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Guided Pathways and general education reform

By Christine Harrington

Reforms to general education curriculum can help students on the path to their educational and career goals faster.

At the heart of Guided Pathways reform is re-defining pathways for students. Not surprisingly, community colleges have responded to this call for action by engaging in reform efforts that have initially focused on getting students on a path more quickly and re-imagining developmental education. Research has shown that many students who start in developmental coursework never make it to credit-bearing courses. Innovative practices in this space have been gaining national attention and colleges have been making swift and significant changes in how they assist students with developing the college readiness skills in a timelier manner.

Although these initiatives are clearly important, community colleges also need to tackle the college-level curriculum in order to improve student success outcomes. The success rates in general education courses leave much to be desired. This is particularly problematic because general education can often comprise 75 percent or more of an entire transfer program. Community college faculty and administrators need to ask themselves: What is the value and purpose of general education courses? What foundational skills and knowledge do all students need regardless of their selected career path?

The world is forever changing, and the general education component of the curriculum has the potential to help students develop essential skills and knowledge that will serve them well personally and professionally no matter their career path. Employers in varied fields have consistently identified essential skills they desire in employees. General education coursework can align with NACE competencies to help students develop these skills. It is time for institutions that want to implement Guided Pathways to take a fresh look at general education.

Starting on the right foot

Because of the wide array of general education choices, it is likely that students will have different educational experiences. In many cases, the only shared experience for many community college graduates may be the number of courses or credits completed. This choice-based approach to general education can make it quite challenging for colleges to ensure that students are graduating with a core set of skills and a shared knowledge. From the student perspective, the general education curriculum simply looks like a long, confusing list of boxes that need to be checked off in order to get to the finish line. The value of general education courses is not explicitly shared with or understood by students.

One course that typically has general education status at four-year colleges and universities but is less likely to have this designation at community colleges is the first-year seminar. Given the Guided Pathways call to help students choose and stay on a path, the first-year seminar course, if designed well, should be a required course. A Guided Pathways-informed first-year seminar assists students with determining a career path and helps them develop the essential general education skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork and communication.

External or legislative actions can serve as a motivator for these important conversations. In Connecticut, consolidation efforts have led to state-wide conversations and a proposal currently under consideration to include the first-year seminar in the general education core. Several states, such as New Jersey, are faced with legislation that requires a reduction in the total number of credits require for graduation. Unfortunately, many colleges take a reductionist approach to this task, identifying a course or courses that can be eliminated as a curriculum requirement. The better approach would be to use this as an opportunity to ask the following questions: (1) What knowledge and skills do our graduates in each program need? and (2) Which courses should be required to ensure that these program outcomes are achieved? During these conversations, colleges can also consider reducing the number of general education requirements so that students can begin taking courses in their chosen career path earlier. This would also create room in the curriculum for other key learning experiences such as internships or other experiential learning opportunities.

These are not easy conversations to have; change is difficult. However, change is necessary in order to implement Guided Pathways and increase student success outcomes. It is time for community colleges to evaluate whether their current approach to general education is leading to the desired outcomes and to engage in reform efforts as needed.

For Pathways resources, check out AACC’s Pathways Project website.

Christine Harrington

is an associate professor in the department of educational leadership and a program co-coordinator at New Jersey City University.

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