Making Clear the Path to Success


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Tell someone you’re attending college and they’ll likely ask “What’s your major,” or “What are you studying?” While many students have a clear idea of what their expected route is through their educational journey, there are also a good number of students, whom I’ve often seen in my work with community colleges, who do not have a clear path. They haphazardly take courses that do not align to their academic and/or career outcomes jeopardizing their overall goals and prolonging time (and increasing the cost) to completion. Often the frustration results in them so losing sight of their goals they stop attending and trade potential income for student debt.

Planning the Path to Completion

Knowing that students without crystalized or formal plans may suffer academically and/or economically then begs the question: Are our institutions of higher education open to rethink how we shepherd students toward completion in a defined and thoughtfully planned way? Some colleges asking this question are finding systemic or historical inefficiencies in the way classes are scheduled. Rather than rolling courses over from term to term, they are looking at student preference for modality, or time of day courses are offered. How are we balancing faculty preferences, in terms of their teaching schedule, with the preferences of students’ needs? How many of us are asking these type of questions at our institutions?

A great read on how colleges and universities should holistically rethink and re-integrate student pathways within the cultures of their institutions has been authored by Jenkins and Cho (2014) from the Community College Research Center. They posit the following: “With so many choices and without a clear roadmap or someone monitoring their progress, it is not surprising that many community college students indicate that they are confused and often frustrated in trying to find their way through college (p. 2).”

The authors suggest that institutions need to create a more guided pathway approach. This path would be more focused on creating a “student pathway ecosystem” that has students at the center of our redesign work. Major components are articulated in in the narrative, suggesting the ideas colleges need to think through in order to craft a more seamless and efficient approach for students. What follows is a summary though I encourage you to give this paper a read.

whiteboard pathways
Clear Road Maps to Student End Goals

This is also what the Guided Pathways to Success document articulates; “build with the end game in mind.” An argument could be made that this is the perfect opportunity for design thinking to articulate and discover what colleges need to do to create intentional pathways for students to move successfully in their educational journey.

On-ramps to Programs of Study

How are our in-take programs, procedures, and policies aligned to facilitate a successful student journey? Jenkins and Cho note that students should be crafting a plan upon entry to the college and that support services should align to that plan, documented along with a planned sequence of courses that are scheduled beyond a one-year time frame. While on-ramps are critically important, are “exit-ramps” also needed to correct a student’s trajectory if needed?

Embedded Advising, Progress Tracking, Feedback and Support

The final construct of Jenkins and Cho’s concept suggests that advising be redesigned to ensure that students are making progress, with mileposts integrated in the plan so that advisors and faculty can assure progress is being made. Some of this work has already begun with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded work with iPAS (Integrated Planning and Advisory Services) and iPASS (Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success) at various two and four-year colleges around the country.

The next series of narratives on the guided pathways work will begin exploring each of these three categories in more detail. I’m especially interested in their concept that references how creative new ways of advising are being redesigned to facilitate success. This design thinking work is critical to the guided pathway approach.

So how do we enter into a discourse about this approach at our colleges? How do we, as institutions of higher learning, take the student-centered pedagogical approach, that we always argue as being critical for student success, and extend that framework into a “student pathway ecosystem” that intersects with the larger institutional ecosystem that has a defined history, a distinct culture, and sense of familiarity in order to meet students needs?

As we start designing with the end in mind, we also need to honor the culture of our institutions, our missions, and our faculty; who without question are the domain experts. I believe the guided pathways framework can nudge us in the right direction so that we are good shepherds for our students, and helping them attain their educational and career goals while providing them with the academic rigor they expect and need. Here’s an example of how one university and college are partnering for thoughtful pathways:

If our work is to help students succeed then we must design pathways that show we hold them in the center of our educational universe.

Davis Jenkins is a member of the Civitas Learning National Advisory Board. Read more about his pathways work in this interview from the Civitas Learning Space.


Guided Pathways to Success: Boosting College Completion.

Jenkins, Davis; Cho, Sun-Woo. (2014). Get with the Program…and Finish It: Building Guided Pathways to Accelerate Student Completion. CCRC Working Paper. No. 66.

Top Banner Photo: Maze by Kevin Saff used by permission CreativeCommons BY- SA 2.0.


Leon Hill

Leon Hill works with Achieving the Dream and was previously part of the consulting team at Civitas Learning. Prior to that, he was Assistant Vice President for Institutional Research and Effectiveness at Montgomery County Community College. In this capacity he was responsible for overseeing all the research and effectiveness functions of the college, as well as working with faculty on assessment activities in the classroom.

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