Charting a path to a degree is often a challenge for community college students. They face bewildering
course catalogs and huge caseloads
for academic advisers but typically lack relatives or friends who have attended college and can help them navigate the system.
As a result, students on average rack up 82 credits
when earning an associate degree—22 more than they should need.
The guided pathways
approach to community college reform seeks to create a clear, structured path for students to earn a credential. California in particular jumped on this concept, spending $150 million in 2018 on its guided pathways framework
Community colleges could be described as a smorgasbord of classes before guided pathways,
says Craig Hayward
, dean of institutional effectiveness at Bakersfield College, which is located in California. “The idea was basically, ‘Take some of this, take some of that … sample things and see what you like. Eventually you will find your groove,’” he says.
Guided pathways, however, are more like a prix fixe menu where the student picks a program of study and sets their goals, says Hayward. The college then hands them a map with the best way to get there.
To develop the map, Bakersfield College for the past three years has worked with the California community college system to create its Program Pathways Mapper
, a customized visual representation of the course catalog.
- Pick a pathway, then see the Certificates and Degrees Map, which lists the various degrees, certificates, and awards.
- Below the map is the Career Explorer, which presents potential careers with descriptions, job growth predictions, and the average expected salary range.
- Students also get a brief description of the credential program and a term-by-term map for choosing the correct courses to progress toward completion.
“It’s a very powerful tool for helping students visualize and realize their future,” says Hayward.
Program mapping is a faculty-driven process. Prior to the tool’s creation, Hayward says, faculty members, counselors, and support staff would puzzle out a term-by-term sequence on paper (or in Excel or Word). These maps are less flexible, however, and lack nuance about transfer destinations. They also are hard to publicize and lack the mapper’s data capabilities.
The project has expanded
. Almost 50 other community colleges in the state now are on the platform,
as are several campuses of the California State University and University of California systems. For example, Cal State Bakersfield, with funding from College Futures, has created 2+2 transfer program maps for students who transfer from Bakersfield College.
The colleges have been working with Concentric Sky on the program mapper. The software development firm has played a prominent role in the movement
to create open digital badges.
“The single most popular response we consistently get when we show the program mapper to educators is, ‘I wish we had this when I was in school,’”
says Wayne Skipper
, founder and CEO of the Oregon-based Concentric Sky.
Career Exploration: The tool uses federal data to give students information about average salaries and job growth. All the numbers come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“This is a primary source for most companies that sell labor market data,” says Skipper. “Many states also openly publish their own data.”
Concentric Sky is working on other initiatives that feature open data and information about connections between education and jobs, including work with the Open Skills Network
and program mapping with Western Governors University. Skipper says,
“We’re involved in a number of projects that seek to move beyond the traditional monetization-driven models that permeate ed tech.”
After hearing positive reviews about the new tool from student focus groups, Bakersfield gave the mapper more prominent billing. The maps now are featured in the course catalog and used by outreach staff and counselors.
Ideally, Hayward says, pathway maps will be freely available and searchable online for students, beginning in high school and all the way through their university experience. Early returns show that the mapper can boost equity by eliminating gaps in understanding how to manage college for first-generation and underrepresented students.
The Kicker: “The endgame for the program mapper is a world where students don’t lose a single credit as part of the transfer process because they are following pathways that have been validated and agreed upon by faculty at the college and the university ahead of time,” Hayward says.