Clear path to graduation

Clark’s new guided pathways simplifies complexities so students reach their goals faster

By Lily Raff McCaulou

When Michelle Pritchard was a little girl, she once tagged along while her grandmother had a routine dental cleaning. Pritchard loved to play dentist at home, so as her grandma leaned back in the exam chair, the young girl climbed into her lap and got to work.

“The hygienist had to ask her to sit me someplace else… because she couldn’t work with my hands also in her mouth,” Pritchard said with a laugh. “I’ve always had a fascination with teeth.”

By the time she finished high school, Pritchard, now 25, couldn’t face the many years of schooling required to become a dentist. She decided to become a dental hygienist, instead. She did what students have been doing for decades — she charted her own path toward that career. She looked up the requirements for various dental hygiene programs. She started taking prerequisites, first at a community college in Oregon, then across the river in Longview, Wash. For a change of scenery, she moved to Spokane and took classes at Eastern Washington University. But the cost of living was too high, so she moved back home.

When Pritchard felt ready to apply to the Dental Hygiene program at Clark College, she met with an admissions counselor. The counselor entered Pritchard’s grades and test scores into a formula that showed she was likely to be accepted into the competitive program. Pritchard retook two courses to secure her chance.

By the time Pritchard was accepted into the program, in the fall of 2016, she was presented with a clear vision of her next two years at Clark: what courses she would need to take each quarter, and how much money it would cost. Clark also provided her with an estimate of how much money she was likely to earn with the new degree, and how long it would take to pay back her student loans.

That clarity was the result of a transformation now underway behind the scenes at Clark College. For decades, Clark has operated under a so-called “cafeteria” model of education — a buffet of courses are offered, and students pick and choose which ones they want to take, periodically checking against a menu of requirements to determine whether they meet the criteria for a particular degree.

Now there’s growing consensus among community college administrators that there’s a better way to conduct business: by spelling out “guided pathways” that lead students to their desired outcomes — in Pritchard’s case, an associate degree in Dental Hygiene.

Tim Cook began at Clark College 20 years ago as a faculty adviser. As the first member of his family to attend college, Cook could relate to the 72 percent of Clark enrollees who are also first-generation college students.

“My job back then was… to help them see what was behind the curtain, like in the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” he said. Some students needed help understanding what a syllabus was. Or they needed someone to walk them through enrolling for the next quarter.

Cook eventually became the college’s vice president in instruction. A few years ago, he began to hear about a new book called “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success,” by researchers Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and David Jenkins. Cook picked up the book, which put a name to the cafeteria model, and suggested the alternative approach of laying out guided pathways. Cook said he got goosebumps while he was reading the introduction.

“It was like, oh my gosh, this describes exactly what the problem is,” Cook said.

Nationwide, only about 35 percent of students who enroll in community college receive a degree within three years, according to the book’s authors. The authors point out that students at community colleges are often those with the fewest skills and resources to navigate a complex educational system. As researchers, they studied the guided pathways model and collected 10 years of data to back it up. The American Association of Community Colleges has recognized the promise of the new model and granted money to a handful of colleges, including Clark, to help facilitate the transformation over five years. Clark is now in the second year of its five-year conversion.

Colleges that have switched to guided pathways have seen their three-year completion rates skyrocket to about 60 percent.

Colleges that have switched to guided pathways have seen their three-year completion rates skyrocket to about 60 percent while achievement gaps between demographics have plummeted. At Georgia State University, a four-year institution that adopted the guided pathways strategy, students of color now graduate at the same rate as white students, and students raised in poverty graduate at the same rate as their affluent classmates.

“Historically, students have been asked to be college ready,” said Margit Brumbaugh, guided pathways liaison at Clark’s office of student affairs. “The approach here is that the college becomes student-ready.”

Brumbaugh said it’s easy for faculty and administrators to lose sight of the student experience. When faculty are asked to go through the process of enrolling or applying for financial aid they are often shocked by how complex these once simple tasks have become.

