Posted on Wednesday, January 11, 2017

INITIATIVE UPDATE: A Faculty Perspective on the Importance of the Guided Pathways Initiative

Submitted by Charles Errico, Ph.D., professor of history at NOVA and chair of the Chancellor’s Faculty Advisory Committee (CFAC)                   

The community colleges are often viewed as the 21st century Ellis Island, a safe harbor for those who want an opportunity for a better life. Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), situated just outside the nation’s capital, has students from more than 160 countries. Walking down the halls of the Alexandria Campus, a professor will hear conversations in Korean, Farsi, Eastern European, Vietnamese, and Spanish, to name just a few. It is a melting pot reminiscent of what my grandfather must have faced when he came through Ellis Island as a humble shoemaker from Italy in 1911. 

These sons and daughters of parents who recently arrived on our shores share classrooms with students whose roots run deep into America’s past. Attracted to low tuition, convenient schedules, and guaranteed transfer agreements, white students who trace their histories to the first families who settled in Jamestown, and African-American students whose great grandparents were slaves, seek the same opportunities for a better life through education.

Balancing classes with work and family obligations, many of these students are living on the edge, just one flat tire away from giving up on their dream of an academic degree and a better job. The sad truth is that the hope that community colleges offer often falls short of the reality that many students face. Almost half of the students who register for classes at the start of a given academic year have left by the following fall.

Many transfer early, come to learn a foreign language or acquire a job skill and have their needs met. Others, the most vulnerable, minorities and single parents in need of a path from poverty, have become disenchanted and frustrated. Those students who do acquire an associate’s degree and transfer have a lower chance of acquiring a four-year degree than students who did not start at a community college.

Let’s take a moment to analyze that last sentence and — while we are at it, student loan debt, one of the largest problems facing our nation. Community college professors are excellent teachers and provide their students with the skills to succeed at four-year colleges. Problems their students face have nothing to do with preparedness. Rather, according to the Department of Education, transfer students lose an average of 13 credits that they have earned and paid for. The National College Transfer Center estimates that that amounts to $6 billion a year in additional tuition. There are multiple reasons for this problem. Four-year colleges have a vested interest in having students pay tuition at their institution for as many credits as possible. A common bait and switch tactic is to accept community college courses as “electives” versus required courses in a particular academic major. Since students have a limited number of electives, that often means they must take more credits to earn a four-year degree.

Community colleges must share the blame. They need to improve their advising structure so that students take not only the right courses in their academic programs, but also the correct courses that transfer institutions require. They also need to improve retention and inform students of where the needs are in today’s job market. We have all heard stories of college graduates living in their parents’ basement because they could not find a job in their field and are saddled with enormous tuition debt. But just as important are the students who drop out after a semester or two and have debt but no degree at all.

The blame game between two- and four-year colleges gets us nowhere. Truth be told, there is plenty of blame on both sides, and the only ones suffering are the students. A national movement, one that VCCS colleges have embraced, is the development of Guided Pathways, which, along with better academic advising, should improve retention and guarantee the transfer of credits. It only works, however, when there is cooperation, not competition, between two- and four-year colleges.

Under the leadership of President Scott Ralls, NOVA is in the process of developing Guided Pathways in specific academic programs for the five colleges where most of its students transfer. It should guarantee the transfer of 100% of credits to those students who have remained faithful to the pathway and attained their associate degree. Thus, they start at senior institutions as first semester juniors and reduce the tuition debt that is currently incurred when credits fail to transfer.

Understandably, there are faculty members with concerns about the Guided Pathways approach. It will require a greater involvement on their part with academic advising. It will also limit the variety of courses offered. I like the analogy that Guided Pathways are similar to the rumble strips on highways that warn you when your car is veering off the lane. Faculty will continue to offer, and students will continue to take, popular 200 level courses. Guided Pathways will simply signal students to check with their advisors to make sure that a 200 level course will transfer. In many cases it will and, even if it doesn’t, students have the freedom to take a course that peaks their interest or that a popular professor teaches. The rumble strip has provided a warning, but the student might desire a road less traveled. Not to be forgotten, too, are the students from the community who already have degrees and want courses for enrichment and self-interest. There will always be room for history courses on the Civil War and English courses on creative writing.

Guided Pathways place the interests of the students first. NOVA’s students have different needs than those in some of the smaller rural community colleges across Virginia. We have a sprawling urban population to serve, and a majority minority student body. Eastern Shore and Mountain Empire face dwindling populations and the loss of jobs within their communities. When I brought up NOVA’s need to address the concerns of our many ESL students in a meeting in Richmond, a colleague and friend from a rural college said that was not an issue in the “holler,” a word with which I was unfamiliar, and which she gleefully explained after noting my ignorance.

What unites us across the VCCS is our concern for our students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. Thomas Jefferson wanted a school within a short horseback ride of every Virginian. The community college system, with 40 locations across the commonwealth, is a fulfillment of his dream, but it is facing challenges as never before.

My father, a butcher in a grocery store, wanted me to have a better life, and studies show that 90% of my fellow baby boomers have outperformed their parents. Today only 50% of our students will have a better life than their parents. More disturbing are statistics that show that those born in poverty will remain there, and those from wealthy families will continue to enjoy the good life. The frustration of watching the Kim Kardashians of the world flaunt their wealth while others struggle has troubling societal and political repercussions for our country.

I just finished a thoughtful book, Hillbilly Elegy, which contains a message of a “culture in crisis” for rural whites in communities all too familiar to many of my colleagues in Virginia’s smaller colleges. But the same message holds true for African-Americans in Richmond and Norfolk, and the children of immigrants in Northern Virginia. The community colleges, as currently structured, are allowing too many to fall through the cracks. We can do better. We cannot control state funding, but we can make changes to our policies to decrease tuition debt, improve advising, increase graduation rates, and guarantee that 100% of community college credits transfer to senior institutions.  

To do less would be to let our students down – minority, ESL, those near the holler – who look to the community college as their 21st century Ellis Island.


Laura Osberger


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    Roger Hill

    Charlie, your article does a great job of pointing out the complexity of providing our very diverse student body with the skills — and credentials — they need to succeed in the 21st Century. The challenges these factors place before Guided Pathways are significant and will only be overcome with by a determined and comprehensive efforts by both administration and faculty.


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