Implementing Guided Pathways

As described in “The City’s College: Impact 2025,” Community College of Philadelphia has made focusing on student success a fundamental priority for the College and its stakeholders: “A purposeful College-wide curriculum; quality teaching; engaged pedagogy; and organized, proactive support services will foster student success.” Such components of an effective institution are supported by the Guided Pathways reform effort.

The College is one of 30 community colleges in the country taking part in the Pathways Project, spearheaded by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to the AACC, the Pathways model has the following four dimensions, each with essential practices1:

  1. Clarify paths to student end goals
    • Program maps
    • Transfer pathways
  2. Help students choose and enter a pathway
    • Bridge K-12 to higher education
    • “On-ramp” to a program of study
    • Accelerated remediation
  3. Help students stay on path
    • Advising
    • Academic and nonacademic supports throughout program
  4. Ensure that students are learning
    • Learning outcomes
    • Applied learning experiences, such as internships, group work, etc.
    • Effective teaching practices

The College has laid the foundation for implementing Guided Pathways, and various stakeholders will broaden their efforts to make progress on this reform work. While the College has instituted numerous student success initiatives in recent years, the Pathways Project will be a full-scale implementation of redesigned programs and support services. The College has already begun this process and will continue to make progress on the following practices:

Curriculum Mapping

It is imperative that the College have programs of study that are more structured and prescriptive while still providing students with choices. “Structured pathways are designed to shift the focus of student choice from picking courses to selecting programs, which still enables them to choose from a wide range of options. This structure suggests a significant transition in thinking—for students, educators and institutions—to the ultimate decision point being which program will either lead to (1) further education with junior standing in a major at the university level after transfer, or (2) direct entry into the workforce.”2

Curriculum mapping also empowers faculty to guide students in choosing the most optimal courses for their programs. Faculty will be working together in the summer and fall to review all of the College’s programs to provide a more effective structure, including grouping programs into clusters and developing default academic plans. Program clusters with common first and second semesters have been successfully implemented at many other institutions, including Queensborough Community College and Sinclair Community College.

Extensive Advising

The College already provides advising resources to students; however, a successful guided pathways model necessitates that all advising systems have a greater impact than what is currently happening at many community colleges. Many schools are utilizing an “intrusive advising” model, some components of which the College has already incorporated into its efforts: first-year experience courses (Wake Technical Community College), assigned advisors (Sinclair College) and continued advising after the first year (Central Piedmont Community College). With Guided Pathways, “the central idea is that advising services need to build upon and reinforce the Guided Pathways program design features by helping students select and enter a program of study, tracking students’ progress through program milestones, providing frequent feedback to students on their progress, and intervening with individual students who stray off track.”3 As part of its commitment to expanding advising, the College has recently hired several full-time advisors.

Leveraging Technology

As part of the Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) Initiative, the College is integrating various technology resources into a seamless planning and advising system used by students, staff and faculty. These include a degree audit and academic planning system, a customer relations management (CRM) system, and a retention management solution. For example, the Starfish program allows for early alerts to help keep students on their path. Early alert systems have been effectively used at other institutions, including Guilford Technical Community College and Davidson County Community College.

Developmental Education

A goal of Guided Pathways is to shorten the length of time students take to complete their degree. In addition to avoiding accumulating excess credits through structured academic plans, another aspect of this is to accelerate students from developmental education courses into credit-bearing courses. Common practices include identifying college-credit courses that could be taken by students who had not yet completed their developmental education requirements (Davidson County Community College); developing co-requisite programs (Community College of Baltimore, Tennessee community colleges); and contextualizing learning in college-level courses (Washington State community colleges).

Best Practices

As part of the Guided Pathways effort, the College takes part in institutes run by the AACC. At these institutes, colleges that have gone through or started the Pathways model share best practices and lessons learned. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” model, these gatherings provide an excellent opportunity to discover what has been effective elsewhere and what could be adapted to the College.

In multiple studies, students have indicated that they would have preferred more guidance and structure in their college studies. Schools that have instituted practices mentioned above have already seen positive preliminary results for numerous metrics: higher retention rates, reduced excess credits (which saves students time and money), increased completion rates and better transfer rates. Guided Pathways is a significant undertaking. But those institutions that have already implemented elements of a Guided Pathways model have learned that “if colleges are to improve outcomes for their large numbers of disadvantaged students, they need to redesign their practices and policies in fundamental ways.”3 With its focus on student success, the College is well-positioned to successfully implement our own Guided Pathways.

Dr. Samuel Hirsch, Ed.D.


  2. Johnstone, Rob. (2015) Guided Pathways Demystified: Exploring Ten Commonly Asked Questions about Implementing Pathways. National Center for Inquiry and Improvement. Retrieved from
  3. Bailey, Thomas R., Jaggars, Shanna Smith, Jenkins, Davis. (2015) Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.