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.

School is no longer out of reach

Shifting Perspectives: Higher Ed Access to Student Outcomes


College Access Is No Longer The Primary Focus

Decades ago, higher learning institutions were out of reach for many. Access and affordability were the top concerns. Either the admission policies were too stringent, there were limited ways to pay for an education, or the costs simply out of reach. Many opted to immediately enter the workforce upon graduation and/or begin families.

So much has changed since then. Major shifts in enrollment, student demographics, and funding now require higher learning institutions to change course or be left behind. Much of the driving force behind this evolution is the fact that graduates are now competing for jobs with candidates from around the globe. A post-secondary education is no longer bragging rights but a requirement for the more desirable, higher paying jobs.

Changing student demographics


Clearly, accessibility is no longer a barrier to entry. Higher learning institutions are shifting their focus from providing access to student outcomes and success.

One of the most proactive and self-sustaining actions an institution can take is to bridge the gap between academics and IT. These typically siloed departments must work together to build the internal structures required to deliver the modern education students demand. These students have been raised on technology. They expect the institutions to whom they pay will prepare them for these jobs using the technology they are accustomed to in order to quickly perform tasks and monitor their progress throughout their educational journey. This is how students succeed. This is how institutions improve student outcomes.


Student Success Is The Driving Force

Today, it’s no longer a goal to boost enrollment numbers. With performance-based funding front and center, success rates have taken precedence. It’s pretty simple math: higher performing institutions get more funding than lower performing schools. How do we now measure performance? At the most basic level, it comes down to graduation rates.

Despite all of the efforts to improve student outcomes, it doesn’t appear they are having much effect. For students entering college in 2008, about 60 percent of them earned a bachelor’s degree within six years. For those entering college in 1996, graduation rates were just over 55 percent.

A five percent increase in graduation rates in more than a decade isn’t very impressive. Accessibility was a much simpler beast to tackle. What does it take to ensure more college students graduate and achieve the outcomes higher learning institutions so desperately need to push?

Many college systems put all of their eggs into the technology bucket, investing in giant ERP systems to digitize business processes and crunch numbers. While the data is being tracked and stored databases, little has been done with the information to move the needle.

That’s why increasingly more institutions are beginning to move beyond ERPs to focus on software to solve specific problems in order to maintain performance-based funding to simply survive. Most of the challenges they are trying to address are centered around student success – helping students graduate on time and within budget.


Balancing Admissions with Student Outcomes

There is a sweet spot for higher learning institutions. It lies somewhere between admissions and on-time graduation, and it involves both a change in perspective and an investment in modern technology.

The student population has changed nearly as drastically as the technology required to support them. Today’s college student is just as likely to be a mother, father, or full-time worker as they are a recent high school graduate. Students of all demographics are asking for flexibility, not simply accessibility. They want college on their own terms, on their own schedules.

Just as important is their desire to use the technology they are using in their everyday lives to navigate the post-secondary journey. For these tech-savvy students, standing in line to make a financial aid payment or to visit an advisor to drop a class is akin to referencing an encyclopedia for current information. It’s archaic, inefficient, and frustrating. They can do virtually everything on their mobile device…except perform the very tasks they need to succeed in college.

Students want to take control of their own journey and they expect to be able to do it from the mobile devices they carry with them everywhere they go. Yet, it’s more than just giving students a mobile app. It’s about giving them access to their student information so they have real-time insight to make decisions in their own interest and in their own time.

Higher learning institutions must put today’s student first, understanding where they are coming from, what they want and need to succeed. Most importantly, it’s realizing today’s student is vastly different from students even a decade ago. Institutions must meet students where they are if they truly want them to succeed.


4 Areas of Focus for Today’s Institutions and Students

When institutions combine the philosophy of “students first” with the technology to enable them, they position themselves and the student to maximize outcomes. Where should higher learning institutions concentrate their focus? When they commit to these four areas, everyone wins.

  1. Student engagement and communications
  2. Student experience
  3. Guided pathways and on-time graduation
  4. Financial aid efficiency and compliance

What does it take for an institution to be student-ready? The academic side of the institution must come together with the technology side. Both must recognize their dependence on each other to bring the institution into modernity – to give students everything they now require, not simply want, to achieve the best outcomes. Student success, necessary funding, and long-term institutional viability are riding on it. In a nutshell, the investment is worth it.

Technology and academics can be (must be) combined in a smart way to give students the ability to make their own decisions. Students want to have a voice. They are spending tens of thousands of dollars for an education they believe will prepare them for today’s workforce. If the institution isn’t providing the latest technology, how can they possibly graduate workforce-ready students?

In a series of upcoming blogs, we will discuss in detail each of these four areas institutions must master if care at all about student success. Each area is critical to providing the best user experience so we plan to guide you through it without bias.

