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Educational pathways: Clear and present vulnerabilities


There is a lot of talk and action about “educational pathways,” especially among high schools and community colleges.

Certainly the concept and mental imagery of an educational pathway is spot-on. However, from the vantage point of an outside consultant whose role is to evaluate a number of programs at different institutions, I see a several vulnerabilities.

  1. Matching students with an appropriate pathway. The tools and processes designed to identify a student’s best match are in desperate need of sophistication, better individualized engagement, and flexibility for life changes.
  2. Lopsided focus on enrollment. Don’t get me wrong, enrollment is important, but so is retention, completions, and employment. It seems that every college and university I work with is fixated on boosting FTE by recruiting students, while neglecting the systems and practices that effectively support retention, credential completion and connecting graduates with jobs.
  3. Reliance on grant-sourced, fractured funding. Relying on grant funds for any program or process is unsustainable. At best, grants are designed for “shot-in-the-arm” stimulus and proof-of-concept initiatives. Of course there are exceptions such as federal block grants and other long-term funding structures framed as “grants.” From what I have seen and heard, efforts to build full-featured “pathways” rely almost entirely on a hodgepoge of grants, each with their own set of reporting requirements and restrictions. It seems many community colleges pursuing this approach invest a large amount of time in applying and reporting, to the detriment of building and perfecting the pathway.
  4. Lack of a compelling and comprehensive vision for sustainable and effective educational pathways.
    • So what’s the point of an educational pathway? Is it recruitment, retention, completion, and/or employment? The proof is in the action and investment.
    • Who are the key players in building and perfecting a set of pathways? High schools can’t do this alone, nor can colleges or universities do it alone; these players need to work together with community and workforce partners.
    • Is there a unified vision shared among these players? Of concern is whether the executive leaders of high schools and higher education are talking with one another, collaborating on efforts, integrating funding, and building a shared, inspiring vision.
    • Is the vision compelling, comprehensive, and agile? The goal of a vision is to outline the change we want to see, and "change" is the key word: everything changes and change can’t be stopped, but change can be influenced with intentional effort, which requires a vision.
    • Visioning is not a "once-and-done" activity, a vision is always in need of revising to account for changing conditions.

The concept of “educational pathways” seems promising, smart, and responsive, especially if these vulnerabilities can be resolved.