The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University recently published a new practitioner packet that provides guidance to colleges seeking to redesign their new student onboarding practices. Titled “Redesigning Community College Student Onboarding Through Guided Pathways,” the resource is designed to better help students explore, choose, and plan a program of study best suited to their interests and aspirations.
“Guided Pathways is a national reform movement among community colleges to ‘backward redesign’ their programs and support services starting with the end in mind,” explains Davis Jenkins, CCRC’s senior research scholar.
The “end,” Jenkins explains, is good jobs. Community colleges engaged in Guided Pathways reforms are revamping their onboarding process by replacing what CCRC notes “is often a set of disconnected and optional activities” with a coherent series of curricular and co-curricular experiences that enable entering students to:
- Explore program options;
- Network with faculty, students, and industry professionals in fields of interest;
- Take program-specific courses; and
- Create an educational plan that they and their advisers can use to monitor progress toward completion.
“One thing we've noticed is that colleges spend a lot of time on mapping programs, but maps are not useful unless they help students develop a plan and track their progress,” Jenkins says.
“The real and dramatic change with onboarding is in redesigning the front end around these big mind shifts, not just on orienting students to college and helping them schedule their first-term courses, but on orienting them to the programs in fields and helping them by the end of the first term to have a full program plan. Once colleges do that, the plan becomes a contract of sorts and students have to deliver. It really is starting with the end in mind, which has been the approach to Guided Pathways all along.”
Jenkins says that onboarding at community colleges traditionally means onboarding a large number of students as efficiently as possible and providing them with basic information about the college to help them register only for first-term courses and to decide whether or not they are college ready.
“The typical onboarding experience doesn’t help students with what they really want to know, which is about careers, what kind of jobs they can get with the college’s programs, and what fields they might be interested in or good at,” Jenkins notes.
“These questions are foremost on students’ minds—and often determine whether students are motivated to stay. In fairness, community colleges typically have to onboard a lot of students in a short amount of time with very few staff resources. The idea of Guided Pathways is to reorganize everything, starting with onboarding, around fields and to get faculty and experienced students more involved in the process.
“Onboarding isn't just orientation and advising; the most important piece of it is a student taking courses in a program of study to see if the student likes and is good at it, and connecting with people—faculty or more experienced students—within the field to see if they fit in and to start building a community of support that will help them learn about a field and support them through tough classes.”
Jenkins says that, post-COVID, students are going to need help developing a plan. At community colleges, this means developing plans for different types of students, such as a 38-year old waiter who is unemployed, someone who is returning to the university to take courses, dual-enrollment high school students, and many others.
“Community colleges should be organizing their programs into meta-majors and developing post-COVID learning and financial plans with course work, programs, and connections to help each student secure stable employment in the near term and degrees that will enable them to secure good jobs in the longer term,” Jenkins says.
“All of this is in concert with local employers. The colleges that do this well have strong supplier relationships with their employers and they are looking for good jobs. Typically, employer connections are seen as the purview of work force programs and career centers, and, yes, these play an instrumental role, but, ultimately, it has to be up to the faculty and the programs to make these connections.
“Colleges that make these changes—and it starts with onboarding—will be so much better able deal with students post-COVID because they have the mechanisms in place to have these conversations and make these connections.”
The Community College Research Center’s new practitioner packet titled “Redesigning Community College Student Onboarding Through Guided Pathways” is available at https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/redesigning-community-college-onboarding-guided-pathways.html.