Less is More: Universities Explore the Prospects for Guided Academic Pathways

National
Posted By Derek Johnson on October 23, 2015 at 9:30 am
Less is More: Universities Explore the Prospects for Guided Academic Pathways

Choice is almost always portrayed as a good thing. The more options you have, the more likely it is that you will find a solution that’s tailored to your individual needs – whether it’s buying a car or choosing a meal at a restaurant. But in higher education, experts have been arguing for years that an abundance of choice may actually be a bad thing.

As NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz put it, describing the paradox of choice facing many students both during the school selection process and once they get on to campus: “Too many choices can lead to feelings of frustration, dissatisfaction and paralysis, which is especially bad in cases where not making a choice is the worst one of all.”

“I think that, generally speaking, people really like prescribed pathways, and they’re actually way more successful when their choices are managed to an extent and not overwhelming,” said Iris Palmer, New America senior higher education analyst while discussing choice.

College is often billed as an altogether different animal than high school, a place where students are expected to set their own schedules and manage their educational career. As some form of higher education has become necessary for many in today’s workforce, universities have seen their campus ranks swell with incoming students – students who have a vague understanding that they need a degree to succeed, but are otherwise lost.

A 2011 study by the Community College Research Center compares the experience to attempting to navigate a shapeless river at night. The authors found that community college students encounter significant bureaucratic hurdles upon entry, from the financial aid process and class registration to the myriad of other adjustments and course corrections that are required during any given semester to stay on the path towards graduation. As a result, many students wind up stumbling or simply dropping out. “When it comes to complex, high-stakes financial decisions with long-term implications, individuals may struggle to determine which factors are most important, to gather all of the relevant information on these factors, and to appropriately weight the costs and benefits of these factors in a final calculation,” the authors wrote.

Some universities are starting to take cues from their K-12 counterparts, setting up defined pathways for choosing majors, picking classes and other forms of academic navigation. Complete College America released a report in 2012 advocating for “Guided Pathways to Success” (or “GPS”). The report advocates for changes such as doing away with “undeclared” majors and forcing incoming students to choose a broad disciplinary focus such as business, social science or liberal arts, prohibiting students from choosing courses that don’t count towards their degree and constant, “intrusive” advisement from university advisors to ensure students are on track to graduate. Institutions such as Georgia State University, Florida State University, Arizona State University and City University of New York have seen significant boosts in their graduation rates after implementing similar programs.

“We really see a tremendous difference between students who are able to work with an advisor. For the most part that’s a high school-based model,” said Carey Warick, director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network during a higher education panel in September.

Of course, it’s important to remember that each student is unique, particularly in how they learn. Just as there are students who have straight A’s in high school but see their grades dip as they enter the unstructured college environment, there are also those who chafe under the more restrictive rules of K-12 yet blossom with more freedom.  Western Nevada College uses the Myers-Briggs personality template to divide students up into eight different personality types. While some students (like those with “feeling” or “sensing” personality types) thrive in more structured environments, others, such as those with the “introvert” or “perceiving” learning styles, don’t like to be boxed in and need a certain amount of freedom in their decision-making to succeed.  As the college mentions before delving into all eight categories, there is no “right” or “wrong” way of learning, and each personality type describes “normal human behavior and characteristics.”

That search for a custom higher education experience has led to our current predicament, where students have more than 7,000 accredited institutions and tens thousands of available programs and disciplines to choose from.

“How do we connect the data, get representation from all the different communities, sectors and individuals who are looking to get something different out of school and craft something that encapsulates everybody but allows for [individual choice]?” asked Kevin Fudge, manager of government relations and community affairs at American Student Assistance. “It’s this paradox of choice. It’s a 500-channel universe when all you really want is two.”

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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