Study Reports Tennessee Community Colleges Ahead In Guided Pathway Reforms

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Tennessee's community colleges are “probably the furthest along in implementing guided pathways reforms” of any community college system in the nation, a new study by Columbia University concludes.

“All 13 Tennessee community colleges are reforming their programs, policies, and processes to better help students choose, enter, navigate, and complete programs in fields of interest to them and to ensure that these programs prepare students to advance in the labor market and pursue further education at the bachelor's level and beyond,” the study by Columbia's Community College Research Center said.

Further, by implementing Tennessee completion practices that reflect the guided pathways model across multiple areas of the student experience simultaneously, the colleges are strengthening support for students throughout their entire college pathway, the Columbia researchers said.

The report on the study's findings, Building Guided Pathways to Community College Student Success: Promising Practices and Early Evidence From Tennessee, was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and released last week.  Housed at Teachers College, Columbia University's prestigious graduate school of education, the Community College Research Center has been the nation's leader in community college research and reform for more than 20 years.

“Tennessee has received much-deserved attention for encouraging more students to enroll in college through its Tennessee Promise and more recent Tennessee Reconnect programs,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at CCRC. “This report examines the less-well-known but equally important efforts the Tennessee community colleges have made to ensure that students who enter college complete their programs in a timely and affordable fashion.” 

The study provides insight into how each of the 13 community colleges are operationalizing the completion practices in their own contexts.

The researchers discuss how far along the colleges are in implementing the completion practices in each of four major areas of guided pathways reforms:

Mapping pathways to student end goals. The colleges are helping students understand their college and career options and plan how they will achieve their goals. The colleges are beginning with the end in mind – starting with students' goals for careers and further education – and backward mapping educational paths to those goals.

Helping students choose and enter a program pathway. To help students make informed program choices and develop completion plans, the colleges are redesigning their new student intake processes to facilitate career and academic exploration and emphasize early educational planning. The colleges are also working to integrate contextualized academic support into program gateway courses so that students can complete those courses in their first year and proceed with more specialized coursework in their field of interest.

Keeping students on path. The colleges are redesigning their advising systems so that student progress monitoring occurs more proactively and systematically and that student supports are strategically deployed to address students' individual needs.

Ensuring that students are learning. The colleges are seeking to ensure that their programs provide students with rich learning experiences that prepare them for their post-community college pursuits.

Dr. Heidi Leming, TBR's vice chancellor for student success, said the new report “affirms the fantastic work that our community colleges have done to implement effective reforms that lead to greater student success, including guiding students to the appropriate courses and providing the support they need to complete gateway courses.”

Dr. Randy Schulte, TBR vice chancellor for academic affairs, said CCRC “has been a valued collaborator with TBR's Completion Agenda for the past eight years, providing consultation, data analytics and on-site professional assistance in support of the great strides taken in student success throughout the College System of Tennessee.”

The guided pathways and other completion initiatives analyzed in the report have been, in large part, developed, piloted and scaled up by the College System. Those initiatives include requiring students who are undecided about a specific major to at least select one of nine broad focus areas – such as Education, Health Professions, Arts, Business, and Applied Technology – that guide them to the correct courses in that academic pathway. Research shows that students who select an appropriate program of study are much more likely to graduate, and choosing a direction of interest at first can be refined toward a more specific program as they advance, without losing credit.

Other completion practices implemented by the community colleges include enrolling students with lower ACT scores into co-requisite courses so that they complete their entry-level math and English courses early in their college careers, and integrating high-impact teaching practices so that students can earn at least nine credit hours within their program of study during the first year.

“By implementing multiple complementary reforms concurrently, the colleges have been able to impact many parts of the student experience and support students throughout their pathway through college. This contrasts with the piecemeal, fragmented way that community colleges often approach reforms intended to improve student outcomes,” the Columbia researchers concluded.

The report includes preliminary evidence that the reforms being implemented by the Tennessee colleges are producing impressive improvements in student momentum during their first year, which research suggests is a strong leading indicator of higher completion rates in the longer term. CCRC will continue its research partnership with TBR and Tennessee community colleges to see if these gains are sustained and do indeed lead to improved completion rates over time and narrowing of attainment gaps among student groups, Mr. Jenkins said. 

In addition to Mr. Jenkins, CCRC researchers Amy E. Brown, John Fink, Hana Lahr and Takeshi Yanagiura authored the report. 

The full report is available here: https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/building-guided-pathways-community-college-student-success.html



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