Major Reform in California Community Colleges: Thomas R. Bailey and Guided Pathways

August 25th, 2016
Community Colleges
David Wolf, Campaign for College Opportunity Co-founder


By: David Wolf, Campaign for College Opportunity Co-founder

Only major changes can ensure the majority of community college students succeed

Proposals for sweeping reform in America’s community colleges are rare. Such proposals from distinguished sources, carefully reasoned and presented are even more scarce. Thus the recent book from Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and David Jenkins, Redesigning American’s Community Colleges, is attracting a good bit of attention. Bailey and his colleagues, all from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, have attempted to distill the findings from a vast amount of research into a coherent set of reforms; they call the collection of best practices “Guided Pathways.”

The board of directors of the Campaign for College Opportunity had the benefit of spending several hours with Dr. Bailey late last year. Bailey suggests the motivation for publishing Redesigning was to address the slow pace at which community colleges are achieving improvements in the completion of college credentials with strong labor market value, specifically among low-income students and students of color. Bailey et. al argue that to substantially increase student completion, community colleges must engage in fundamental redesign by creating structured academic and career pathways for all students.

Bailey’s chief concern is that once students are enrolled in a community college, too often they fail to complete their college goal (occupational certificate, associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution) because rather than having a structured pathway to a degree or credential, students are faced with a “cafeteria” model where they choose from an abundance of disconnected courses, programs, and support services. Students often have difficulty navigating these choices and end up confused or completely lost about what program to enter, what courses to take, and when to seek help. It’s not surprising then that many drop out and in California, the results are that fewer than half of all community college students reach their goal.

While Guided Pathways is simple enough in concept, it is a very complex package.

The basic idea is to inform students of college requirements early in their k-12 experience, identify their college goal promptly once they arrive on a community college campus and then smooth their way through to that goal using tracking and various support systems.

To do this Bailey recommends that there be close coordination between community colleges and local k-12 systems so that students and families receive accurate information about college attendance. The senior year in high school should be devoted to making sure students are college ready. When this is not the case, remediation programming should be streamlined and students moved into collegiate level study as soon as their skills permit. Upon college entrance, students should promptly be guided to set an appropriate goal, and placed on a clear course-taking path to that goal. The student should then be tracked to make sure that they make expected progress along that path. Where this seems not to be the case, rapid counseling and other support services should be brought to bear.

Some of these recommendations come with technological enhancements including distance education instruction, monitoring of student progress and e-contact with counselors. Revising the curriculum to provide Guided Pathways and many of the other notions that alter working arrangements will require extensive staff development. Since these changes will take extended periods to accomplish, the commitment of leaders must be resolute, and to some extent job descriptions and organizational structures will need revision to focus on student goal completion. There are many other details that accompany Guided Pathways, but this should supply the basics.

Bailey et al, observe that the record shows that making only incremental changes has not proven effective; only installing a whole set of coherent changes can ensure that a significant majority of community college students actually succeed.

So how will California Community Colleges respond to the calls for reform that Guided Pathways represents? It is unreasonable to expect the complex of 113 colleges to jump into full Guided Pathways implementation immediately. But we should expect some programmed approach to significant reform of the colleges. We can all agree students deserve a clear path toward their intended college credential with built in structures and supports to get there.

Three California Community Colleges – Bakersfield College, Irvine Valley College, and Mt. San Antonio College -have stepped up to the challenge and have begun design and implementation of changes along the lines of Guided Pathways and should be monitored closely.

We are in an exciting period where the potential for major improvements in the performance of California Community Colleges is on the horizon. We intend to produce information, and periodic blogs, as we monitor and engage in progress towards these improvements.