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).