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How Will Guided Pathways Benefit Our Students?

by Samuel Hirsch, Ed.D.

For the past year, Community College of Philadelphia has been making steady progress in implementing Guided Pathways at the College. With the 2016–17 academic year, the College will make even greater leaps in this reform. Department heads, faculty and deans worked together over the summer to configure our programs into cohesive academic pathways.

For these pathways, faculty from different programs will work together over the fall semester to determine possible common courses, maximize course sequencing and build curriculum maps to increase the efficiency with which students can complete a degree. Additionally, Educational Support Services has hired seven full-time advisors. These new advisors have gone through extensive training and are now in place ahead of the fall semester, ready to provide comprehensive support to students. For two more components of Guided Pathways, developmental education and intake processes, the College’s faculty, staff and administrators have conducted in-depth research into best practices and examined closely how such practices can be adapted to most effectively fit our context. With these tasks accomplished, implementing improved procedures for developmental education and intake processes are scheduled for 2016–17.

All of this work has been accomplished and planned to benefit students and better support student success, the emphasis of the Guided Pathways movement. When reviewing its programs and services, a postsecondary institution should consider its students’ goals as a starting point. For the majority of our students, this usually means one of two goals: either completing a degree and transferring to a four-year institution for further education, or applying their knowledge to the job market for better employment. To help students attain their goals, the College considers how it can increase two important measures of student success: persistence, from semester-to-semester and from year-to-year, and graduation. Improvements made to four fundamental components of the Guided Pathways reform—intake process, curriculum maps, developmental education and advising—benefit students in multiple ways.

Intake Process

Effective intake processes can help students choose and enter a program of study in the most efficient way possible. The intake process begins before a student starts his/her studies at an institution. It can include new student orientation, summer bridge activities and career assessments, and extend into first-year experiences with advisors and first-year experience courses. A key aspect to this is choosing a program of study when entering the College. Research has shown that by choosing an academic direction early, students can then better comprehend the purpose of the courses they take within their chosen curriculum. By having students clarify their goals at the beginning of their studies and connect their program and courses to that goal, research has shown that this can increase motivation, which, in turn, leads to increased persistence and further studies. Other institutions have also seen success with first-year experience courses. Overall, students are more likely to persist and complete their studies if they have taken part in a first-year experience or college skills course.

Curriculum Maps

Research has shown that students benefit from a more structured approach to their studies. In order to provide this, faculty review their programs to examine general education options, course sequencing, elective choices, etc. Based on such reviews, faculty develop curriculum maps, which act as default academic plans. Curriculum maps provide students with a clearly delineated pathway through an academic program. The focus is not on individual courses, but the program as a whole and how courses fit within the context of the program. Students are then better able to make connections across courses, to see the purpose of the particular curriculum and to see how the program helps them achieve their goals. Again, this can positively impact motivation. Additionally, the default curriculum maps, along with having a more focused choice of courses, mark “milestones” throughout the curriculum. With these milestones and the carefully curated selection of courses, students are able to progress through the program more efficiently, thus avoiding accumulating “extra” credits. By staying on the prescribed path to a completed degree, students are more likely to persist and actually earn the degree. Moreover, with fewer extra credits, they are able to complete their degree in a shorter period, saving them both valuable time and money. Curriculum maps also contain information on transfer institutions and employment. Armed with this information from the beginning of their studies, students can make better informed decisions while at the College that can then positively affect their studies and work after they graduate.

Developmental Education

Creating curriculum maps is one way that Guided Pathways can help students complete their degree in a shorter length of time. Another means to this is to more effectively move, or onboard students from developmental education courses into college credit-bearing courses. More than 50 percent of community college students place into developmental education courses (math, English and English as a Second Language). Developmental education courses have traditionally been a stumbling block for many students; students who take developmental education courses are less likely to complete a degree than students who go directly into college-level courses. Making developmental education more effective should reduce this gap. Common practices in refining developmental education programs include contextualizing learning and developing corequisite programs. The goal of such efforts is to increase the likelihood of students successfully completing their developmental education courses and, when possible, to do so more efficiently. By reducing the stumbling blocks students have traditionally experienced with developmental education, we can help students move through their studies and complete a degree.

Extensive Advising and Progress Tracking

A recent Institutional Research graduate survey showed that students’ satisfaction with academic advising has increased over the last several years. While such information is encouraging, there is still room for improvement. Academic advising is often a challenging area for community colleges; advisors may see a very high number of students, and students may see several different advisors over time. Student surveys such as the CCSSE and Noel-Levitz report that student engagement positively correlates with the frequency of seeing an academic advisor. With more full-time advisors available to our students, the College will be better able to not only monitor student progress, but more importantly, proactively address any apparent deviations from a student’s chosen academic path. In addition to monitoring through traditional advising, which may be dependent on the student actively seeking advisement, the College has begun to use an online system called Starfish, with which faculty and staff, including counselors and advisors, can track students’ progress over time. With this system, faculty and staff can reach out to students, whether it be to send them a “kudos” for work well done or provide a referral to a student service. While the use of the software is relatively new at the College, some colleges have already seen benefits to students. Dallas County Community College District saw that students in classes in which Starfish software was used had a 5 percent higher course pass rate than students in non-Starfish courses. At Harper College, student persistence from fall to spring was higher for students in the Starfish program, at 80 percent, than for students who were not, at 70 percent (www.starfishsolutions. com/clients/community-colleges/). Beginning with the 2016–17 academic year, we will be able to analyze how the use of Starfish benefits students in year-toyear persistence, and then later in graduation rates.


Employing the principles of Guided Pathways allows us to assist students from before they even register at the College to after they receive a degree or credential. Just as the College can increase the depth of support it provides to students, it can also increase the breadth. One of the most important tenants of the Guided Pathways movement is that work be done at scale. We have been an active leader in student success initiatives, as evidenced by its participation in the Achieving the Dream initiative. The College has undertaken numerous efforts to increase student success, and each of these efforts has impacted subgroups of students. A requirement for taking part in the Pathways Project is that changes be made at scale to impact as many students as possible. With this in mind, benefits are not limited to specific groups of students, but to all students at the College. While making such extensive College-wide changes can be challenging, the widespread benefit to students will be the result.