Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Target-Rich Environment

I’ve been struggling with the details of a guided pathways concept lately for a really basic reason that I’m guessing many others struggle with, too.  I’m hoping that someone has found a reasonably smart way to handle it.

Maricopa Community College has been able to implement guided pathways relatively cleanly, in part because the overwhelming majority of its students who go on for bachelor’s degrees go to the same place (Arizona State).  With a single target at which to aim, it’s easy to know where the pathways should go.  I don’t mean to minimize the work involved in constructing the pathways, or the usefulness of the achievement, but it’s easier to hit one target than to hit several.

My own college has the mixed blessing of being in a relatively target-rich environment.  On the upside, that means we have more options to offer students.  It also tends to correlate with more highly educated populations, as it does here.  But a target-rich setting has challenges of its own.  The most basic one, of course, is competition for students.  As the number of 18 year olds in the area declines, that competition is getting fiercer.  For purposes of guided pathways, though, the issue is complexity.  A pathway implies a destination, and the entire point of the guided pathways approach is clarity.  WIth multiple destinations that disagree with each other on admissions and transfer requirements, it’s much harder to achieve that simplicity.

Some states handle the issue by having a relatively prescriptive (or dictatorial, if you prefer) state system.  I’m told that Florida does that, for example.  The advantage of a state system is that it can mandate consistency across campuses.  If every public college and university in the state defines the same majors by the same courses -- even using the same course numbers -- then you can build pathways without worrying overly much about whether students are transferring more to Northern Campus or Eastern Campus.  

But we don’t have that.  Each public college here sets its own course numbers, course descriptions, and definitions of majors.  (To be fair, there is some statewide coordination of general education requirements, which helps.)  Rutgers alone has several campuses that operate separately from each other, and that define the same degree differently.  And that’s before counting the private colleges, which are more common in the Northeast than in much of the country, and which can each set their own policies.  

Two community colleges in New Jersey solved the dilemma by merging with a single public university.  One of them, Rowan at Burlington, has gone so far as to ban other four-year colleges from coming to campus to recruit.  The merits of that strategy are debatable, and that debate is for another day.  But for a college like mine that wants to give its students more options for transfer, the question stands.

One option is to build a separate pathway for each destination school.  That’s de facto what we’ve done over the years.  University A requires U.S. History for its Psych program, but College B requires World History.  One has a foreign language requirement, others don’t.  Addressing each destination school separately is labor-intensive and complicated, and it tends to defeat the simplicity that’s the selling point of guided pathways.  

Another is to default to the most rigorous destination school.  That’s better, to the degree that it simplifies things and ensures that students will be well-prepared.  But sometimes the differences aren’t really a matter of rigor; they’re just differences.  And forcing our own students to meet higher standards than their destination schools do can wind up being exclusionary, often along the usual demographic lines.  That defeats our mission.

We could try to bend the destination schools to fit us, but there are obvious political limits to that.  Any system that involves giving up autonomy tends to fall prey to the “you first” problem.  Massachusetts convened some statewide meetings across sectors, calling together faculty by discipline to harmonize curricula that way.  It was a bold and clever step; we haven’t done that here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to the dilemma of trying to build simple and clear guided pathways in a decentralized, target-rich environment?