How to build support for guided pathways
- Successful guided pathways implementation hinges on engagement, not buy-in
- This is large-scale change requiring effort across the campus
- Communicate, make the case for “why,” and repeat
Expert advice on managing change and getting your campus on board
Implementing a guided pathways model is an ambitious undertaking that requires the right preparation, the right tools, and the right representatives from across technical, administrative, academic, and student-services areas. First steps include a readiness assessment, a program analysis to align with jobs with a family-sustaining wage or transfer with junior-level status in the major, and an evaluation of existing technology through auditing and gap analysis.
Another critical early step: building campus engagement.
We spoke with Gretchen Schmidt, executive director of the Pathways Project at the American Association of Community Colleges, on the most effective and inclusive ways to build campus engagement around guided pathways reforms.
Q: It's typical of many big enterprise software deployments that people overlook the change-management aspect. How can institutions build support among key stakeholders?
A: It goes beyond buy-in to really broad and meaningful stakeholder engagement—which is very different from buy-in. Buying in means you made the decision and now you're selling it to your stakeholder groups. Engagement means you're helping people see why your institution is making the decision to embark on a large-scale reform effort, and what voice, role, and responsibilities they have in that change process. Improving the student experience has to be at the center of the case-making for guided pathways implementation.
It takes really strong communication plans that are ongoing and not just one-sided. A website is not a communication plan; it's a distribution mechanism. Communication has to go both ways; there has to be a feedback loop. People have to feel like they're actually involved in the process and that their voices, whether supportive or constructively critical, are being heard.
Q: Which roles and departments drive a guided pathways initiative forward?
A: It has to really be all departments. Everybody's got to know what their roles and responsibilities are and what their opportunities will be to guide the change process.
Student services change significantly as part of this work, since there is a need to significantly increase the amount of advising students are provided. Guided pathways is a more case-management approach to advising, where students have a person who is responsible for their success, who they can go to when they feel like they're going off-track, and who goes to the student when the institution feels the student has gone off-track. This may be a professional advisor, a faculty member, or both at different points during the student’s time at the institution.
It’s also about restructuring academic programs, which is a faculty-driven exercise. This has to be done by the faculty for their program areas. After program mapping has been completed, we are seeing colleges really getting down into the teaching and learning—what happens in the classroom. Faculty are working together within their programs and across programs to align what students learn to what is needed for postsecondary success, both in transfer to universities and in direct employment.
The business office has to be involved because there are often shifts in budgeting and human resources. The AACC project has had a number of colleges that are doing really noteworthy work around hiring, promotion, and tenure processes and that are using professional-development dollars in a much more leveraged way.
It is very important to have a CFO that knows why the institution is doing this work and is rethinking how to manage budgets and other resources to support both implementation and sustainability/improvement.
The board has to be involved. They have to provide a vision and direction for the institution and they need to provide the president support through the implementation process. There is a significant role for the board leadership, whether it be a locally appointed/elected or a state-level board.
So it really does touch all parts of the organization.
This is really big, large-scale institutional change work, and not for the faint of heart. Colleges have had to prioritize based on the work that they've already done. Many have been innovating around student success work for 5 to 10 to 15 years. This is taking what they've done that's worked, bringing it to scale, and leveraging the systems and structures already in place to advance this larger-scale implementation effort.
The most successful institutions viewed this as a scaled implementation from the beginning, and they planned for scale. The leadership believed in it and resourced it. They brought the faculty and staff along with a common message about why they were doing this and what it meant to the student experience. They had forward-thinking presidents who were able to envision how a restructured institution would look, and how they would fund it, and how they would staff it. They had the rare combination of a myopic focus on implementation and patience enough to see the process through—but also a sense of great urgency that the change had to happen.
Q: What other common elements have you seen among institutions that have successfully implemented pathways?
A: Successful colleges have developed a more distributive leadership model. There are faculty leaders and ambassadors and advocates. There are student services leaders and advocates. And there are business-office and traditionally support-function folks who understand why the institution is doing this, and how to build the necessary structures to implement and sustain the changes.
Successful colleges have worked this into every department meeting, every dean meeting, every cabinet meeting. This is ongoing, additive, substantive change, so you can't communicate enough. Every question is legitimate—and a process needs to be developed to address questions and concerns.
We've seen colleges set up war rooms that are transparent, and all their work goes through that war room or is centered around that space, so folks feel like they can come in and out and know what's going on and what comes next.
It is about ongoing engagement. I tell presidents and cabinets over and over again: you have to talk about it, and make the case for it, and talk about the “why” so many times that it makes your head spin. And if you think you've said it enough, then pick five people out of their offices or in the hallway. How many will actually know what you're doing and why, and what it means for them, and what it means for the students that you're serving?
Higher education is slow to change, so when you’re trying to move an entire organization over the course of two to three to five years, it is a much faster change process than most people are used to. The colleges that have done it well, the colleges that have jumped forward in the implementation process, are those whose stakeholders know why they're doing it, what it means for the students, and believe that it will make a difference.
How has your institution built community engagement around guided pathways and other initiatives? Please share your experience below.
Looking for more information on guided pathways? Visit our guided pathways resource page to learn the jargon, gauge your institutional readiness, and more.