Can you believe it? It’s already been four years since the start of the Guided Pathways initiative in Iowa. We’ve come a long way since then, with community colleges leading the charge to implement important process and cultural changes that provide clearer paths to persistence and success for students. So, let’s check in. Let’s celebrate the work. Let’s see what’s new with Guided Pathways in Iowa.

Guided Pathways have changed the way Iowa’s 15 community colleges support their students and streamline their experiences towards program completion. It requires a proactive approach to keep students engaged and on track for their academic goals. Through this process, students meet regularly with an adviser to choose and understand the direction, credits and courses needed to complete a certificate program, degree or transfer to another higher education institution. A clearer understanding provided through Guided Pathways can help students save time and tuition and encourage retention.

“I’m proud of the work that Iowa’s community colleges have done to implement Guided Pathways,” said Kelly Friesleben, education consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. “Guided Pathways can make a difference with many important factors like student enrollment and retention, individual persistence, alignment of non-credit to credit programs, course marketing and more. It’s important work for the success of not only the students but also the colleges themselves.”

Implementing Guided Pathways can look different and individualized for each of the community colleges, depending upon their needs, strengths and timeframes. At Kirkwood Community College, officials have focused on organizing their courses through an innovative approach, known as program mapping.

“We’ve organized programs into one of eight program areas to help students identify with an area of interest and get them on a path," said Judy Stoffel, Kirkwood’s director of Guided Pathways. "Program maps help students see a possible path to completing an academic goal. The maps provide a starting point for conversation between Advisors and students. Advisors learn about the students’ unique goals and interests and help them customize a plan to program completion. These customized plans serve as a tool for Advisors to help students see their progress towards completion and plan for the upcoming term.”

Kirkwood officially began its implementation of program maps in the summer of 2022 with new student orientation. Implementing program maps with all students helped identify a gap. Advisors expressed the need for a tool to help deciding students see a possible path to an academic goal within their area of interest. The college examined common courses across programs within each program area and developed a deciding students’ map for each program area. These maps offer deciding students a common first semester of coursework to support them in gaining experiences that assist them in refining their interest and setting an academic goal. These maps help deciding students see their options and when they need to make decisions throughout the pathway. The college is preparing to implement three of the eight deciding student maps this summer with new student orientation. The remaining five deciding student maps are projected to be implemented in the summer of 2023 with new student orientations. We are eager to implement these tools to support deciding students with getting on a path and completing an academic goal.

“The program areas have challenged us to look at our alignment and how we do things,” Stoffel said. “We really looked at how we could provide a more optimal way for students to approach their coursework as they are deciding their pathways and goals.”

Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) also has emphasized the connection between student success in both academic and career goals for their Guided Pathways work. A major emphasis of their implementation has centered around work-based learning and building linkages between students and businesses.

“The past year, we’ve really focused on connecting students with careers and employers with students,” said Kristi Strief, NICC’s executive director of enrollment management. “We’ve prioritized business sponsorships and the idea of earning while learning.”

Business sponsorships at NICC allow students to partner with employers for their education. The business covers the cost of tuition and fees for the student for up to two years of courses while the student has the option to work for them part-time. Once the student graduates, they are guaranteed a job with the employer for a defined period of time.

“This partnership helps both the student and the business,” Strief said. “The student is able to gain new skills and potentially earn a degree while the business gains a highly qualified employee.”

The earn-and-learn model has been successful for NICC, with over $429,000 in tuition costs covered for students in the recent fall and spring semesters.

“This reduces the burden of student loan debt for students,” Strief said. “Sponsorships are allowing them to work fewer hours and have less indirect and housing expenses so they can focus on their education. It has a huge impact on student success.”

The work of Guided Pathways is continual and will evolve as the needs of students change. To help address this ever-changing landscape, resources are now available to assist community college leaders.

The Pathways Pillars in Practice webinar series was started to help share best practices and updates between community colleges. Each webinar focuses on one of the four pillars associated with Guided Pathways work. All webinars are recorded and can be freely accessed with other materials. Staff working with Guided Pathways are encouraged to submit their ideas for future webinar topics.

Additionally, opportunities like the 2nd Annual Guided Pathways Data Event are offered throughout the year. All 15 community colleges participated in this data event on May 22 at Marshalltown Community College and were able to workshop with the Illinois Office of Community College Research and Leadership on Guided Pathways.

“We want to sustain the work and the momentum we’ve built through Guided Pathways in Iowa,” Friesleben said. “Everyone has built pathways into their strategic plans, and things are still going strong. We’re excited to see what happens next.”