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Chaparral 2017-2018: 26.2 Guided Pathways

Guided Pathways (October 2017)

Guided Pathways

Model? Movement? Grant Program?

by Thomas Voden
Math Department


Have you been hearing a lot of talk about Guided Pathways lately? If so, you probably have some questions (I certainly do!). Piggybacking on GCC Academic Senate President Piper Rooney’s piece in Chaparral last month, this article will get into some of the motivations that have given rise to the Guided Pathways (GP) movement, as well as some defining characteristics of the GP model. We will conclude with an introduction to the State’s Guided Pathways Award Program, as well as references for more information and how to get involved.

The WHY. We all agree (translation: most of us agree) that colleges need to do more to support equitable student success. That’s not to say we’re not already doing a lot. We are, and many of the interventions we’ve developed work fabulously—for those students that receive them, that is. Yet somehow student “success”—now defined by many system-wide standard metrics—is not as high as it should be. What’s more troubling is that the students most in need of support services—usually those of lowest socioeconomic status with the least social capital in a college setting—are the least likely to receive them. Students that receive these services, which dramatically improve their chances of graduating, tend to do so because they know how to seek them out in the first place, or because they stumble upon them by chance. The stakes are too high for our students to leave it up to chance, and equity demands a more coherent and comprehensive solution.

These ideas have been percolating across the country for many years. The current Guided Pathways movement can be traced back to large-scale projects like Achieving the Dream (2004), the Developmental Education Initiative (2009), and Completion by Design (2011). Research from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, and others formed the conceptual and motivational underpinnings of this movement, which really gained momentum with the publication of their widely-cited book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.  A major takeaway, especially for California Community Colleges (CCCs) given their legislative mandate of open-access, is that schools evolving with access as the primary guiding light, don’t necessarily grow into schools best structured to support success. Institutions emphasizing access and course enrollments often grow into what CCRC calls “cafeteria colleges”—schools in which students are often left to navigate a complex and diverse system of courses and programs on their own.  GP seeks to illuminate this hidden cafeteria structure and mobilize an “integrated, institution-wide approach to student success based on intentionally designed, clear, coherent and structured educational experiences, informed by available evidence, that guide each student effectively and efficiently from her/his point of entry through to attainment of high-quality postsecondary credentials and careers with value in the labor market.”[1] The following table from a CCRC paper[2] lists examples of key institutional practices distinguishing the prevailing cafeteria college model from the Guided Pathways model.


The WHAT. Authors seeking to distill volumes of research-based insights on this topic to a small set of principles characterizing the Guided Pathways model settled on the language of the “Four Pillars.” Upon first considering these pillars, many people immediately wonder: Don’t we already do these things? In a way, we do. The State is certainly heavily invested in student success. Programs like Student Equity, SSSP, the Basic Skills Initiative, and many other State-funded student success initiatives have gone a long way to ingrain a student success lens on our culture. However, our initiatives, programs, and departments have mostly evolved in a fragmented and disconnected manner, which is natural given that the majority of reform efforts limit their scope to strengthening the elements within the prevailing cafeteria college model without questioning the model itself. Guided Pathways is built on many familiar ideas, and it’s certainly no panacea, but it is very different than other efforts in its scope—it seeks to transform the entire institution in the way students experience it by weaving currently disconnected elements into a cohesive fabric.



The HOW. An institution-wide transformation requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. Think back to our recent accreditation self-study. So many people were directly involved in some way—more than any other initiative or project in recent memory—and the results were pretty spectacular. We dove in like our college lives as we knew them depended on it, and maybe with accreditation they did. Maybe in a way they also do now with this Guided Pathways initiative. Whether reasonable or not, policymakers have widely signaled that gains in equitable student success have not been commensurate with the level of investment. Yet, in the 2017-18 budget the State has allocated $150M for GP implementation in the community colleges. Much of the argument that went into securing this investment was based on articulating a need for an overarching framework that would connect and leverage all other student success investments made by the State. Fortunately, policymakers recognized that a one-size-fits-all approach was not going to work, and the requirements for funding the program strike a good balance in allowing us to define our approach.

GCC has already begun formally using an integrated planning model for how categorical funding programs with a student success focus are administered. Also, a GP steering team has been formed with membership determined based on how each member’s functional role within the college relates to the GP model. These steps are a start, but they certainly aren’t enough. We are approaching a tipping point where the passion of a critical mass of GCC citizens aligns with a shared vision for how we can fundamentally transform this institution to dramatically improve the experiences of all our students. So much wonderful work is done every day on behalf of our students all over the college, but our sheer size and complexity makes much of that work invisible to most of our colleagues. There is no way we can become our future selves as a Guided Pathways college without the knowledge, experience, and participation of all of you. So this is a call to action—learn about GP; join/start discussions and workgroups; lookout on the GCC email listserv for information about GP implementation; find the aspects that excite you the most and find out how you can get involved. Help shape this movement by sharing your energy and passion for helping students.

Here is a brief list of sources of more GP information:

  • Suggested readings from our spring 2017 Guided Pathways discussion series, which was made possible by the Title V Abriendo Caminos grant, can be found at
  • Information about the Chancellor’s Office Guided Pathways funding program can be found at
  • A good place to get a fairly quick overview of the Guided Pathways model is this brief practitioner packet published by the CCRC.
  • The book that accelerated the movement: Bailey, Thomas R., Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins. Redesigning America's community colleges. Harvard University Press, 2015.


[1] This is a working definition of the Guided Pathways approach often used throughout the literature.

[2] Bailey, Thomas R., Shanna Jaggars, and Paul Davis Jenkins. "What we know about guided pathways." (2015).

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