What you need to know about killer courses, meta-majors, and more

Insights Article - A quick guide to guided pathways

Key takeaways 

  • A research-based approach that simplifies and clarifies choices  
  • Features include goal-setting, support, monitoring 
  • As with any innovative approach, new terms can be confusing

As interest in evidence-based higher ed reform grows, the guided pathways approach in particular is attracting widespread attention.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, national six-year graduation rates for four-year degree-granting institutions sit around 59%, while three-year completion rates at two-year degree-granting institutions hover around 29%. Eager to improve these outcomes, institutions are looking to the student-centric practices of guided pathways to help their students reach their goals.

Guided pathways

This research-based approach clarifies and simplifies choices for students. Courses are grouped together to form clear roadmaps through college and toward careers—whether students enter those careers directly after graduation or transfer to four-year institutions for further study. Students get continuous, targeted advising that helps them choose a path, stay on that path, build the skills and knowledge they need, and graduate.

From strategic programme design and enhanced advising to progress-tracking tools and early-alert systems, the guided pathways approach seeks to improve outcomes by addressing key student needs. While the origins of guided pathways lie in community college reform, colleges and universities of all types and sizes have begun considering a pathways approach.

Whether you’re in the early stages of exploring guided pathways or just curious to learn what the reforms are all about, you’ll probably encounter some pathways-specific terms and concepts. Here’s a quick guide to the jargon:

Key features of a guided pathways model

  • Structure: Faculty members in a given pathway will collaborate to define the skills, concepts, and critical thinking skills students should build through the pathway, and map out how students will develop those outcomes in their courses.
  • Coherence: Faculty and staff will collaborate to map course sequences that lead to clearly defined outcomes.
  • Focused goal-setting and degree planning: Targeted early-advising efforts will help students identify their goals before they begin coursework and choose a major (or “meta-major”) that corresponds with their interests.
  • Support: New-student orientation, remedial instruction, and tutoring are enhanced, and students take courses that offer ongoing guidance and information about college life.
  • Monitoring: Through an increased use of technology in advising, students will receive timely feedback on their progress, and instructors and counselors will be notified when red flags occur (for example, a failing grade or a dropped course).

Terms to know

  • “Killer” courses: Large, entry-level courses, required for progress within the major, that have high rates of DFWI (D/failure/withdrawal/incomplete) and “kill” students’ degree progress, motivation, financial aid eligibility, and G.P.A.
  • Gateway course redesign: Reform efforts aimed at reducing the number and negative impact of “killer courses” through active learning techniques, greater student engagement, defined learning outcomes, and individual faculty/departmental goals (lower DFWI rates, higher enrolments, etc.)
  • Meta-majors: Clusters of academic programmes, grouped together by common or related courses or occupations, that help students focus their interests early and enrol in relevant courses aligned with a coherent degree programme.
  • Onboarding: The process of helping students move from application to first-day attendance by simplifying admissions, financial aid, orientation, and registration.
  • Structured programmes: Streamlined programmes of study featuring clear choices, limited electives, and targeted coursework relevant to a career roadmap or credentials required for transfer.
  • Stackable credentials: Certificate or degree programmes that offer off-ramps and on-ramps for students who need to move between higher education and the workforce. In stackable credentials pathways, students’ earned credits count toward the next certificate or degree.

Next steps

Clearly, implementing a guided pathways model requires a lot of preparation. You’ll need the right team, tools, and preparation. Is your institution ready?

Take this readiness assessment questionnaire to learn more about what it takes to achieve the first key goals on the road to guided pathways.

To learn more about this student-centric approach, visit our guided pathways resources page.

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