pathways project

Pathways Project to Help Boost Community College Completion

By Dennis Pierce

Has your college applied? Here’s what you need to know about the process and how the project will work.

Community colleges that would like help in building structured pathways to guide their students to completion have until Sept. 21 to apply for participation in a series of rigorous institutes through a multiyear effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Pathways Project is a major new initiative led by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in conjunction with seven partner organizations. Initially, 30 community colleges will be chosen to work with experts in the field to learn the key elements required to implement a fully scaled pathway model at their institutions. But the initiative won’t stop there.

“The idea of this project is not just to provide support to the 30 colleges that we’ll select; it is to create and build the capacity for the entire community college field,” says Kay McClenney, senior advisor to AACC President Walter G. Bumphus and a leading organizer of the Pathways Project. “We have pretty explicit strategies for supporting that expansion.”

Research suggests that structured academic and career pathways with multiple entry and exit points can improve college completion rates, something that community colleges have struggled with. With support from a $5.2 million Gates Foundation grant, AACC’s Pathways Project will help colleges build pathways that can lead to student success.

“For well over a decade now, community colleges have been working hard on student success and college completion, but they’ve reached the limits of how far they can move the needle by doing isolated, discrete interventions for students,” McClenney says. “Even though those discrete interventions may produce results for students, they are rarely scaled to serve all the students who can benefit from them — and they need to be woven inescapably into the student experience. And that’s what pathways will do.”

Application materials are available now on AACC’s website. Applicants must complete a readiness assessment and a project-participation agreement in order to be considered.

“The bar that we’re setting is pretty high,” McClenney says. “It is not intended as a Pathways 101 effort. It’s intended for colleges that are strongly committed to what is institutionwide change and have made progress on student success.”

Each of the six Pathways institutes will be two-and-a-half-day events that focus on different aspects that are critical to designing and implementing pathways for all students. The events will include a mix of plenary sessions, panel discussions, and breakout sessions, run by officials at colleges where this work is underway or by experts from among the project’s partner organizations.

During these breakout sessions, pathways coaches will be working with community college leadership teams to help them develop action plans and timelines for building pathways at their own institutions.

To be considered, colleges must agree to send a five-person leadership team to all six institutes. The first institute will be held Feb. 4-6, 2016, in San Antonio; the final institute is scheduled for Oct. 26-28, 2017, at a location to be determined. Participating colleges will be responsible for covering their own travel expenses.

“We gave colleges the dates for all of the institutes in the project-participation agreement, because we expect the president to participate in all or nearly all of these institutes,” McClenney says.

Project partners will review applications and will conduct one-hour telephone interviews with the finalists’ leadership teams. The 30 colleges chosen to participate will be notified by the end of October.

“Everyone believes that pathways will work, but we need more proof points,” McClenney says. “There are a few colleges that are doing really fine work, but all of them know there’s still work to do. I don’t know of anybody who thinks they’ve finished. It’s a work in progress.”

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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