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Students’ Lives and the “Guided Pathways” Model
The typical community college offers a wide range of basic skills, academic, and occupational programs and courses, and this range of choices can be overwhelming, particularly for first-generation students. Research shows that even with advising – which many do not get – students might take courses that don't combine toward an academic or occupational goal, courses that might be unnecessary, out of sequence, even repeated. This inefficient and ineffective approach to course selection is the result of what Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins refer to as the “cafeteria” model of curriculum. Their recommended solution is the “Guided Pathways” model that I outlined in an earlier blog.
In essence, the curriculum is restructured via a process of faculty and staff inquiry resulting in a limited number of course sequences that guide students toward specified goals: completion of requirements, occupational credentials, or other academic benchmarks. These pathways are not rigid and have room in them for students to make choices, but within boundaries. At the front end of their enrollment, students who are not decided on an academic or occupational area of concentration are guided to select a “meta-major,” a general area of interest, healthcare, for example, or English, arts, and humanities.
This “Pathways” approach is not new; in 2006 sociologist James Rosenbaum and his colleagues offered similar ideas in an important book titled After Admission. But as I noted in that earlier blog, the Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins approach is getting a lot of attention.
One more thing to say about the Guided Pathways model. Once the commitment to it is made, a huge amount of work follows: getting faculty and staff to collaborate in designing the pathways; deciding on the intellectual goals of the pathways (what do faculty and staff want students to learn); changing modes of classroom instruction to achieve those goals; properly and cautiously incorporating technology into advising and instruction; creating effective faculty development to implement these new approaches to instruction.
I agree with much of what Bailey, et al recommend. (see Chapter Six “Improving the People’s College,” in Back to School.) Life would be improved for the typical student in all the ways the authors suggest. I do think, however, that getting the critical mass of faculty and staff to enact such change will be challenging, at best, as I suggested in my last blog.
Let’s assume, however, that the kind of curricular and structural change sketched above transpires. The hope is that this more coherent and rational curriculum will significantly affect the community colleges’ low rates of persistence and completion. No doubt a successful Guided Pathways approach would improve the initial advising and guiding of students toward fields of emphasis. And the model would certainly add direction and coherence to course selection and the achievement of academic or occupational goals. On average, more students would go farther and more efficiently in less time.
But I would not want us to forget that the community college population today is a complex, widely varied one, more so than is found in any other institution of higher education in the United States. Bailey, et al offer a structural fix for the problems these students face once they enter the community college. Such a fix makes sense given the evidence that the current structure creates a host of barriers to student success. Still like all structural remedies, this one runs the risk of reducing nuanced and layered human dilemmas to a technical problem, and thus being unresponsive to or missing entirely the particular life circumstances of the people entering institutions. So, yes, make the college curriculum more coherent, but realize that other human and material resources will also be needed to meet the needs of many students, and, as well, build into your structural changes the flexibility needed to honor the range of life circumstances your students bring to college. Otherwise, the structural fix may create unintended negative consequences – something we’ve seen in public policy throughout the Twentieth Century.
A significant number of people who go to community college are adults with family and other responsibilities. They can only go part-time. They can’t go every semester. They sometimes quit in mid-semester because of family emergencies or changes in employment. They go to two or three different institutions. A Guided Pathways model could help them in some ways – at the least lend coherence to their course selection – but not necessarily speed up their progress through college. For them, evening or weekend classes, good online courses, legitimate competency based options, counseling and advising in off-hours, weekends, or online would also be necessary.
A different kind of problem lies at the other end of the college age continuum. We don't have in our country many avenues to help young people develop after high school. We don’t, for example, have a robust system of occupational apprenticeships or of national service. Young people who are not on the academic fast track and do not have a clear college goal have few options: entry-level, low-skilled, low-paying work or the military. Or they can enroll in the local community college hoping that some career path will reveal itself. Many such students don’t stay long, but those who do typically change their areas of study several times, shift between full-time and part-time attendance, start classes they don’t complete, stop-out and return to school. Eventually some find their way. A Guided Pathways model could help these students by more clearly delineating curricular and career options at a critical stage of early adult development.
But there are some powerful developmental dynamics going on here that lie beyond a structural fix in the curriculum. In interviewing such students, I’m struck by the simple but powerful fact that this process of discovery takes time. A lot of growing up happens: cutting back on partying and frivolous entertainments, changing one’s understanding of the purpose of school, bringing one’s fantasies in line with one’s abilities, learning how to manage time and to study. In some cases, students arrive at the big questions: Who am I? What kind of work do I want to do? What is meaningful work for me? Why am I on this Earth? It certainly could be argued that the community college is not the place to work all this out, but if the society provides limited transitional institutions or spaces, young people are left with few other options.
Then there is the issue of the burdens students carry. I am continually struck by the hardship experienced by so many community college students. To be sure, middle-class students from stable and secure backgrounds attend community college, but, depending on the location of the college, many students come from low-income to destitute families; have to work thirty or more hours a week; live in cramped housing, some of which is substandard; are food-insecure; and have health problems that are inadequately treated. For some, there are worries about immigration. And some must contend with prior involvement in the criminal justice system, and some struggle with addiction.
I have met a number of these students who are beating the odds and are succeeding. They have worked very hard, have overcome obstacles I can only imagine. They are completing or have completed occupational certificates and/ or are heading toward an associate of arts degree, and, in some cases, toward transfer. And every single one has been at their institutions for years. They changed their field of emphasis. They had to quit to work. They got sick or were injured or past physical or psychological trauma momentarily got the better of them. And there is one more thing. These students came from beleaguered, under-resourced schools, so did not receive an adequate K-12 education. Therefore, they are required to take multiple remedial courses in English and mathematics, courses that not only extend their time in school and drain financial aid, but can also present nearly insurmountable obstacles. A combination of poor preparation and anxiety – palpitations, sweating, going blank – have lead several students I’m mentoring to fail a remedial math course three times in a row, though they can do the problems handily in a non- testing setting. In addition to the structure Guided Pathways would offer these students, they need social services, expedited and possibly augmented financial aid, and specialized tutoring that would include techniques to manage anxiety and negative self- attributions about ability.
In After Admission, Rosenbaum and his colleagues make the important point that a structural analysis of the problem with community college student success takes us “beyond individual blame” and focuses our attention on institutional factors that create barriers to academic progress. Bailey, et al offer a powerful corrective to these problematic structural features. I do not intend to refocus blame on students, but I think it would be a mistake to not attend to the details of their lives while conducting this structural analysis, otherwise this structural remedy might promise more than it can deliver – thus threatening its longevity – and also inadvertently contribute to the barriers students face.
I can’t repeat enough that I support much of what Bailey, et al (and, before them, Rosenbaum and company) recommend. I would not want the issues I raise in my last few blogs to be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. I simply want to remind us that even with the most coherent and streamlined curricular pathways, there will still be a number of students who enroll in one course at a time, who stop out, who take years to find their academic or occupational path, whose past blunders and transgressions continue to exact a material and psychological price, whose personal history of neglect and even trauma can cripple their performance…. All this and more require institutional responses beyond Guided Pathways (though Guided Pathways could enhance these responses) as well as extra-institutional social services. The needs of the community college population require a range of programs and accommodations to make “the people’s college” more fully the uniquely American democratic institution it, at its best, can be.