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What is Guided Pathways?


Community colleges are the primary gateway for California’s high school graduates to enter higher education. This is especially true for low-income and first-generation college students. Last year 246,000 students enrolled in California’s community colleges as first-time freshmen—compared to 66,000 at the California State University and 46,000 at the University of California.

The traditional approach of the community colleges to maximize opportunity has been to provide broad access to a huge array of courses, programs, and certifications. But this buffet of options has actually made it difficult for many students to complete degrees in a timely manner. Eighty percent of first-time freshmen at the California Community Colleges identify transfer to a four-year school as their objective, but only 48% transfer, earn a degree, or complete a certificate within six years. That’s where Guided Pathways comes in.

Guided Pathways aims to help students clarify and achieve their educational goals by ensuring that colleges align their courses into programs of study, rethink how they provide counseling services, and improve course scheduling and sequencing.

Rather than a set of specific reforms, Guided Pathways is a framework that community colleges can use as they plan their own initiatives to make the student experience more straightforward and streamlined.

Guided Pathways consists of four essential principles:

  1. Clarify the Path: Create clear course pathways linked to majors and careers.
  2. Enter the Path: Design intake processes that ask students about their interests and goals and help them choose a program of study.
  3. Stay on the Path: Support student progress along their path with advising and academic services.
  4. Ensure Learning: Create clear outcomes and measures for programs of study and establish regular procedures to assess student achievement.

In California, 20 community colleges are part of a pilot group implementing Guided Pathways initiatives. Each college is developing practices and plans tailored to its student population and needs, though the cohort also shares ideas and best practices with one another. Most of the participating schools are in the process of implementing meta-majors to organize related programs into career clusters. As the colleges roll out education pathways with clear course sequences and maps, helping students stay on track will require new approaches to counseling and other student support services. A number of schools are undertaking substantial reforms, such as assigning counselors to particular meta-majors, or building counseling appointments into student educational plans. All the colleges are grappling with how to increase advising support with already high student-to-counselor ratios.

Despite the challenges, the payoff for successfully implementing Guided Pathways is huge. The California Community Colleges aims to increase the transfer rate 35% by 2021—that’s an additional 26,000 students entering the four-year systems every year. Guided Pathways is key to ensuring that community colleges remain a path to opportunity for California students.