Community colleges serve a large proportion of learners from low-income backgrounds, the target population of Ascendium's philanthropy. But loosely structured, self-service enrollment practices common at many community colleges often present significant barriers to success. To reverse this trend, institutions across the nation are adopting guided pathways reforms.
Guided pathways reforms aim to improve student outcomes by redesigning programs and providing students with clearer pathways to credentials that lead to good-paying jobs. Through our Remove Structural Barriers to Success focus area, Ascendium continues to support research and other efforts on guided pathways, which are showing early promise in improving completion rates for learners from low-income backgrounds. A new report by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) is one example of this important ongoing work.
For the past six years, CCRC has studied the adoption, costs and effects of guided pathways at more than 100 colleges and interacted with thousands of practitioners implementing the reform framework. This effort is summarized in the report How to Achieve More Equitable Community College Student Outcomes. In it, CCRC lays out its evolving thinking on guided pathways in the areas of program organization and design, new student onboarding and more.
Key among the recommendations are providing new students with more robust, major-specific advising early in their academic career, offering more experience-based learning and providing specific on-ramps for older adults returning to school.
CCRC is conducting a rigorous, multi-year study of guided pathways in Washington State and Tennessee, where the community college systems committed to a full implementation of guided pathways several years ago. Results are expected in late 2022. However, in CCRC’s 2018 report, Building Guided Pathways to Community College Student Success, early evidence is showing that some individual guided pathways reforms are leading to improved student outcomes.
Ascendium is supporting additional guided pathways work by CCRC and other grant partners. That’s because we prioritize investing in the widespread adoption of evidence-based institutional and system policies and practices that drive equitable student outcomes. These efforts focus on ensuring students are learning, adapting guided pathways to different types of institutions and involving campus finance leaders in making the reforms permanent. They include:
- A grant to the Association of American Colleges and Universities focusing on implementing guided pathways, with 20 participating community colleges representing 150,000 students. A report, How Community Colleges Are Strengthening Guided Pathways to Ensure Students Are Learning, was released in October.
- A new effort by the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement (NCII) to develop and deliver a regionalized approach to guided pathways focused on rural institutions. NCII will work with a group of up to 15 rural community colleges and their regional partners, such as employers and transfer partners, to build capacity for implementing guided pathways. This effort addresses a gap in the field in that much of the guided pathways reform work and research has happened in urban and suburban campus settings. This work builds on the Rural Community College Leader Series, which supports rural community college leaders’ response to COVID-19 challenges and the potential of guided pathways reforms to provide solutions.
- A What and How To Educational Series on guided pathways produced by CCRC, designed for colleges that have not been well served by existing technical assistance providers in the reform movement. CCRC led two summer institutes as part of the effort, including one focused on rural institutions.
- A grant with the National Association of College and University Business Officers to provide a network of equity-minded chief financial officers with tools and support in using strategic finance to embed either guided pathways or transfer reform practices on their campuses. This effort seeks to bridge the gap between small-scale programs that have proven effective and widespread integration into institutional operating budgets.
As guided pathways reforms continue to evolve, we’ll continue to be involved, driven by our goal of reducing and eliminating institutional and systemic barriers for underrepresented learners, so more can achieve their postsecondary education and career goals.