But it takes more than curricular alignment to
transform an institution: Leaders must redesign advising
around those pathways. Marketing and intake systems
must be student- and pathway-centered. Maybe developmental education needs to fundamentally shift. And
once students are on the pathways, faculty and staff need
to be able to use technology to keep them from falling off.
Then, they need to make sure pathways are aligned
with workforce needs, so that students graduate with
And it always, always requires leadership.
That is where the Pathways Project comes in, says
McClenney. The 30 colleges in the cohort will do advance
work, speak with pathways mentors, and then come
together for periodic, two-day institutes around one
facet of institutional change—leadership, intake, monitoring, advising, etc.
The hope is that the colleges will bump up against
challenges—and use their mentors and the 29 other
college leaders to push through them. Those solutions,
in turn, become artifacts other colleges can draw
from to solve similar problems, says Johnstone. This
could be the start of long-term, broad change in the
But it is long term: Johnstone predicts that it will take
up to a decade to see change on the scale the country
needs. Take the Georgia State system, he says: It saw
completion rates jump from 30 percent to 60 percent,
especially after year six.
“If you ask the folks at Georgia State what magic hap-
pened in year six to improve outcomes so much, they’ll
tell you, ‘We didn’t have magic. We just got better at what
we were trying,’” he says. “Remember, we’re fundamen-
tally throwing out the old structure here, at scale, for a
population of 12,000 students a year. You have to know
it’s not going to go perfectly, and just bite the bullet.”
To bite the bullet, you have to lay the groundwork
Indian River State College in Florida might be the granddaddy of the pathways movement. Back in 1993, college
President Ed Massey and his team started the long, slow
work of culture change.
“In the past, you gave students the information, and
it was up to the student to get it,” he says. “Today, it’s
everyone’s job to help the student get it and progress.”
Then, eight years ago, they started to implement
pathways. They addressed student overwhelm by
simplifying programmatic choices. And they learned
to ask better questions. Instead of, “What do you want
to be when you grow up?” they ask, “What do you find
interesting?” They found that the first question often
elicited a shrug and an I-don’t-know, which left the
student and staff stymied.
But interests? Students and staff can work with that.
So why is Massey and the rest of his team participating in the Pathways Project? Because there’s only so far
you can go on your own, he says.
“To be able to get out there and have a dialog with 30
different colleges throughout the country—our people
are excited about that,” he says. “It brings fresh and new
ideas and best practices. Internally, you can grind away
at something, but by getting out of the institution, it
opens up new ways to think.”
GO SLOW TO GO FAST
When the opportunity came to apply for the Pathways
Project, Front Range Community College President
Dorsey says it was the obvious next step in a long process—one that’s slower than he’d prefer.
But it turns out that the strength of the process is
in that slowness, he says. For all of the college leaders
involved in implementing pathways, he hopes they all
go slow enough to get it just right.
It’s advice he’s received over and over again from his
mentor—advice he has a hard time taking.
“I’ve ignored it several times, only to come back to
thinking she was right,” he says. “This last process, for
the last six years, is slower than I like to work. But that
was a good move. If we hadn’t done the pre-work, if we
had just started to think about pathways, we wouldn’t
have even applied to the Pathways Project. There’s so
much work you have to do, to have the conversations
in the college that create a shared sense of the problem
and the solution.”
CULTURE CHANGE, ONE HIRE AT A TIME
Before new faculty and staff start at Jackson College in
Michigan, they sit at a table with President Dan Phelan
and his leadership council. They have to answer the
questions: How do you see your role with students? Are
you laissez faire, or do you see your work as service?
“We have turned some folks down right here at this
table,” says Phelan, whose administration created the
approach eight years ago. “As a result, the conversation Paris Junior College President Pamela Anglin conducts a team-building
workshop for student leaders.