Guided Pathways: One Professor’s Response to Redesigning America’s Community Colleges

North Representative

With the California Governor’s 2017-18 budget including $150 million for Guided Pathways and the California Guided Pathways Project,[1] guided pathways have clearly arrived in the California Community College System. The California Guided Pathways Project is supported by the Foundation for California Community Colleges, funded by the College Futures Foundation and the Teagle Foundation, and modeled after the American Association of Community Colleges Guided Pathways Project. In response, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges’ Resolution 9.03 Fall 2016, Investigate Effective Practices for Pathways Programs, makes clear the role that faculty must play in understanding and shaping the guided pathways movement.

One important presentation of the concept of guided pathways is Redesigning America’s Community Colleges – A Clearer Path to Student Success by Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins, which was published in 2015 as a response to the nationwide issue of low graduation rates in the community colleges based on research cited by the authors. This text promotes the guided pathways approach in lieu of the cafeteria style of program offerings. The book and its content have been shared among administrators both nationwide and statewide. In turn, college administrative leaders are sharing it with faculty. In particular, the chancellor of the Los Rios Community District offered to provide a copy of this book to all staff members (upon request) provided that they read it. A website was set up for staff to provide comments on the book. One Sacramento City College professor, Dr. Liam McDaid disseminated the following response to the faculty at the college and the LRCCD chancellor:

Redesigning America’s Community Colleges is the latest fad book in education.  Corporate fads seem to be passed on like hand-me-downs to government and education.  Oddly enough, it seems the military responds faster to corporate fads than other organizations, but education is usually last on the fad food chain.  This book came out this year, so some leapfrogging happened with this book.  Perhaps it’s due to the title of the book, being that it’s written “for us.”

Are all the ideas in Redesigning wrong?  No.  Its comments on the disconnect between the area of counseling and academic programs is spot on and much can and should be done to bridge those gaps.  But it suffers from a fatal flaw:  it already assumes as true what it seeks to prove, that the “cafeteria model” of community colleges is flawed and a waste of taxpayer money.  The question that needs to be addressed is this:  are we here for the widest possible access, or the best possible outcomes?  Redesigning assumes the latter is true.  These two goals are in conflict with each other and Redesigning should be given credit for forcing us to face that.  One fundamental question is connected to our values as a community college: do we wish to limit access to get our numbers up?  Because any other scenario for increasing our metrics is unrealistic.  Also, are the metrics measured even meaningful?   Redesigning admits that the jury (and data) is still out on whether its ideas will actually produce the outcomes they claim to seek.

Education has long been in the crosshairs of those who wish to weaponize it (or outright destroy it) through monetization.  What GDP do we add to the community?  How many jobs do we help create?  How much extra (taxable) income do we generate through our activities?  Little is mentioned in these discussions about the intangibles of education.  This is because they are viewed as side effects of economic impacts – or in the worst case scenario, ignored as irrelevant.  Redesigning plays right into this trap.

Education adds measurable economic value because we live in an advanced nation where everything can be measured that way.  What percentage of California’s GDP is generated by the arts?  Is this the reason for their existence?  Education provides worth to individuals in the intangible form of confidence building and group interaction.  Being able to inform oneself to participate in the political responsibilities of our society.  Being able to discern when someone is trying to fool them and why.  Becoming a role model for a family or whole neighborhood by showing what can be accomplished.  None of these things can be measured economically.  If we limit access, many of these intangibles will be more difficult to achieve.

Sacramento City College has been here for a century because we are here for whatever educational needs our students have.  We don’t expect them to show up with a career path already mapped out.  We are the last best hope for mass education in the twenty first century, and this is the real reason why the cafeteria model has persisted for so long.  It addresses needs that aren’t economic.  Make no mistake, we do have a positive effect on our regional economy and we do matter that way.  But that is not and never has been why we are here.  We are a bridge to a better life and economic improvement is but a small portion of the treasures our students take with them when they graduate or transfer.  Our college shows anyone that there is always a way to change one’s life for the better and when students say that SCC saved their life, they do not exaggerate.  This fact should be at the heart of our institutional vision and mission.

Whether one supports all, some, or none of the ideas in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, the ideas contained in the text need to be understood and debated. Faculty, administrators, and other college staff must work together to design and provide the best educational programs and opportunities for the citizens in their college service areas as well as throughout California.

Dr. Liam McDaid, Astronomy Coordinator and Professor may be reached at mdcaidl [at] (mdcaidl[at]scc[dot]losrios[dot]edu).