This is where education is heading. This is where we will finally see graduation rates improve beyond 60 percent. It’s time to modernize college campuses to give students the tools they need to succeed in today’s competitive market. When students succeed, institutions succeed. It’s a win-win, but it requires buy-in from both academics and IT.  We’ll show you how to build the synergy you’ll need to make it a reality.

How do you measure student success?

Post-Secondary Success Is the New Student Success Metric


Looking Forward

Student success has been a hot topic in higher education for some time. While its concept is nothing new, how it is defined and measured is continually evolving. Student retention and graduation rates are among the more common and valued metrics used to measure student outcomes, however, these measurements are attracting some company. There are more success factors that schools are beginning to appreciate, but implementing and measuring them can be challenging.

In a recent “To A Degree” podcast from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dan Greenstein, director of Education for Post-Secondary Success at The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, discusses some of the issues surrounding student success. He believes the value in postsecondary education is obvious – it is a reliable pathway into the middle class. “We know that some education after high school results in higher salaries, more secure jobs, greater civic engagement and by 2025, we estimate our workforce will need about 11 million more people with postsecondary credentials than our colleges and universities are on track to produce.”

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released numbers suggesting college enrollment rates are decreasing, despite the fact that more students are graduating from high school. The percentage of high-school graduates who immediately enrolled in college fell from 69 percent in 2008 to 66 percent in 2013. One of the biggest issues is cost. Postsecondary education is expensive and many millennials simply don’t believe there is value in it.

Most importantly, Greenstein and the Foundation believe accessibility is a greater issue, particularly since there are so many scholarships and financial aid available to students of all economic demographics. They believe it is critical to making postsecondary opportunities more available to students of all backgrounds, stages of life, and socioeconomic status to achieve equity. How are higher education institutions answering this challenge?


Technology Is Only Half of the Equation

Many higher learning institutions turn to technology in order to achieve equity and excellence, but as Greenstein says, programs are equally as important. “Higher education institutions must redefine how students progress through their educational journey and no single solution is enough to transform the institution to better serve students. Schools need to be redesigned around students and their needs, their pathways. We must get students on a path and keep them there to succeed. How will schools integrate various solutions to make that happen? It will require key capabilities, leadership, data-driven decision-making, and change management, to name a few.”

If these initiatives are intended to boost retention and student success, the next question must be how success will be measured. An institution’s performance is more than just how many students enroll and graduate. In order to deliver the most effective student intervention, all students must be segmented by race, income and other demographics to determine how well higher education is serving all students.

Related: How Do You Define Student Success in 2017?

Are all students receiving the resources, the advising, the intervention they need to succeed? We have some data that gives us some insight into how well institutions are doing. Plenty of research has focused on student outcomes. One of the more sobering reports came from the National Center for Education Statistics. They found that up to 40 percent of first-time, full-time students who enrolled in a 4-year postsecondary institution never graduated.

When students feel overwhelmed, even lost, they are more likely to give up. When simple tasks become difficult, either because technology hasn’t caught up with student requirements or the process to complete those tasks are too complicated, students avoid them. They miss deadlines, they register for courses that do not contribute to their degrees, and they run out of money before they’ve graduated. Students who ask for help may receive it, but many students do not ask. They do not schedule appointments with advisors or they wait until little can be done to get them back on the right pathway.

While it is ultimately up to the student to follow their pathway, many schools are not implementing preventative measures until it is too late. This begs the question as to whether these higher education institutions have the technology and programs in place to identify and offer assistance to all at-risk students early in their academic career.


Post-Graduation Success

As important as these issues are, increasingly more emphasis is being put on additional factors that contribute to student success, including post-graduation outcomes. This makes sense, of course, considering the fact that students attend colleges and universities in order to improve their career opportunities. If an institution is failing to provide adequate education in order for students to fulfill their career goals, how can it consider itself contributing to student success? And if institutions aren’t measuring student success beyond graduation, how does it know it provided value to students?

What metrics are we to use to gauge post-graduation success? Greenstein mentions employment rates, earnings, and student debt default are components of success that should also be considered, as well as costs to the institution to deliver a quality education. Value is what it comes down to – does the student perceive their experience as valuable and can the institution deliver that value in a cost-effective way?

Institutions must begin to measure student success beyond the four to six years the student is enrolled in the college or university. The value of a student’s postsecondary education can really only be accurately quantified when in context with the student’s overall career success.


Technology and Programs

While some higher education institutions are further down the innovation road, many are still trying to determine how best to deliver value to their students. Greenstein points out that institutions are motivated by doing the right thing and focusing on student outcomes, but money is also always at issue. “When it’s more expensive to lose a student than retain a student, you begin to think systematically about how to do that.”

For schools who place value on student outcomes and continually strive to implement technology and programs to enable them, partnering with experts to help them get there is critical. These innovations aren’t always simple and can require integrating multiple technologies, revamping processes that have been in place for decades or longer, and changing mindsets. Any solution takes time not only to customize and develop but to roll out. It can take years for the students to realize the benefits, making it important for schools to begin sooner than later.