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Research: Community College Guided Pathway Programs Cost More, but Get Results

How much does it cost to implement guided pathways in community colleges? That was the topic of a study by the Community College Research Center, which examined the pathway work done at six institutions.

As "Funding Guided Pathways: A Guide for Community College Leaders" explained, in contrast to the traditional model in which a "generalist adviser" meets with students in an informal drop-in mode, the guided pathway model links advisers more closely with students in specific programs of study. Those advisers develop deep knowledge of the program requirements and transfer and job opportunities in various fields, and work closely with faculty "to recruit, advise and support" the students in the programs.

All six institutions had costs "above and beyond the status quo," the researchers found. It equaled about 3 percent of annual operating budgets for the "average community college," the researchers noted. But the schools were also able to cover the costs through a mix of resource reallocation and new funding.

The expenses involved in setting up guided pathways encompassed hiring more student advisers, investing in program mapping and IT, laying the groundwork for governance and management, providing expanded professional development, introducing success courses and other costs. At a college with an enrollment of 4,000 and an annual operating budget of $60 million, the average total would be about $7.1 million for implementation costs over four years (the amount of time estimated to implement pathway reforms) and $1.4 million in annual operating costs. Implementation would equate to about $450 per year per student for those first four years, then about $350 per year per student afterwards.

The investments for the six schools under study paid off. College leaders reported that the changes made to implement guided pathways in their institutions have led to improved outcomes for students and provided overall benefits to the colleges as business operations. Four of the colleges reported increased retention and graduation rates and reductions in non-degree-applicable credits. All six saw increases in early credit momentum for first-year students. And every college said it was better positioned to respond to the COVID-19 crisis because of changes made in "programs, practices and systems" as part of the pathways reforms.

As Adelina Silva, the vice chancellor for student success at the Alamo Colleges in Texas, explained in a CCRC article, "The fact that every student had a plan and now we had to pivot to move online, that didn't change their plan or their commitment to their plan." Because every student had an assigned adviser in his or her field of study who was monitoring progress, the article noted, "it was relatively easy for the colleges to reach out to students after the crisis hit." And because students already had plans laying out what courses they needed to take next, "registering them for summer and fall courses was no more difficult than usual" despite COVID challenges.

The guide and related blog post are openly available through the CCRC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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