Dr. Anne Kress, President of Monroe Community College, recently gave the keynote address at the 2016 Emsi Conference. Professionals from higher education, workforce development, economic development, and talent acquisition gathered to hear of Kress’s experience with guided pathways. Below is an excerpt of her inspiring and enlightening presentation.
“Let me tell you a quick story about why I think guided pathways is so critically important. My first degree is in finance. I went to the University of Florida, and I loved it in school. I went to college in the ’80s and we didn’t do internships. We didn’t really interact with the folks who we might eventually be working with. So, even though I did really well—I graduated with honors in finance—when I went out and saw what I needed to do with a degree in finance, I thought, “Oh gosh. I hate this stuff.” It was nothing like school. So I went back to school and got another degree.
I’m sure my parents, myself, and others thought, “It would’ve been great if you could’ve figured that out somewhere around your junior year in college so that you didn’t have to go back and get another degree.” But that didn’t happen. Why? Because colleges, even today—thirty years later—don’t always do a good job of connecting what happens in the classroom to what’s happening in a career upon graduation.
About one of every two students who enroll this year at MCC will be back next fall. And the individual who disappears is not going to another institution and is not going to work—at least that we can find. They’re just walking away. Of the new jobs being created, only 1% require a high school diploma or less. So if a student doesn’t stick around to get some sort of credential—it doesn’t have to be a degree, but some sort of industry credential or something in partnership with a business—that student is likely not going to find meaningful employment or any employment at all. That’s an issue for us. We want to know why that’s happening and we want to change those numbers.
Community colleges were originally designed around a single mission: access. And we do that really well. But that’s what we’ve done for decades. We’ve said, “We’ll squeeze you in,” and “You can still catch up.” But that doesn’t lead to success for the student. We became cafeteria colleges.
The opaqueness of higher education doesn’t work for students anymore. You walk into one side of a black box and you walk out the other side with a credential, but you don’t really know what’s going to happen inside that black box. Students don’t have the skills to pick the right courses. And if you don’t believe that, do a study at your institution about what drives the classes that students take. What you’ll find is that you have students who take four classes from the same department—only one of which counts—but they were all at 9 AM on Wednesday. Because that’s the only time they can come to class.
We need to build a structure for them. We need to build structured pathways that have the end in mind. And what’s the end? The end for most community college students is going to be transfer or career. And you’re not going to be able to successfully transfer or find a career if you haven’t gone through a structured pathway. The whole notion of guided pathways recognizes the challenges. It makes sure that when students go through the pathway, their success isn’t a happy accident.
That led us to create what we call the schools at MCC. We took our 100 programs and we sorted them into six schools that act as meta-majors.
We’ve taken what were all of these disparate programs and we’ve said, “You may not know what you want to be tomorrow, but you’ve got a pretty good idea of your interests. That’s all we need to know now. We’ll figure out the more difficult stuff later.” Every single student who comes to MCC gets put into a school. They’re now a part of something smaller within a larger institution. They’re part of a cohort. They’re part of a student success network. We’ve built community in these schools in and out of the classroom. The students work together. They have special activities outside of the classroom that are related to their pathways. We connect those students to our college, to transfer opportunities, and to careers.
The schools are helping us to fulfill our mission. Our mission is not just to enroll students, but to help them be successful. We say that we want to help transform our community and it’s hard to do that if students don’t have the credentials that will help them move forward.
We also want to connect each of these schools to careers. We’ve done a lot of work looking at the career clusters in our region. We’ve been working with Emsi for quite some time and we’ve essentially mapped the entire regional economy. We know what our sectors are and we know where the gaps are. We know where we want to grow programs to fill them. We know where students that graduate today will find economic opportunity tomorrow. We looked at our website and asked how we could connect students from the very beginning. Let’s say you click through one of our programs to Liberal Arts & Sciences: Adolescence Education. What you will see is that you can click directly from that page to Career Coach, which will show you the careers that you could find in that field. Students can see what the job does, if there’s a demand for it, how much it pays, and other critical information even before I have to choose a school. Along with providing them with the data, we’ve also been having folks from our community come in and talk about their jobs so that students can know what to expect upon graduation in a certain career field. What’s great about that job? What’s difficult? Why would you recommend that I pursue this career? We’re doing it with all sorts of programs so that students understand their career path from day one.
It’s the importance of connecting the classroom to the career opportunities. Of understanding your students. Of helping them navigate the opacity that our institutions can sometimes provide. We are keen on that because we know we’re accountable to our taxpayers, our students and their families, and to our community to help it grow. We think the best way we can do that is to help students find that connection with our institution, with a field that they love, and with a career that will make a difference in their lives.”