Pathways Project: 3 Keys to Columbus State’s Success

By Dennis Pierce

How the community colleges chosen to participate in the Pathways Project plan to develop fully scalable pathways to a four-year college or a career.

Editor’s Note: As part of a series of profiles focusing on Pathways Project participants, we’re taking a look at how Columbus State Community College, in Ohio, is approaching the challenge of leading students to a four-year college or a career.

Columbus State Community College’s focus on building clear pathways to a four-year degree began about five years ago, as part of a broader conversation on college affordability and completion — and it has since become a model across the state of Ohio.

President David Harrison explains: “We established a series of partnerships to create what we call Preferred Pathways, which guarantee admission for our graduates to nine different universities in our region. That really started to change the conversation in our community as to how the bachelor’s-degree experience might be changing.”

Campus officials called this the Two Plus Two model, advertising it as a more affordable way for students to complete a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, administrators began reaching out to local K–12 districts, looking to establish opportunities for dual enrollment among high school students.

“This evolved into a broader regional strategy that we call the Central Ohio Compact, with the goal of reaching the Lumina Foundation’s target of having 60 percent of our citizens hold a postsecondary degree by 2025,” Harrison says. “In 2012, we put a strategy document together in partnership with superintendents and university presidents, and we’ve been working that process ever since.”

Three Plus One for College Completion

Columbus State’s work has influenced state policy, as a new Ohio initiative called the College Plus program makes it easier for students to earn college credit while they are still in high school.

Currently, about 2,400 students from more than 100 high schools are taking advantage of dual enrollment at Columbus State through one of two pathways: a 15-credit-hour or a 30-credit-hour model. This has led to what Harrison calls the Three Plus One model of college completion.

“If you look at it from the most affordable path to a bachelor’s degree, a student could earn 30 hours — or their entire freshman year — at the high school level, (which under current Ohio law would be free of charge to the families), earn their associate degree at Columbus State, and then spend a year at a bachelor’s institution through a Three Plus One bachelor’s-degree program. And they could earn a full bachelor’s degree with only one year of tuition at a university,” he says.

How the pathway project helps

With partnerships in place at the K–12 and university level and aligned curricula across institutions, Columbus State is now looking to streamline these pathways even further by developing “meta-majors” and helping incoming students choose an appropriate pathway as quickly as possible — and Harrison says this is one of the things he hopes to get out of Columbus State’s involvement in AACC’s Pathways Project.

“In our marketing materials, we proudly say we have over 200 programs that students can choose from. We need to back away from that. We’ve always touted that as a good thing. In fact, the research would say it’s an impediment to student success,” he says.

“So how do we restructure the learning experience to put students on a broad path based on their interests and abilities while giving them the freedom they need to change their mind — because we know that many students will change their mind — without penalizing them to the point where they’ve got to start over?” That’s what Columbus State will be working on, Harrison says.

Still, Columbus State has made significant progress in building pathways already, thanks to the strong partnerships it has formed at the K–12 and university levels. Forging partnerships like these is critical to the pathways movement. Here are three key lessons from the college’s experience that can help inform the work of others:

Begin at the top. “All of these partnerships began with a president-to-president or president-to-superintendent conversation and a recognition that we had a shared vision,” Harrison says.

Commit to staying at the table. The Preferred Pathways with Columbus State’s university partners were the result of “a lot of hard work and faculty-to-faculty collaboration, designing these curricular opportunities together,” Harrison says. “We knew it was going to be hard, but we made a commitment to stay at the table and get the right people to move it forward.”

He adds, “The level of partnership that we’re working through is transformative. Our measure for success isn’t the number of partners we have; it’s the depth of these partnerships. We feel good about the resilience we’ve built into these relationships.”

Be open to exploring new ideas. “In many cases, the work that you end up doing is different than what you started out doing,” Harrison says.

For instance, one of Columbus State’s early partnerships was with a suburban K–12 district, in which the initial focus was making sure students were ready for college-level math when they graduated. But as the school district started a new construction project, it had a high school that was no longer being used, “which we then moved into and created a regional learning center where students could earn full associate degrees,” Harrison says.

“We were able to ramp up our dual-enrollment work with them at the same time that we were providing education to adults in the community. That all started with a partnership around developmental mathematics; we had no idea that was where it was going to lead,” he says. But because both sides trusted each other and shared a vision for how education could look in the region, “we were able to move that along with just a series of phone calls.”

He concludes, “These aren’t projects. They’re strategic partnerships — and again, the ability to stay at the table is an important key to success. And that’s why you’ve got to have senior leadership not only involved, but taking personal ownership of the work.”

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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