Improving Self-Advisement: The Development of Guided Pathway Factsheets

This is part two of a two-part series for Guided Pathway Factsheets, a free and effective tool for community college leaders to quickly and efficiently hit the ground running with guided pathways.  To read part one, click here.

Both prospective and matriculated students frequently encounter problems with finding and comprehending information needed to understand program selection and completion.  For example, a 2013 survey conducted by and within three community colleges in Orange County, CA, showed that an alarming 71.1% of respondent students had difficulties finding basic information about degree and certificate programs their college offered.  Surveys like this tend to be one-sided:  while access to currently matriculated students provides researchers the opportunity to query the opinions of those already enrolled, there does not yet exist a formalized method of polling prospective students who have definitely decided not to matriculate.

However, if currently matriculated students are reporting frustrations with the admissions and self-advisement process, it may go without saying that a greater number of formerly prospective students experienced similar obstructions to enrollment and just decided to go somewhere else — or worse, put off college until they had the energy to tackle the confusing process all over again.

Lack of Structure Leads to Lack of Commitment

Past research has shown that community college students end up with lower academic outcomes when measured by both goal and career attainment (Alba & Lavin, 1981; Anderson, 1981; Karabel, 1972), and in the case of follow-on baccalaureate attainment, this disparity as a function of the educational environment has persisted over time (Alfonso, 2006; Dougherty, 1992; Wang, 2009).  Recent research has pointed to a lack of structure and an over-saturation of options for first-time community college students as being a key indicator of negative persistence across demographics (Grubb, 2006; Scott-Clayton, 2011).  This is troublesome for leaders in community college admissions and academic advisement, given that individuals tend to avoid decision-making or regret choices they do end up making when faced with a myriad of options (Beshears, Choi, Laibson, & Madrian, 2008; Botti & Iyengar, 2006).  The formalization of academic program prerequisites, requirements, and outcomes is necessary in order to avoid discouraging first-time enrollees from opting out of individual colleges – or worse, out of college entirely.

In studies involving co-admission with a 4-year university, successful educational outcomes were more likely associated with the structure of the program than the academic preparation received from community college (Wang & Wickersham, 2014).  As such, structuring academic program requirements and outlining precisely what steps a student must take before earning their desired educational outcome becomes even more important when juxtaposed with the very real problem of “directionless students” (Jaggars & Fletcher, 2014) who often find out that they have wasted time and money on classes that are not applicable to their desired educational outcome (Nodine, Jaeger, Venezia, & Bracco, 2012; Rosenbaum, Deil-Amen, & Person, 2006).  This means that colleges should become heavily invested in the process of having students learn about the majors they are most likely to excel in and then supporting those students in declaring a major and following a prescribed course sequence.

Contemporary focuses have looked to community college websites as a vital front-line tool to help guide prospective students into a productive and informative matriculation process (Jaggars & Fletcher, 2014; Margolin, Miller, & Rosenbaum, 2012; Serra, Maxwell, Cypers, & Moon, 2014; Townsend & Wilson, 2006).  Part of that process involves ensuring a clear, structured pathway is presented to prospective and newly matriculating students in order to ease the burden of an already ambiguous and difficult to navigate admissions and initial educational planning environment (Baker & Sax, 2012; Castillo, 2013; Clagett, 2012; Clotfelter, Ladd, Muschkin, & Vigdor, 2013; Hickman, 2011; Jaggars & Fletcher, 2014; Oja, 2011; Porchea et al., 2014; Wood, Nevarez, & Hilton, 2012).  The Guided Pathway Factsheet template presented at the end of this article is a simple and cost-effective way to quickly put in place tools to facilitate such a process.

The Student Survey

Results from an institution-wide survey from October, 2013, were categorized according to student experience with different services.  One realm in particular assessed self-reported changes in a student’s understanding of the college’s academic programs, the academic planning process, and how to attain individual educational goals.  Of note:

  • 46.08% of respondents indicated that they had the same or worse understanding of the academic planning process in order to attain their individual goals since matriculation;1
  • while only 11.9% indicated that the publications concerning academic programs and services – which included the college’s website – were too confusing to understand, 71.75% of responses to a qualitative portion specifically mentioned the inability to find out exactly what classes they need to take to complete their degree, certificate, or transfer requirements;2
  • 16.31% of respondents did not believe that the programs and courses were offered in a manner that enabled them to complete their entire program as announced.3  This is even more alarming given that most students are spending upwards of six years for their undergraduate education!4

Given the overwhelming concern from students regarding program clarity — and the inability for colleges to provide greater in-person counseling services to offset these concerns because of a ubiquitous attenuation problem in community college advisement services (Margolin, Miller, & Rosenbaum, 2013; Ray & Altekruse, 2000; Tierney, Sablan, Bragg, & Taylor, 2014) — a new framework for organizing program academic requirements and opportunities called the Guided Pathways Factsheet (GPF) was developed.  The purpose of the Guided Pathway Factsheet is to clearly address the key questions incoming community college students have when it comes to their personal, academic, and career goals, as well as their general experience with higher education, according to a combination of longitudinal research and word-frequency analyses of qualitative responses across student surveys.  These include:

  • what classes will I take and when?
  • How much money will the program cost?
  • How much time will I have to invest?
  • If I decide to invest my money and my time, what is the potential pay-off?

