Guided Pathways to Student Success

Perspectives from Indiana College Students and Advisors

Indiana’s higher education attainment rates are lagging behind national averages at a time when postsecondary credentials are necessary for success. To address this problem, Public Agenda held 11 focus groups with current students, students who had dropped out, professional advisers and faculty advisers and also reviewed past studies on how students progress from enrollment to completion – what we refer to here as student pathways. Our work supports the Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s (ICHE) efforts to address this problem.

This study had three goals:

  • Understand how students and advisers perceive obstacles to smooth pathways to degree attainment and timely college completion;
  • Probe the responses of students and advisers to a set of policy proposals being explored by ICHE;
  • Review with these groups some of the promising practices that have emerged from national higher education reform and students success initiatives.

Students and advisers saw promise in these policies and proposals, but many also had concerns and open questions that need to be taken seriously. If these kinds of policies are to be implemented and have the intended results, Indiana's policymakers and higher education leaders should continue to engage those closest to the issues.

Obstacles to timely college completion

In the first part of our conversations with advisers and students, we sought to explore their perceptions and attitudes about why so many students fail to complete degrees and credentials. Four factors were mentioned most frequently by our respondents:

Poor initial selection of degree programs

Many students initially select programs for which they are not suited. As a result, they frequently take courses that will not count towards their eventual degree, fail or drop courses they do take, and sometimes drop-out of education altogether. Advisers say their caseloads are too large to be able to help students make better initial program choices.

Poor student selection of courses once in a degree program

Once in a program, students often select courses that will not count toward the program degree or fail to select courses that must be taken as prerequisites, further slowing their progress. Sometimes students are unable to take the courses they need because of conflicts with work and family; often they make poor selections because they self-advise based on inadequate information.

Advisers who lack adequate information

Advisers report that they lack adequate information, citing frequent and rapid curriculum changes (which are often not communicated in a timely fashion) and poor communication between professional advisers and academic departments.

Problems with transfer courses

Transfer students have particularly daunting challenges. Communication between two and four year institutions is fragmented. Students, as well as advisers, complain that it is difficult to determine which courses will successfully transfer. Courses that do transfer are often counted only as electives, further slowing progress.

Reactions from Indiana Students & Advisers

In the second part of this research, we presented participants with three policy or practice proposals that the Indiana Commission for Higher Education is currently considering. These proposals are especially focused on addressing mismatches between students and the programs they select, the tendency of some students to make inappropriate course selections and shortcomings or lack of capacity of current advising systems. The following is an overview of respondent reactions to these three proposals:

Proactive advising and informed choice focuses on helping students make better course selections and alerting schools when a student is potentially going off track.

  • Shows promise if the technology is carefully implemented
  • Should supplement rather than replace in-person advising
  • Should also provide information about transfer articulation

Degree maps and guaranteed courses assist students in selecting a program of study and to help them move through that program all the way to graduation.

  • Draws support from those who recognize the need for students to complete degrees efficiently and cost-effectively
  • Met with hesitation by those who prioritize open exploration through the college experience
  • Guaranteeing courses may be a challenge for smaller programs
  • Two-year programs may not be long enough to permit a process of exploration

Block schedules and structured cohorts is an even more structured solution, in which students select a block of time to take all their courses, with the same schedule each semester.

  • Are controversial
  • Advisers express concerns that students with complex lives need more flexibility
  • Students and non-completers express enthusiastic support because predictability of schedules are viewed as helpful to managing complex life obligations
  • Implementation concerns center around the feasibility of offering required courses for multiple cohorts.

Promising Practices for Guided Pathways

Providing guided pathways for students has been central to some of the largest higher education reform and student success efforts at two- and four-year institutions across the country. To reduce time to degree, these institutions offer supports to bolster student progress and interventions to address common challenges. State- and institution-level practices for guided pathways fall into two broad categories: 1) strategies for accelerating completion and 2) strategies for preventing wasted credits.

In the third part of this research, we proposed common best practices for guided pathways, as well as ideas that emerged from participant groups, to gauge their responses and identify opportunities for progress in Indiana. The strategies included:

Strategies for accelerating completion

  • Encourage students to take more credits, especially in their first year of college.
  • Make the long-term consequences of course withdrawal apparent to students and alert them to courses that are high risk for failure or withdrawal.
  • Alert students to relevant transfer and articulation information.

Strategies for preventing wasted credits

  • Supplement advising capacity with structured degree maps.
  • Use degree milestone systems to ensure completion of courses that all students must take to progress in a major or program of study.
  • Build the infrastructure for students to change course without having to backtrack or get off track entirely.

Moving Forward: The Importance of Authentic Stakeholder Engagement

Our conversations with students and advisers suggest there is broad support for the Indiana Commission of Higher Education's policy priorities associated with creating clear pathways for students. There is also a great deal of knowledge and expertise still to be leveraged from within institutions, as well as areas of legitimate concern and disagreement.

Policymakers should engage Indiana colleges as true partners in decision making to ensure that policies pursued are informed by the experiences of students and frontline faculty and staff. These recommendations are aimed at making certain that guided pathways policies in Indiana are inclusive of and oriented by the knowledge, values and commitments of those implementing and subject to these policies.

  • Communicate consistently and clearly about the goals and the relationship between structured pathways efforts and other initiatives or state priorities.
  • Create meaningful opportunities for institutional stakeholders to discuss concerns about policy proposals and implementation obstacles, and respond to those deliberations.
  • Treat institutional stakeholders as vital partners in the work by including them early, often and authentically in the planning, design and implementation process.

Download the PDF of the Report

Guided Pathways to Student Success

Perspectives from Indiana College Students and Advisors

Media Type: PDF

Indiana's higher education attainment rates are lagging behind national averages at a time when postsecondary credentials are necessary for success. Our work supports the Indiana Commission for Higher Education's (ICHE) efforts to address this problem.


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