Guided Pathways and Work-Based Learning

One of the unfortunate facts of postsecondary education is that not everyone who starts with a school will walk out with a degree. In fact, according to the US Department of Education, only 60 percent of students starting at a four-year college will walk out with a degree after six years (only 41 percent after four!). The numbers are even more jarring at the two-year college level. Just 30 percent of students starting at a community college will come away with an Associates degree after three years.

Recognizing this, two-year college administrators banded together to reimagine the community college experience, and developed the “Guided Pathways” model in recent years. This model has four main pillars, as detailed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities:

  • Mapping pathways to student end goals. In the guided pathways model, colleges create clear maps for every program they offer. They make these maps easily accessible on their websites so students will understand what courses are necessary to complete a program or qualify for transfer, how long completion will take, and what opportunities for employment or further education they will have at the end of the program.
  • Helping students choose and enter a program pathway. Currently, many students choose programs and courses largely on their own. In the guided pathways model, colleges help new students explore programs, consider possible careers, and develop complete academic plans. Undecided students narrow their options by choosing from clusters of majors—such as business, social sciences or health—that align with their interests. Developmental education reforms enable students to enroll more quickly in college-level courses, including courses in their field that will keep them engaged in college.
  • Keeping students on a path. Both students and advisors can see students’ plans mapped out through graduation and keep track of students’ progress. If students get off track or have trouble in a course, alert systems bring these issues to advisors’ attention so they can steer students toward academic or other supports. Colleges also try to remove institutional barriers such as inconvenient schedules or cancelled classes.
  • Ensuring that students are learning. Programs are designed around a coherent set of learning outcomes, rather than as a collection of courses. Program learning outcomes align with requirements for success in further education and employment in a related field. Colleges track student learning outcomes and work to improve teaching.

Hundreds of colleges have adopted the Guided Pathways model. Groups like the Center for Community College Student Engagement are conducting research to identify improvements and areas that need additional support. In its most recent survey, the Center found work-based learning to be a major area needing attention:

The final pillar covered in the report looks at ensuring students are learning. More than half of returning students said their adviser had required them to participate in study groups, and 67 percent said they had worked with classmates on assignments outside class. Nearly 60 percent said they had talked with their instructors about readings or ideas outside class, as well. However, only 21 percent of students said they had participated in experiential learning, like an internship or co-op experience. This should be a key focus for the future, said Jenkins.

“Generally, to get a good job, you need some kind of experience,” Jenkins said. “It’s probably the least developed area of guided pathways, but a key next frontier.”

The researchers are correct, of course! Work-based learning is a critically important tool in terms of student engagement and preparation. It’s great to see the call for more attention on this topic.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams. We also help plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.