Improving Self-Advisement: The Development of Guided Pathway Factsheets

Higher Education

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.


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)



  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 (

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