Developing the Template

Several factors were addressed in the development of the factsheets.  To start, Counseling departments will not want anything produced that might be misconstrued as a substitution for in-person counseling services because of how important personal, “real person” communication is in fostering a sense of belonging and academic confidence in the traditional community college student (Bensimon & Dowd, 2009; Stanton-Salazar, 2001).  This is a prevalent concern across colleges, especially as more and more institutions begin to look for virtual and other automated advisement solutions to combat the unsettling — but unfortunately commonplace — advisor-to-student ratios of 1:8 to 1:12 (Gallagher, 2010).  There is evidence that enhancing student advising directly impacts student outcomes (Bettinger & Baker, 2014; Scrivener & Weiss, 2009), but despite the popularity of quick and cost-effective solutions, like promoting self-advisement as a pervasive response to limited counseling resources, care should be taken to ensure that any new advisement system is deployed as a way to distill the academic advisement process rather than supplant it.

Another concern in the development of the template was the size of the document.  A factsheet for programs should be no less than one or two pages long and should get straight to the point.  Whether disseminated digitally or via print, the media should briefly and succinctly describe what a particular “pathway” at a college will involve (academically, financially, time-wise) and, most importantly, whether that particular pathway is a good fit for a particular student.

Given that community college students undergo a psychosocial transition unique to their individual environment and aspirations, the importance of reflection and self-awareness in setting on a path toward a specific educational goal is paramount (Karp & Bork, 2014). Non-complex structured pathways that provide a step-by-step regimen for success while still offering a degree of freedom in selection may facilitate the student’s sense of comfort and sense of belonging in college, which are both factors that drive a student’s ability to see themselves as a potentially successful individual (Cox, 2009; Leese, 2010).  The makeup of the factsheet is broken up into three sections based on the fields identified as most important by students during self-reflective assessments.  They are: Classes, Cost and Length, and Career Outlook.

Classes

The first thing students are presented with are the program requirements. They see immediately whether the classes offered at the institution look interesting to them, giving them an opportunity to go through each one to determine whether the program as a whole is something they would like to do and can see themselves succeeding in.

Cost and Length

In addition to the academic requirements, students are concerned about the double-edged cost of a program:  on one hand there is the financial cost, and on the other hand there is the time cost.  The total commitment required for a particular program and whether the student will have the financial resources to complete it are addressed together so as to clearly articulate what the student will have to give up in order to complete the program.

Career Outlook

Concern is often expressed among college students as to the return on investment for particular programs (Oreopoulos & Petronijevic, 2013).  After reviewing the academic, financial, and time commitments involved, this final part of the factsheet allows the student to reflect on whether the program will be a good fit for them.  In the first part, the typical settings, working conditions, and responsibilities of the careers that this type of program generally feeds into are described, including information about the expected competencies of workers.

Students want to know what kind of job a degree could get them and what would be expected of them if they were employed in that field (Karp, 2013).  In the next part, recent statistics about placement of program graduates along with local growth projects in number of jobs are provided.  Then, a description of average starting salary for students earning this type of degree as well as expected salary growth illustrates the potential economic benefits of a particular program.

Finally, because students are often over-saturated with options at the community college level (Scott-Clayton, 2011), any immediate second-guessing is preemptively addressed by explaining the different programs available for a given discipline.  When you develop your institution’s Guided Pathway Factsheets, you can even compare similar programs in your entire district or with your feeder or partner institutions.  Many students are confused about the different degree types and don’t understand the difference between certificates and degrees.  Clearly explaining the job market value of each option will only aid the self-advisement process.

Download the Toolkit

Colleges should go to lengths to individualize their factsheets and ensure attention to their specific students’ demographics is given.  To facilitate the planning process in the development of Guided Pathway Factsheets, a template is provided herein to serve as a guiding document.  Please follow the link below to download the Guided Pathways Factsheet toolkit and template (together as one PDF).  The template can be copied and modified, or simply serve as a springboard to discuss ways your own college can implement or improve existing program marketing material — especially the content on your institution’s website.

Click here to download the Guided Pathways Toolkit for Community Colleges! (PDF)

References

Footnotes

  1. 103 reported “The Same”; 12, “Worse”; 4, “Much Worse”; 310, “Not Applicable” (i.e., never received any counseling or advisement services). N=931
  2. 94 respondents indicated class schedule confusion, program requirement confusion, or both.  N=131.
  3. 52 reported “Disagree”; 20, “Strongly Disagree”; 61, “Don’t know.”
  4. See a full report from CompleteCollege.org (http://www.completecollege.org/docs/Time_Is_the_Enemy_Summary.pdf)