Step #1: Define the Problem

This is an encore post from April 2015.

As I have worked with local leaders of pathways projects, I often ask a somewhat obvious question: “What problem are we trying to solve with the Pathways Framework?”

Even among a small group, I will often get a wide variety of answers to that question.  It’s actually a little surprising how easy it is to jump into an initiative without building a consensus around the problem we’re trying to address.   This can make it hard to measure long-term success, and can also undermine focus if everyone has their own definition of the problem.

Those of us involved with the Pathways work intuitively know that the University-for-All approach hasn’t served many youth and adults well.  But we need to get very specific, and we need to describe the problem in human terms, not just policy wonk terms.

So, what’s the problem?  For different stakeholders, there are different problems – different felt needs.  They’re all legitimate and more than likely, a well-developed Pathways System will help ameliorate the problem.  And there may be more than one problem that we need to identify.  But let’s get specific.

Here are some examples:

Schools in high-poverty areas:  Too many students are dropping out, not finishing high school, and are poorly prepared.

Schools in Affluent areas:  Our students are graduating and going on to college, but about 40% of them don’t finish, and many change majors several times, and wrack up enormous college costs, either for mom and dad or through student loan debt.

Employers:  We can’t grow and hire more workers.  Why?  Because we can’t find qualified workers in specific occupations.  Or, we can find potential workers, but many of them lack the generally accepted employability skills and attitudes we expect to see.

So, have the discussion among your leadership team.  “What’s the core problem?”  And once you identify the felt needs – the key problems – work on them so you can get them written in a succinct statement or two.  Then everyone on your pathways leadership team can begin using the same consistent language to describe the core problem(s) that your initiative is designed to address.

Yes, this is a simple idea, but it really makes a difference!  Defining the problem(s) is a critical step toward your success in leading any sort of pathways or related work.

Hans Meeder is 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 plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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