How Guided Pathways Can Reduce a Student’s Time and Cost to Completion

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Students enter community colleges at every level of preparedness. 

Consequently, some degree-seekers have a long way to go before they reach their goal. Those juggling jobs and families along with school often drop out along the way.

What’s the solution to the completion problem at community colleges?

Dr. Ann Buchele, Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs at Linn-Benton Community College, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss the big institution-wide lift and ROI return on establishing guided pathways and support for your students.

The concept & strategy of guided pathways

“Guided pathways” requires 2 factors: a guide and a path. 

It really is that simple. 

And that complicated. 

#1 Guide — someone who helps students navigate their program, career decisions, course choices, and pathway completion

#2 Pathway  — the high-level map from A to Z that keeps students from meandering on the way to completion

As a concept, guided pathways is about creating cultural change so we meet students where they are. 

You know the age-old question: Are students college-ready? Guided pathways flips that question and asks: Are colleges student-ready?

At Linn-Benton, Ann and her team are ready.

“We have a program map for all of our 82 certificate and degree programs,” Ann told us. “A student can pull up that map to the program they’re interested in, and it tells them exactly what they need to take every term.”

As for electives, there’s a highly curated dropdown menu that shows the different choices. These maps also acknowledge that many community college students come in at a developmental education level. They can see if they have a lower math and writing score, and if so, their map recalculates.

Guided pathways work requires a fundamental culture change

Guided pathways aren’t a one-size-fits-all approach to community college education. 

You have to change your culture to adopt this concept. 

At Linn-Benton, it all started with a sense of urgency around the college’s poor retention and completion rates. Looking at the hard data — 11% of students completed their goal in 3 years — brought all hands on deck.

The school formed a core team of 20 people from across the campus to figure out what to do and then champion the idea. 

“From that core team, we formed different work groups,” Ann explained to us. “The core team was our approval group, and then we had subgroups.”

One subgroup took on program mapping.

  • What should our program maps be?
  • What should they look like? 
  • How should we have our departments populate those maps? 

Another group worked on advising redesign. They started with an audit of their system, figured out where students were getting stuck, and did a reboot.

Still another group called themselves, “the early alerts subgroup.” These folks worked on how the school could find students who were struggling academically and do so sooner. That group created a one-stop shop where students could go with any sort of issue. 

Then there was the scheduling subgroup, the subgroup that streamlined the admissions process, and the one that took a look at the co-requisites system (very important!).

As the school has embraced guided pathways, though, these subgroups have gradually disappeared. Their work is now embedded into the everyday activities of the school. 

“This work is long-term,” Ann said. “This isn’t a quick fix.”

Is the guided pathways model worth the trouble?


It’s about students. 

Working on completion rates, retention rates, and helping students gain their goals with less debt and fewer credits is the work that we all have to do. 

“To us,” Ann said, “that’s the ROI.”

The numbers are working, too. After a disappointing start, the completion percentage at Linn-Benton has ramped up about 5%. 

Funding limitations have been a problem, but nothing insurmountable. Ann and her team just decided to reallocate time and resources to support this work. 

Sometimes, that meant deciding what they would stop doing. Sometimes, it meant working harder or smarter. Certainly, the college had to stop doing crazy admission things that were getting in the students’ way.

Ann mentioned one key point we wanted to highlight: Her college hires differently now, especially with faculty. The school makes sure to bring on new faculty members who don’t just think about teaching their discipline but also about supporting students along their entire journey. 

Next steps to embracing guided pathways

Create urgency.

Look at your data and you will probably find that your students aren’t completing as much as you think they would. Be transparent with that data because it’s how you get everyone on board and championing this thing. 

Develop an evaluation plan. 

You can’t do everything, so don’t continue to do something that doesn’t work. If you have an evaluation plan, you can look at it regularly to help figure out what’s making the biggest impact.

Have the strength to stop doing something if it’s not making an impact. (But make sure you give the idea time to come to fruition.) 

Have fun and celebrate the little things. 

One little percentage point? One piece of software that worked? One great student story? One big party!

It’s all about the students meeting their goals. 

And having fun.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Ann Buchele of Linn-Benton Community College. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.