Dr. Davis Jenkins has dedicated a significant portion of his career to researching, writing, and advocacy work designed to help strengthen educational pathways to college and career success for disadvantaged students. We met with him recently to discuss his current research on Guided Pathways. Davis is a member of the Civitas Learning National Advisory Board.
Starting with the End in Mind
Jenkins is a vocal advocate for change in the way community colleges advise, admit and enroll students. “Right now community colleges serve more to sort students out than to provide them with pathways to success,” he suggests. “Colleges need to begin with the end in mind and redesign their programs so that they provide clearer paths for students to degree completion, further education and advancement in the labor market.”
He laments the current gap between access and success for students from low-income backgrounds. “Right now, community colleges and broad-access, four-year institutions enroll about 60 percent of the undergraduates in the U.S., including the majority of low income, Hispanic, Native American and African American undergraduates,” says Jenkins. “These institutions are designed for low cost access to college study; but they’re less well-organized to help students complete programs that enable them to achieve their goals. Too often our research shows underrepresented students are entering college and being shunted into the developmental education and general studies morass without clear guidance and support to enter a program of study that will help them to get a college degree that prepares them for a better lifer .”
Contextualized Course Content
“Developmental education courses, as they are generally taught, divert students into a remedial track and fail to help students build skills that will help them succeed in college,” he said. “We put all our focus on College Algebra and English 101—when other introductory college-level courses are just as predictive of college completion.” He suggests building into the introductory college-level courses that serve as “gateways” to college programs instruction in academic foundation skills students need to succeed in those courses. Students can also benefit in instruction in college success skills such as how to take effective notes, write a college research paper, manage their time, etc.
Jenkins sees a large population of first-generation learners entering college with the unclear intention of earning af bachelor’s degree only to be placed in developmental education or general education coursework with no defined course of study. The research he and his colleagues are doing—along with the experience of a growing number of colleges—indicates that students will be better able to succeed if the path to their end goals is clearer, if colleges track their progress toward those goals, and if instructors focus their teaching on learning outcomes for these larger programs, not just their individual courses.
Scaffold Rather than Sort
“This open access afforded by community colleges gives the appearance of opening access to opportunity, but that’s not the experience of too many low-income and first-generation students,” said Jenkins. “Though most community colleges offer a prodigious array of courses and programs, they often don’t provide adequate guidance to help students choose a program of study and develop a concrete plan for completing it.” Additionally, said Jenkins, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have a clear idea of the opportunities available to them, and research indicates that while career services and advising are offered by well meaning staff, the students who need such services are the least likely to seek them out.
Paths through occupational programs such as nursing and manufacturing technology are regulated by licensure or industry standards and are generally well defined, but it is not often the case for those in transfer programs. “Community colleges tend to closely monitor enrollment in their courses but have a harder time tracking students individually through programs, especially transfer programs,” said Jenkins.
Guided Pathways Model Features
He sees a growing number of colleges and universities addressing this need by “starting with the end in mind,” and building “guided pathways” to students’ end goals. He cites the key features in these models as:
Clear roadmap to success: Academic programs are clearly defined with roadmaps that show students the courses they need to take (and the sequence they should take them) and the learning outcomes they need to master to complete programs and prepare for specified job and further education opportunities.
Exploratory Majors: Students who don’t have a declared major are required to enter an “exploratory major” that enables them to explore the field and either move to major in that field or switch to another field with no loss of credits.
Contextualized instruction in foundation skills: Academic foundation skills and college success skills are contextualized into college level coursework in the student’s field of interest. Any remediation is ideally accelerated, specific and contextualized.
Predictable scheduling: Students are placed into pre-determined, pre-sequenced, whole-program schedules that lead to on-time completion. Schedules allow for full-time (15-credit) and part-time attendance. Though they may customize schedules with advisor knowledge and consent, this structure helps students better plan their schedules and balance school with family and work obligations.
Progress tracking, feedback and support: Students receive frequent feedback that includes academic plan tracking as well as non-academic milestones like internships, service learning, preparing resumes, and applying for transfer. Early alert systems help identify when students are falling off track and signal appropriate supports.
Bridges to college programs: High school students in dual credit courses should enroll in required, high-quality courses that are part of an entire program of study, not just any courses that appeal to them. And efforts can be made to bridge students in adult basic education and workforce programs into college-level programs that lead to credentials and careers in high-demand fields.”
“For guided pathways to work to improve student completion and learning, faculty and student service staff have to take the lead in developing them,” Davis said. “Collaboration is important in any major organizational reform, but it is critical in efforts to implement Guided Pathways.”
If there is strong collaboration both across departments within colleges and with outside partners, Jenkins stands firm that giving students these clear roadmaps to success on pathways that lead to further education and employment would have a profoundly positive effect on low income students and ultimately the economy in which they live and work. A recent study by Jenkins and his colleague Clive Belfield find that guided pathways approach can help colleges make better use of the limited resources they have to help students graduate.
Here is a recent publication on how guided pathways can help improve transfer outcomes for students and in ways that benefit both community colleges and universities.
Together with his colleagues Thomas Bailey and Shanna Jaggars, Jenkins is writing a book on how colleges can redesign themselves to improve student success that will be published by Harvard University Press in early 2015.