Sunday, April 23, 2017

AACC Days One and Two: It’s All About Pathways

Conference themes are usually a bit contrived, and most of the time, you couldn’t possibly pick out the theme of a conference from within it if you didn’t already know.  

This time, there’s a very clear theme on the ground.  It’s all about pathways.  

The “guided pathways” movement is several years old, but this seems to be the year that it’s hitting critical mass.  I’ve heard it described as an “elixir,” a “buzzword,” and “the new normal.”  And like any newish idea, it’s susceptible to a great many definitions.  

In its most basic conceptual form, the idea behind guided pathways is that students get lost when presented with too many options.  Colleges that provide clearly marked default options, and that make it easy for students to follow them, will see greater student success.  That starts with basic curriculum mapping, but goes beyond that to look at the various support systems that help students sign up and move through.  The more sophisticated versions even involve disclosing labor market outcomes for the various pathways before students choose, so they can factor wage and employment data into their decisions.

The conference opened with an unusually somber plenary.  It started happily enough, with several veteran community college folk receiving awards and Jill BIden receiving a special one.  She won the “line of the day” for her slow, deadpan delivery of the following: “It was an honor to work for such a kind, intelligent, and insightful president.”  The pause afterwards was a masterpiece of comic timing.  But I was struck that when Kay McClenney won an award for her work on diversity, her speech was unusually concerned, and fell somewhere between a warning and a lament.  Wes Moore followed with the keynote, but his delivery, too, was much more serious and scared than I’ve seen him give in the past.  For all of the encouragement of continued good work, and the acknowledgement of the social justice work that community colleges do, there was a distinct undertone of fear that much of it may be undone in the next few years.

Sunday morning’s major panel was all about pathways, as were many, many others.  Tim Renick, from Georgia State University, presented findings on their version of pathways.  They’ve eliminated achievement gaps by race and ethnicity, and apparently now award more bachelor’s degrees to African-American students than any other university in the country, including HBCU’s.  That’s remarkable, especially in the context of the funding cuts they’ve sustained.  He had some great stats -- apparently, the average student used to change majors 2 ½ times before graduating -- but the major message was an almost defiant sense of possibility.   We needed that.

A subsequent concurrent panel, featuring Nikki Edgecombe from the CCRC and my Aspen classmate Kris Westover discussed involving adjunct faculty in pathways work.  It was a great topic, and I was disappointed that it didn’t draw a larger crowd.  As Edgecombe pointed out, nationally, the majority of community college classes is taught by adjunct faculty.  If they’re disconnected from pathways work, it’s unlikely to get very far.  Some of the methods that colleges have used were almost embarrassing in their simplicity; Westover mentioned using online video tutorials for basic “how-to’s” like how to enter grades into the reporting system, or how to fill out attendance certification rosters.  I’m taking that one back.

As always at these conferences, much of the action comes during the interstitial conversations.  Given that it’s in New Orleans, some of it has to do with music and food.  (There are rumors afoot of a local place that puts pralines in its beignets.  This calls for some investigative journalism.)  But the rest is all about pathways.  

I’ve been coming to AACC for about ten years now, but I don’t recall it ever having such a clear theme.  The tension between clear pride and celebration in the successes of interventions over the last several years on the one hand, and a palpable fear of the fallout of a political shift on the other, gives it an edge it hasn’t had in the past.

If only there were a way to blow off steam in New Orleans...