“Do they have to give their address and tell their story at three different counters? Or can we coordinate and streamline the enrollment process, for example,” said Brumbaugh, giving an example of a lesson learned by asking faculty to take a closer look at students’ experiences.

“We know that a lot of students just give up or aren’t able to do it,” Cook added. “So how many students are we losing who are never able to figure it out?”

Clarifying paths

Clark College has faculty committees tasked with overseeing four major components in order to transition to a guided pathways model. Committee members are plotting out the paths that will be available for students to choose. The four components are: clarifying paths, facilitating entry into the paths, helping students stay on track and monitoring outcomes. They start with desired outcomes, then map backwards, tackling the entire college experience.

Brumbaugh said people hear about the new system and worry that it means eliminating choice.

“It really doesn’t,” she said. “A hallmark of community college is choice, and this is really about providing clarity and guidance… . We want to be able to say with some certainty, ‘this is how long it will take,’ ‘this is how much it will cost you.’”

When she attended college in the early 1990s, Brumbaugh said the career center was “something at the end of your education.”

“One of the things (guided pathways) does fundamentally is have the long-term career exploration conversation upfront,” she said.

The goal is for students to have a route selected by the start of their second year. For academic programs that lead directly to employment — professional and technical programs such as dental hygiene or welding or automotive — the paths are already mapped down to the specific course numbers. For transfer associate degrees, consisting of courses of study that have a wide array of topics, pathways are less clear.

“But when we talk about a program map for the students, it’s not just…a list of required courses for your degree,” Brumbaugh said.  “It’s, ‘are you full time or part time? Here’s the number of courses you should be taking….’ And it’s a way to track and monitor students so that when interventions are needed or a student changes a path, that gets noticed by someone who can reach out and help.”

One of the strengths of the new system, Brumbaugh said, is that guided pathways includes “on-ramps and off-ramps.” If a student’s work situation suddenly requires her to stop going to school halfway through a two-year program, for example, the student could opt for a certificate after one-year and a way to re-enroll later to complete the degree.

Michelle Pritchard is on track to graduate on time in 2018.

Karl Bailey, a chemistry professor and co-chair with Brumbaugh on the guided pathways planning committee, said this flexibility is important. Clark students often are not full time or part time but fluid, depending on the quarter.

“This helps a student… maximize their use of time and money so they don’t graduate with extra credits that don’t apply toward their degree, and having spent some of their financial aid money on it,” Bailey said.

Colleges that have already adopted the guided pathways model have been able to guarantee schedules one or two years in advance, which helps working students coordinate their studies with their jobs.

Brumbaugh said that while Clark offers myriad social services to its students, a student has to know a service is available before he or she can use it.

“It’s really dependent on a student asking for help,” she said.

With the guided pathways framework in place, students will be surveyed at the beginning of their college career to determine which services could help them — assistance with transportation or child care, for example, or supplies from the new food pantry on campus.

The college will likely hire some additional advisers but existing advisers will also be able to monitor student progress more efficiently thanks to clarified pathways and new technology. A computer program will notify a student’s adviser if he or she veers off track. By intervening early with support such as tutoring, students can avoid slipping behind. Bailey said faculty are currently evaluating several computer programs to determine which one will be best for Clark.

Now in her second and final year, Pritchard said she is on track to finish the Dental Hygiene program for about $26,000 — the low end of the cost range that Clark estimated when she enrolled. She works part time at a local dentist’s office that has already committed to hiring her when she completes her sixth and final board exam after graduation. She said she’s confident she’ll earn enough money to pay back her student loans on schedule.

The American Dental Hygienists’ Association and its Washington counterpart are working to expand access to dental care by allowing dental hygienists with master’s degrees to perform more complex tasks such as cutting out tooth decay and filling cavities. If a new law is passed, it would create the dental equivalent of a nurse practitioner. Pritchard said she’d like to do this someday. Her experience at Clark has left her open to an idea she once rejected — more school.


Lily Raff McCaulou is an award-winning journalist and author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner,” which the San Francisco Chronicle called one of the best books of 2012. She lives in Bend, Oregon.

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