Helping college students find their paths

More knowledge. More skill. More potential. No matter the reason that a student enrolls in college, the ultimate goal is usually the same: a degree that will expand opportunities.

But for too many students, staying enrolled and graduating with a degree may pose stark and unanticipated challenges. Often, first-generation, low-income students get to college without a support network of friends or family members knowledgeable about college life. That leaves them with nowhere to turn when they struggle with the transition to college and navigating through the college system.

The beauty of community and technical colleges is that we offer access, flexibility and a wide variety of choices. Yet for some students, that very flexibility leaves them adrift as they struggle to define goals and figure out which courses to take.

Thanks to a $7 million grant from College Spark, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges will develop and implement Guided Pathways, a program that will reduce and simplify the number of choices about course selection a student must make, informing and supporting those choices, and directing students into an intentional, comprehensive program of study within one or two terms. The process from college entrance to program selection to degree completion is streamlined, providing students with a clearer, more efficient path to completion.

Colleges that have successfully made the shift to Guided Pathways have demonstrated dramatic improvements in college completion rates. For example, Florida State University is a pioneer in the use of Guided Pathways. Their administration credits Guided Pathways with an increase in college completion rates from 44 percent to 61 percent. City University of New York’s Guttman Community College Campus began implementation in 2012 and completion rates rose from 12 percent in three years to 28 percent in two years.

The Guided Pathways model is based on a practical recognition of the higher cost of failure. The idea is to reduce risk by reducing the chances of bad choices. Students start with the Big Choice of a general field of study, and Guided Pathways advisers work to streamline their path to success. Students are less likely to get lost or sidetracked among programs or courses that don’t connect to their desired degree.

Once upon a time, we advised students to go to college to “explore” and “find yourself” by taking a variety of courses. “Do what you love and the money will follow.” While this advice may hold true for a small demographic — good students from well-off backgrounds — students who are paying by the course, working their way through, and don’t have a safety net can’t afford wasted time and money. The risks and consequences of failure are greater when you don’t have an economic cushion.

There is strong evidence that Guided Pathways works, and now the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges will work to implement the program in Washington state. The hard work remains for all of us — colleges, faculty and staff to dramatically improve student success. This is an ambitious project that will require changes in policies and practices from all players. Better pathways leading to more completions is something we must do to raise educational attainment among all Washingtonians.

With successful implementation, students will wander less in colleges as they see clearer paths to their goals. And in the end, every certificate or degree reached is an advancement for Washington.

Jan Yoshiwara is deputy executive director for Education Services at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

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