Streamlined Student Journeys
By Ron Anderson, Senior Vice Chancellor, Minnesota State
Sharon Pierce, President, Minneapolis College
Robbyn Wacker, President, St. Cloud State University
October 13, 2021
As the state’s largest public higher education provider, Minnesota State serves students from a variety of backgrounds with varying prior educational experiences, sharing an aspiration to pursue their dreams and goals. Many are the first in their families to go to college, while others have families of their own, advancing their education while juggling life’s day-to-day demands. Our goal of Equity 2030 aims to ensure every student succeeds, from the moment they enroll through graduation.
Rather than asking the question, “Are today’s students ready for college,” we are asking “Are our colleges and universities ready for today’s students?” This is a significant cultural organizational shift, and integral to Equity 2030. Last fall, the Minnesota State Board of Trustees approved a comprehensive, systemic redesign of the student experience to promote student achievement and close educational equity gaps. This student-centered framework, referred to as Guided Learning Pathways, outlines effective practices in academic and student support program design and delivery to effectively engage and support each student from their initial connection with our faculty and staff through their educational journey to attainment.
Traditionally, higher education has been structured like a cafeteria that offers many entrées, side dishes, and dessert options. Colleges and universities provide many services, programs, classes, and activities, often leaving it up to each student to navigate the choices and complexities. Students can get lost and confused amid all the options, receive too little guidance and fall off track academically. In the cafeteria analogy, students fill up with too many side dishes and desserts, leaving them with a lopsided or incomplete meal. When the “food options” translate to class credits, students without guidance may fill up on empty credits, which results in inefficiencies, dead ends or unforeseen detours, and increased financial burden. Research indicates that these factors disproportionality harm first-generation, low-income students and Black, Indigenous, and students of color.
Guided Learning Pathways seeks to eliminate this problem by streamlining a student’s journey and providing structured choice, revamped and enhanced support, and clear learning outcomes. This systemic approach moves away from the traditional cafeteria approach to providing clarity and support to students in how they navigate their academic programs with their career goals as the guiding light. It is based on the premise that students are more likely to complete a degree or credential if they:
- choose a program early on;
- have an academic plan that provides a roadmap of courses needed to complete their degree; and
- receive the support and guidance they need to persist.
In providing structured program maps that align with students’ goals for careers and further education with targeted support services to support those goals, the Guided Learning Pathways approach requires Minnesota State to rethink ingrained practices and procedures, re-examining how we do what we do. In other words, Guided Learning Pathways is not an initiative in the typical way that academia describes it; it’s a change in mindset about how Minnesota State will approach curriculum and policies in support of student completion and success. Both the challenge and the opportunity of this framework is in its comprehensiveness—in order to have the kind of transformational impact that’s required, Minnesota State will critically examine every stage of a student’s educational journey. For the purpose of ensuring Minnesota’s ongoing economic vitality, every college and university across the Minnesota State system must make sure that all students—especially Black, Indigenous, and students of color—enter our programs, and have the guidance they need to develop a plan for success—and see that plan through to completion.
By making program requirements and course syllabi clear, students understand where they are in their progress toward completion. Curricular coherence provides students with an understanding of how all the pieces of their program fit together to provide them with the skills they need for the workforce and/or their future education.
Guided Learning Pathways will help us close long-standing educational equity gaps for historically disinvested students. Implementation by itself is not a guaranteed elimination of these disparities. Minnesota State must infuse anti-racist practices and policies in our work. Doing so will require humility, urgency, and accountability, especially from those who can use their privilege and positional power to drive conversation toward structural action. To this end, members of historically marginalized communities must be at the center of both Guided Learning Pathways design and decision-making.
Given the diversity of Minnesota State, it will take sustained efforts to ensure that our system is making progress. Some initial efforts make us optimistic about where we’re headed:
- This year, two colleges—Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Hennepin Technical College—and two universities—Bemidji State University and Southwest Minnesota State University—are piloting a new initiative called “Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success” (SUCCESS). The goal of SUCCESS is to build financially viable, highly effective programs that dramatically increase graduation rates. The SUCCESS model combines the most promising elements from student success programs that have been proven effective in rigorous research. Within that model, each institution’s efforts will be customized to its local context, student population, and resources, with the goal of implementing and sustaining programs that improve academic outcomes and close opportunity gaps in postsecondary achievement.
- Five of our colleges have participated in Achieving the Dream, a national network to support transformational change at colleges across the country. Similar to SUCCESS, Achieving the Dream is focused on developing long-term, sustainable commitments to improving student success on college campuses by identifying key barriers to success, implementing solutions across the institution, and connecting disparate initiatives into a cohesive student success strategy.
- St. Cloud State University is in the second year of implementing its Huskies Student Success Coach program where all incoming students are assigned to, and stay connected with, a success “coach” during their entire academic career. These coaches, in partnership with professional and faculty advisors, provide ongoing guidance and coaching through dynamic and interpersonal interactions with their students.
- As part of their Schools Within A College initiative, Minneapolis College is the first college in Minnesota to offer exploratory majors for undecided students. An exploratory major allows students to start making immediate progress on their educational journey. Students are guided to choose courses that count toward multiple different programs. They begin earning credits toward a degree, even while determining their final goal.
Over the next two academic years, colleges and universities will continue their work on these and other programs while identifying additional areas where they can improve their student readiness. Our goal is ambitious: by the end of 2023, all our campuses will be aligned with the Guided Learning Pathways framework.
It is heartening to see the increasing energy and momentum around Equity 2030 and Guided Learning Pathways. But we also have to remember that discussions and commitment to change are only the first steps. Action that leads to substantive change is essential, and it is possible if we do the collective work to make it happen.