• Joanne Jacobs

A guided path to a degree

Young people go to college to search for him/her/xe-self, explore, experiment, discover a passion . . . Or perhaps to retake algebra, stumble through classes that won’t fulfill a major, go into debt and drop out without a credential.

Flexibility leads to failure for most students at unselective two- and four-year colleges, writes Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times. Colleges have decided that structure leads to success. Many are creating “guided pathways” that help students choose a direction and pick the right courses. “Colleges also monitor students’ progress closely and intervene when they go off track,” she writes.

The City University of New York’s Guttman Community College, which opened in 2012, with a guided pathways model, has a three-year graduation rate of 44 percent,  nearly triple the rate of similar colleges nationwide, she writes.

Graduation rates are high at Tennessee’s Colleges of Applied Technology, which use block scheduling and preset schedules to enable students to earn vocational certificates in one or two years. Photo: Ellen Collier/MBJ


Students must enroll full-time: block scheduling enables them to hold part-time jobs. They choose from a limited number of majors and know which courses will get them to a degree.

“It’s actually predictability, not flexibility, that students need,” said Thomas Bailey, director of Columbia’s Community College Research Center and author of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.

In addition to block scheduling, strategies include encouraging students to take 15 credits per semester, advising new students to choose a field of focus or “meta major” and creating “cohorts” of students who take the same courses together.

Florida State raised its graduation rate by identifying core foundational courses that students must take at specific times to graduate in a major.

Also popular is “intrusive advising.” Advisors contact students “if they do poorly on a midterm, or sign up for a course that won’t bring them closer to graduation,” writes Rosenberg.

Georgia State discovered the cost of hiring advisors was more than covered by the rise in retention rates.

Limiting choice boosts completion rates.

At Tennessee’s Colleges of Applied Technology, which offer one- or two-year certificates in skills such as machining, practical nursing or computer information technology, the graduation rate is 82 percent. . . . A student who chooses aircraft mechanics knows she will be in school from 7:30 to 2:30 every day. Her program is set. Regular colleges can’t dictate a student’s courses for their whole time, of course, but many of the reformers do it for a student’s first year, and offer default or recommended schedules for subsequent years.

Tennessee has eliminated remedial prequisites: Too few remedial students ever earned a degree.

Now remedial students take the normal college math or writing course, but alongside it, get extra workshops and tutoring. . . . In the old system, only 12 percent of students who began in remedial math completed a college-level math class in their first year. Now 55 percent do. Writing success doubled.

Georgia is merging community colleges with state universities reports Sophie Quinton for the Huffington Post. Students who don’t get into Georgia State University are invited to enroll in Perimeter College, a former community college that was absorbed by the Atlanta university last year, she writes.

 Now that the two schools are one, students who attend classes on one of the five Perimeter College campuses can easily transition to complete a four-year degree at the university. Georgia State expanded its system for advising and tracking students to Perimeter College and used money saved through the merger to hire more people to counsel them.

Georgia’s first four college-university mergers are raising retention and graduation rates, while saving money.

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