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Guided Pathways: Operational Perspective


(A. Solano)

College educators have been discussing Guided Pathways almost exclusively from the "Four Pillars" perspective of (1) clarifying the path for students, (2) helping them enter it, (3) stay on it, and (4) ensure learning. However, many college educators still lack a clear picture of what Guided Pathways looks like operationallyTo help with the "Three C's": clarity, coherence, and consensus, I offer an "end in mind" visual from an operational perspective.

Whether they're called "Schools," "Houses," "Divisions," or "Meta-Majors," these academic and career pathways (CAPs) are all essentially collections of majors that often have related courses. The intent of selecting a "School" or "CAP" for example--as opposed to initially choosing from a list of 100+ majors--is to help students choose a cluster based on their interests. Therefore, a student may initially choose to be in a School of STEM, STEM Meta-Major, STEM CAP, etc., instead of specifically choosing chemistry, biology, physics or another specific discipline.

Students graduate per School

To have the "end in mind" of the Guided Pathways work is to understand how to operationalize these academic and career pathways.

Cluster with Example Activities & Services

Below are examples of how to operationalize CAPs in order to provide a nurturing experience and a deeper sense of belonging for students.

- Welcome activities with "CAP Tents" that are sprawled all over campus in the first two weeks of classes where students learn about the programs in the CAP, career information, internship/research opportunities, and meet affiliated faculty and staff. Such engaging events are implemented throughout the school year. This can also be done via virtual events.

- A student success course that includes career information, how to succeed in the CAP, and how to take advantage of campus-wide services.

- All CAP programs are mapped with course sequences, milestones, and tied to good jobs and/or transfer in a major. This information is available to students on the website, and used by counselors and/or advisors.

- A student-centered schedule is available where specific staff in the CAP monitor progress based on ed plans.

- A CAP student success team that either serves as an inquiry & action team that pushes out practices to improve the student journey or serves as an intrusive communication team or serves as a case management team or all of the above.

- The classroom experience with quality instruction for each course, regardless of what CAP it resides in includes:[1]
- high-quality, program-relevant, applied learning experiences
- high-impact teaching practices implemented across modalities
- equity-minded, asset-based teaching 
- quality assessment of program learning outcomes that lead to credentials, further education, and/or gainful employment

I've focused mainly on the Guided Pathways "stay on the path and ensure learning" pillars by operationalizing the CAPs. One can think of the "clarify and help enter the path" pillars as the student on-boarding experience. It's not to say, for example, that a CAP Student Success Team can't be involved in the student on-boarding experience, but they don't replace institution-wide services such as outreach, matriculation, financial aid, etc.

Therefore, Guided Pathways implementation is about improving the on-boarding process and experience for students to help them clarify and enter a path, and operationalizing the academic and career pathways to help them stay on the path and ensure learning. 

In the figure below, start from the bottom to see that a seamless on-boarding process for students allows them to join any number of operationalized CAPs that sets them on the path to student success and completion. It's important to note that other special programs such as EOPS, DSS, UMOJA, PUENTE, tutoring centers, mentoring programs, veterans center, etc., are still a part of the student journey. In addition to these meaningful services, students benefit from being part of an operationalized CAP. 

Guided Pathways: Operational Picture

Unfortunately, some colleges will not attempt to create meta-majors because the few vocal obstructionists have succeeded in convincing the institution with Guided Pathways falsehoods. For many colleges that have created meta-majors, it's clear that they're going to stay buried in the college's website, never to be operationalized in any way, shape or form. Yet, to fully realize the Guided Pathways framework, academic and career pathways are the key to continuous improvement efforts to increase student success. Therefore, for campuses that cannot get around the meta-major (i.e., CAP) obstruction, I have coached them to use their existing schools or divisions in lieu of meta-majors to help them make these clusters more student-centered.

It's also important to understand that Guided Pathways is an agnostic framework with suggested practices along the student journey that colleges shape to fit their context. Therefore, there's often an incorrect perception about Guided Pathways and equity because the framework isn't a highly prescriptive model anchored in, for example, critical race theory. The data demonstrates that when Guided Pathways is implemented well where the majority of students are of color (aka, "minority-majority institutions"), these students' success rates go up![2] I've yet to learn about a student of color who was hurt by a CAP, program map, or any other Guided Pathways concept. I've seen, and the data suggests, it's quite the opposite.

In addition, Guided Pathways is an important tool for identifying structural inequities because it forces colleges to identify which students are in programs that lead to high-opportunity outcomes (direct entry into a good job and/or transfer with junior standing (and no excess credits) in the student's major field of interest, and which ones are in a program that fails to lead to desirable outcomes, and to identify which groups are underrepresented in the former and overrepresented in the latter. Then, colleges can plan and implement informed strategies to address equity more intentionally (e.g., culturally responsive teaching, curriculum modifications, career services redesign, etc.). 

Institutions also have the opportunity to apply Guided Pathways with a more intentional, homegrown equity lens. This means, for example, integrating the college's student equity plan and equity-specific strategies from the strategic and/or education master plan into the Guided Pathways work, combining Equity and Guided Pathways Committees (and overtime folding in the committee's work into the participatory governance structure to ensure sustainability), and answering all of the equity questions in the Guided Pathways Scale of Adoption Assessment. 

Given the ongoing lack of clarity about how to operationalize Guided Pathways, I keep telling colleges that the term "Guided Pathways" should go away over time. After a while of implementing well, the work doesn't really need a name. Continually improving the student experience is what the college does

I hope that the operational visual helps to clarify the "end in mind" for Guided Pathways planning and implementation work. Although a visual is handy, from an implementation standpoint, always remember that the devil is (always and forever) in the details.



Also visit: Student Success Team Models to ConsiderBlocking Student Success & Equity Work| Equity, Race & the College Family |Student Success TeamsGuided Pathways Resources | Guided Pathways Checklist (Yes, During COVID-19)


[1][2] Community College Research Center, Columbia University.

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