ensure better stewardship of financial aid dollars. More than ever, students cannot afford to waste a single penny of financial aid. For every dollar squandered, the student is at greater risk for dropping out of school, incurring more debt than they anticipated, and spending more years to pay off that debt than they ever imagined. With student success and student outcomes prominent themes in higher education, ensuring students can achieve their educational goals without sacrificing their economic future should be a high priority.


Making The Path Easier to Navigate

When a student decides to pursue postsecondary education, they do so with plenty of hope and big dreams. These dreams never included lifelong student loan debt or dropping out of college midway through their journey. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens to many students and much of it could be prevented with the use of modern technology.

Once students are approved for student loans and financial aid, the clock begins to tick. They have only a certain amount of time (usually four to six years) to use their money grant(s) before it expires. It’s not quite that easy, however. Only certain courses are eligible for the financial aid – those that fulfill specific degree requirements. Any class that has not been deemed as degree-necessary will not be paid for with financial aid, meaning students will have to pay for those classes out of pocket or take out additional loans to cover the cost.


Related: Virginia Community College Case Study


While this policy seems simple enough, it’s surprising to see so many schools struggle to make the course enrollment process transparent for students. It’s often left up to the student to determine which courses to take after researching which are eligible for financial aid. Many enroll, believing a course qualifies for financial aid, only to find out after they’ve paid for the class and purchased their books that it is ineligible. They then must begin the enrollment process all over again. It is frustrating and there are too many ways a student can make a mistake.


Technology Helps The Institution Comply and Makes The Student Journey Easier

Fortunately for both higher learning institutions and students, technology is finally answering the demand to make the student journey easier. HighPoint has spent decades building products to help students become more self-sufficient and successful. When students can access the information they need to find information quickly, perform self-service tasks instead of scheduling and attending appointments with staff, and follow their path towards their goals, they do better.

HighPoint Financial Aid Automation helps financial aid offices move the students through the financial aid process efficiently. HighPoint Financial Aid Course Auditor gives students and staff quick confirmation that the courses selected will, in fact, qualify for financial aid, in plenty of time to drop the courses and choose others that do qualify. HighPoint Roadmap presents students with the most direct route towards graduation so they’re less likely to take a costly detour.


Related: How FACA Is Helping Students Get the Most out of Financial Aid


It’s applications like these, available via mobile apps, that not only give students the information they need to succeed but give them the ability to take control of their educational journey in a way they can truly engage. They stay informed of their progress, keep tabs on their financial aid, and enroll in courses they know will be paid for by financial aid. The result? More on-time graduation, less unnecessary debt, and a better overall student experience.


What We Can Expect

With only 100 days under his belt, it is difficult to know exactly what policies will change under the Trump administration. Everyone may have their opinions, but at the end of the day, we are all just waiting to see what will happen. No matter who is in office and what policies are passed, higher learning institutions can make the financial aid process much easier for students.

The first step is giving students access to the information within PeopleSoft. When students have insight into their degree requirements, course eligibility, and road maps on the most efficient way towards reaching their goals, everyone wins. There is less burden on the institution, less risk for noncompliance, and a dozen benefits for the students.

Higher learning institutions shouldn’t be at the mercy of each new administration. They can invest in technology and programs to modernize their platform to be more responsive towards student demands. They can give students more freedom to own their own journey. They can assist students in being good stewards of the financial aid they’ve been granted. In essence, they can implement initiatives that put the students first.