Guided Pathways: A new hope or the system striking back?

BY RAUL CAMINO

For the next three years, the Guided Pathways program will be implemented by community colleges across the U.S.

Institutions such as the Center for Community College Engagement and Jobs for the Future are being funded to provide a curriculum model for the program.

The pathway’s learning structure would help wayward college students graduate, as well as find success in their respective fields. Dropping graduation rates are also a motivator. According to President David Levinson, the college’s graduate rate is 8 percent.

Dr. Gretchen Schmidt, executive director of the Pathways Project for the American Association of Community Colleges, visited the college on Jan. 22 to discuss its merits via a presentation.

Using Lorain Community College as an example, Schmidt presented a model of their Business curriculum. Students entering that program, who do not necessarily know what branch of business they want to pursue, could take easily transferable general education classes to start. After 30 credit hours, the student would then be advised to choose a specific business program, and a map containing all relevant courses would outline the rest of their college career.

Choosing a major to begin with, Schmidt said is made harder when one of the factors that confuses a student is a disorganized course selection menu. Recalling selection choices, Schmidt alluded that less is more.

“National research says it’s better to do between six and eight. That’s about the point where behavioral economics says that students make good choices,” Schmidt said.

Students making good choices was a consistent theme in the presentation. Schmidth used students who have spent their Pell grants and racked up credits trying to finish a degree, as proof of a skewed system. Schmidt maintained that the pathways structure would be a sure-fire victory.

However, when faced with the possibility of adopting this structure at the college, not all members of the community were entirely convinced.

Professor Joseph Fucigna, faculty coordinator of the Art Program, said he does not think pathways is the best idea. Particularly, he said he believes that the presentations focus on data detracted from its human component: the students.

“It seems that a lot of what we do in our life…all the testing now we do in schools, that’s all data-driven. In many-respects it’s all about the test now and I think there’s a kind of backlash against it and this highly structured way,” Fucigna said.

Another issue Fucigna has with pathways is the idea that many students do not know what they want to do.

“I think it’s ridiculous. I think someone who knows what they want to do, has a passion about something, that’s a gift. They are in the minority…the idea of choosing what you want to do with the rest of your life in such a structured fashion is not the only way. There are many ways,” Fucign said.

Fucigna said he believes that a lot of students in community college are experimenting, and that it is often the cheapest option to figure out what they want to do.

“Coming to NCC and figuring out what you don’t want to do, is not failure,” he said. “I think figuring out what you don’t want to do is just as important,” Fucigna said.

To Fucigna the right guidance can make a difference in a student’s college career. Yet, it also matters to him that  students have the initiative to to go college in the first place.

“I think you get meaningful exploration through talking with the proper advisor and being an advocate for yourself, rather than being a little bit lazy and not taking advantage of advising.”

He continued: “I say sometimes you need to bottom out, leave school, be miserable, and realize: ‘I may need a college education.’ And college is sometimes not

Fucigna said students should not be forced into going to college

“Sometimes you need to bottom out, leave school, be miserable, and realize: ‘I may need a college education.’ And college is sometimes not for everyone…I think students need to be ready. They have to want to do it, not mom and dad forcing them to do it.”

Lois Aime, director of Distance Learning, said she did not like  the rigidity of the pathways model.

“I do have a concern about Guided Pathways in general, because it does sound like a business model of some sort,” Aime said. “That kind of thing doesn’t give the student the option of testing the waters.”

Aime said she sees pathways as nothing more than good advising, and would prefer if a student who does not know what they wanted to do, had a say in their college path.

“If you have a Guided Pathways structure, it doesn’t give the student an opportunity to do some critical thinking about where it is that they really want to go as well,” Aime said.

Another problem Aime said she sees when considering the implementation of a pathways model, is that it is based around graduation rates–something she feels is arbitrary.

“An old advisee of mine took five years to graduate from here. He then transferred to UConn and graduated. He’s now working at Yale University and he’s now opened his own company. So tell me he’s not successful. Tell me we weren’t successful,” Aime said.

Aime said she considers a lack of advisors a major factor that gets in the way of student success.

“Unless a student actively seeks out someone to advise them, they tend to either advise themselves or they go to the open registration, but there is no continuity because you’re not talking to the same person for the whole time,”  Aime said.

Aime also  said she believes that  the college should be putting its expertise and its funding into developing advising and developing better training for advising.

“That’s where I think the success of the students will grow,” Aime said.

Renae Edge, coordinator of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and General Studies programs, said she believes that pathways would be very beneficial to a good majority of students, especially those who have many interests, or are lost and confused.

“My experience is that many students do feel [lost]. This is a common sentiment. I don’t see this as a problem, so much as a natural state for intelligent young people. Helping them to see that and to find their way is a good idea,” Edge said.

Like many of her colleagues, Edge said she feels that part of why students are confused is a lack of good advising.

“We have not been serving many students well in terms of academic guidance…The college needs to do more to help students make the right decisions for not completing, and doing all we can to help everyone complete who is ready to do so,” Edge said.

Still, Edge does not place the blame entirely on the school and said that students should hold up their end of the bargain as well.

“Students should do research on what they are curious about in life and colleges they would like to attend. As well, they need to seek out advising, seeing several people if necessary, until they are satisfied,” Edge said.

As far as when the college will adopt Guided Pathways, Levinson said that conversations about the project have only just begun.

“[Pathways] is a pretty new concept here, but we’ve done some work along this line in terms of much more guidance for incoming students through an initiative called “Start-to-Finish”, where we have success coaches and also early intervention,” Levinson said.

Levinson said he hopes to have more conversations with staff and faculty and with students, because unless there is engagement from everyone, he believes, it is not going to be meaningful. The president also said he hopes to make the book that sparked national interest in pathways, “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges”, more accessible to the community at large.

“I think a lot of people want to see more students succeed, so it’s a matter of getting people acquainted with this concept and feeling comfortable about it,” Levinson said. “It’s all very complex. and it’s that confusion that does people in because after a while it can be very discouraging.”

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