Guided pathways: Setting students up for success

J.D. RottweilerBy J.D. Rottweiler, Ph.D.

Cochise College, like more than 400 other community colleges, was formed during the 1960s. Community colleges were designed with access to higher education as the top priority. They were envisioned as the “people’s college,” providing educational opportunities to everyone. No longer would students need to leave their county, city, or town to access educational opportunities. This access to higher education fueled the “American Dream” of the 20th century.

The word “accessible” is at the heart of Cochise College’s mission. Cochise and many other community colleges have worked diligently to offer a wide variety of programs intended both for a broad audience and to meet workforce needs. We’ve built campuses and centers to make our services readily available, developed numerous programs, degrees, and certificates for diverse learners with diverse goals, adopted flexible scheduling, and, aided by the Internet and technology, created online and hybrid classes for time and location bound students. We’ve worked hard to keep tuition low. As a result of this accessibility, local and national enrollments soared. Today, more than 1,100 community colleges exist, enrolling over 12 million credit and non-credit students annually. In fact, more than half of the nation’s undergraduates spend some of their time enrolled at a community college.

But, like the Bob Dylan tune released in 1964 says, “The times, they are a changin’.”

Today, we need to maintain accessibility while focusing on student success as our top priority. While many students start at a community college, our state and nation needs more of them to achieve their academic goals. We are discovering far too many barriers to student success. Some of these barriers include lack of student preparation, disjointed programming and support services, unclear pathways to completion or transfer, limited guidance on career options, inefficiently structured developmental education, and limited monitoring of academic progress, to name a few.

At a time when federal financial aid is better designed to promote completion than in the past, it’s time to implement a more structured approach, from student intake all the way to graduation. Cochise is now exploring ways to implement key components of the guided pathways approach. This model presents courses in the context of a roadmap for students to reach their goals, with built-in progress monitoring, feedback and support at each step along the way. Finding a balance between student access and student success is the organizational challenge of the 21st century.

Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Columbia University Community College Research Center, presents evidence to support the guided pathways approach in “Redesigning Community Colleges for Student Success.” The paper also outlines a process and timeline for implementation and provides brief examples of institutions that have done so. Some key principles of guided pathways that Cochise is exploring include:

  • Help students with career exploration and goal-setting from the start
  • Require every student to have a clear roadmap to completion, further education and job advancement.
  • Ensure that program learning goals are clearly articulated and are aligned with requirements for success in further education and/or employment.
  • Simplify choices for students, using program maps that students can customize with support from an advisor.
  • Provide predictable course schedules that make it easier for students to organize their lives around school and graduate on time.
  • Redesign the student intake process to help new students who are undecided about a major to choose a field of study as quickly as possible.
  • Integrate the teaching of foundational skills into college-level courses to enable academically unprepared students to successfully enter a program of study as soon as possible.
  • Monitor student progress on their program plans, providing frequent feedback and support as needed.
  • Build bridges into college programs (as opposed to preparing students for college generally) from high schools, adult basic education and other feeders.

Some internal shifts are already helping Cochise renew its focus. We now have a dean of student success. Student recruiting, marketing and enrollment management now work together to provide a well-communicated and -executed enrollment process. In addition, the college will participate in the Complete College America (CCA) 2017 Annual Convening later this year. CCA’s mission is to work with states to significantly increase the number of Americans with quality career certificates and/or college degrees. The convening, themed “Access to the American Dream,” will focus on CCA’s five game-changer strategies: math pathways, corequisite remediation, 15 credits to finish, structured schedules and guided pathways to success.

I can’t recall a time when I’ve been more excited about the direction Cochise College is taking to serve students and the community. The adjustments being made are about improving efficiency and effectiveness and serving students well, and I thank you, as well as our faculty and staff, for your patience and support as we move forward.
J.D. Rottweiler is president of Cochise College. Contact him at