Pathways Project: Alamo Colleges’ Two-Pronged Approach to Student Success
By Dennis Pierce
December 11, 2015
How community colleges chosen to participate in the Pathways Project plan to develop fully scalable pathways to a four-year college or career.
Editor’s Note: In the first of a series of profiles focusing on Pathways Project participants, we take a look at how the Alamo Colleges are approaching the challenge of leading students to a four-year college or career.
The Alamo Colleges include five individually accredited two-year colleges serving about 100,000 students in eight central and south Texas counties. The colleges’ approach to building pathways for student success involves two major initiatives: Alamo Advise, which has transformed student advising; and Alamo Institutes, which create clear academic pathways for six areas of focus. We talked to Chancellor Bruce Leslie about the system’s work and achievements.
What led you to begin this work?
We have a very eclectic range of programs. But with that [comes] all the confusion that students face in trying to figure out, “Where do I go from here to get there? What do I want to do?”
Frankly, we have not made it very easy for students, because the model has been to come in and take lots of courses, explore and find yourself, and then go on to a university. But, as we know, that has actually worked against our students, particularly urban students who are first-generation college students, who don’t have the financial resources to spend a lot of time paying for courses that don’t transfer or lead to a degree.
What have you achieved so far?
We began about four years ago by homing in on advising. We had a traditional counseling model, where we had nine-month faculty counselors who were basically in their offices, waiting for students to come see them. We decided that model was not working for us and for our students.
We’ve totally revamped our advising model. We call it Alamo Advise. It’s a case-based program in which every student is assigned an adviser. We see it as part of the learning process — not as a student service, but as an educational service.
We have milestones that students must achieve. By the 15th credit hour, students must declare their career goal and academic discipline. By the 30th hour, students must declare their university of choice — where they want to transfer. At that point, we send the universities the names of those students, and the universities are expected to reach back to students, so we can make sure that students are taking the courses they need to transfer seamlessly into that program.
We’re also developing a faculty-mentoring program, so our faculty can be more deliberate and helpful to students. We’re surrounding each and every student with several people to ensure they reach their goals.
We also began working with our university partners and our high school partners to build academic pathways from high school through the Alamo Colleges and on to a four-year university. We have created what we call Alamo Institutes, which outline the entire student experience for six areas of study: Arts and Communications, Manufacturing and Logistics, Business and Entrepreneurship, Health and Biosciences, Public Service and STEM.
We no longer talk about our goal as transferring students to a university; our goal is now to ensure they achieve their baccalaureate. Together, Alamo Advise and Alamo Institutes allow us to ensure that students are properly recruited, oriented, advised and enrolled.
What do you hope to get out of the Pathways Project?
Our program is starting to achieve greater sophistication, particularly our advising model, which we’ve rolled out this year and already are getting wonderful feedback from students about how the advisers are really helping them. We’re mapping all of the high school programs to our six Alamo Institutes, and we’re also mapping the programs in those six Alamo Institutes to the university majors and degrees.
We’ve made a lot of progress, and we’re looking forward to this new AACC program, both to help our colleagues who have not come as far and to learn from others and reach new levels of sophistication.
What advice would you give colleagues who are just starting this work?
You’ve got to be very focused and very disciplined to develop the model and then to execute it. These models are very complex, and the work requires a much more deliberate focus.
Also, it’s very challenging to work with universities. We’ve always worked in silos before, and they tend to believe that it’s their curriculum that we need to align with, as opposed to them aligning with ours. Trying to get clarity with regard to the courses they’ll accept from us in each of the majors seems simple enough, but it’s much more complex. It’s a time-consuming effort, particularly in an environment where you have several partner universities.
And of course you must have the school districts involved as well, because the pathway really needs to start by the ninth grade.
Finally, make sure you include industry representatives in this effort. We had one industry partner who said, “A pathway is not a pathway unless it leads to employment.” That’s not the way we have typically talked in higher education, but it’s what is now expected of us by our communities and our elected officials.