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Insights on How to Align College-Career Pathways

by John Barnshaw, Ph.D.

As the national unemployment rate hovers around 6% and many institutions struggle to meet enrollment targets, employers, in some areas and sectors of the economy, are struggling to find the talent they need. 

Additionally, for many students, looking for a pathway through postsecondary education to a career is often difficult, despite that being the number one reason why students pursue higher education according to the Higher Education Research Institute.   

Recently, Ad Astra hosted a workforce summit that brought together diverse stakeholders in higher education that provided some insight based upon their experiences on how to operationalize pathways for student success. This article discusses the three key themes that arose from their discussion.


ccd_topic_icons-01_pathways_orangeThree Themes for Operationalizing College-Career Pathways 
    1. COVID-19 has fundamentally changed course delivery
    2. College-career pathways are one and the same
    3. Stakeholder engagement is crucial to effectively creating meaningful change


Theme 1 - COVID-19 has fundamentally changed course delivery. 

There’s an abundance of evidence that suggests COVID-19 has changed higher education from in-person to online, but now, we have proof that it is starting to change course delivery for the long term. As institutions begin to plan for in-person education in the fall, they are increasingly relying upon hybrid and online courses more than in previous academic years before COVID-19. One example of an institution leading this change is Ivy Tech Community College.   

"This is the best professional development we never asked for," said Kara Monroe, Provost and Senior VP for Student and Academic Success at Ivy Tech. "We have the opportunity to re-think everything we're doing through a lens of, 'What does it look like when we can't gather traditionally?'"  

Ivy Tech, the largest singly accredited statewide community college in the United States, introduced a new learning modality called Learn Anywhere. This new course delivery option provides students with week-to-week flexibility on attending class in-person or online while helping Ivy Tech's campuses operate as efficiently as possible. Additionally, they leveraged a wealth of data that guided their online expansion and centralized their online courses, allowing them to reinvest savings from non-efficient course offerings back into their students and faculty.  

Theme 2 - College-career pathways are one and the same.   

Historically, students have attended college because they wanted a well-rounded education or wanted to attend college to learn more about a particular area (major). According to the University of California, Los Angeles's annual survey of first-year students entering four-year colleges and universities, roughly 85% say they are going so they can get a job. This new mindset reiterates the need to align college with early career aspirations increasingly important.  

Two institutions that we recently spoke with, Mohawk Valley Community College and Oakland University, have significantly focused on improving their college-career pathways. Oakland University, located in Rochester, Michigan, is a public four-year institution that has long served the greater Detroit area. Recently, Vijayan Sugumaran, chair of the Management Information Sciences Program, started to notice enrollment flattening. Eager to address this problem, he worked with his faculty, dean, and administrators to reinvigorate his program into a business analytics degree. His logic came from the local labor market skills demand.

"We have a Management Information Systems Program, and these days analytics is a big focus, especially in the areas of cybersecurity and information assurance," said Vijayan. "Instead of allowing students to select their elective courses freely, we started providing pathways to these growing specialization areas."

By partnering with Ad Astra, Vijayan was able to identify in-demand skills in business analytics that improved the odds that his students might be hired by some of the largest employers in the area. 

Another unexpected benefit of creating these specialization programs was that these efforts essentially created the pathway for a stackable credential, where students would enroll looking to obtain a certificate, but many stayed to complete their degree. Oakland University established a business analytics graduate certificate that required 15 credit hours as opposed to the 30 required for their masters program. “Having this graduate certificate brings new students into Oakland University, who will either take their new skills directly into the workforce or continue working towards completing their masters program,” said Vijayan. “Additionally, we can offer this certificate and customize it to companies in our area such as Chrysler. We didn't have to do much. We've already been teaching the courses for the last 10-15 years, but now, we can customize it, tweak the offerings a little bit, and get to a bigger market and provide the training the community needs in southeast Michigan.” 

Nationwide, nearly half of all two-year institutions saw an enrollment decline greater than 10% during 2020. Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, New York, faced a similar situation, with a fall decline of around 11.75%. To help offset some of the enrollment challenges and declining labor force participation, Jim Lynch, Assistant VP for Academic Affairs at Mohawk Valley, and his colleagues partnered with a local union to retrain employees who’d recently lost their jobs. “We have a good connection with the Internal Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Union and when COVID hit, a lot of the electrical technicians went out of work,” said Jim. “We worked with IBEW to identify training opportunities and applied our learning outcomes and assessments, which led to us gaining 210 FTEs.”  

Additionally, Jim and his colleagues rely heavily on their schedule to bring dislocated workers together with organizations needing a workforce.

“Because of COVID and the different modes of delivery, we ‘right-sized’ our schedule,” said Jim. “Before, we had classes running at a 68-70% fill rate because of the certain times and dates we had to offer classes. With a different mode of delivery, we can build efficiencies within those course offerings.”

Jim also noticed that Mohawk Valley had an influx of transfer students. After digging into the data, Jim determined that many of these students were at a four-year institution, and instead of doing a gap year, they decided to take some of their general education courses at Mohawk Valley. “Understanding that allowed us to increase our general education offerings,” said Jim.

Theme 3 - Stakeholder engagement is crucial to effectively creating meaningful change

As the Provost Senior VP for Student and Academic Success at Ivy Tech Community College, Kara Monroe is serious about creating change. She works with a team of over 450 stakeholders across 19 institutions to create meaningful change at Ivy Tech. Kara discussed five key points that help her and her team succeed.

  1. Stop waiting. If you're waiting, you're wasting time, and time is the most significant factor needed to create change. 
  2. Create a change story. To implement change, you need to articulate why changes need to be made, your hypothesis, and what supporting data you have. Then, document how you're going to be transparent and honest about the work you're going to do to build confidence with your stakeholders. 
  3. Create champions. When rolling out new initiatives, it's important to have advocates. While it's great to have immediate buy-in, some of your most impactful champions will be those who are initially opposed. If you change the mind of someone who's opposed through engagement and conversation, they're the very best champions you will ever have,explained Kara. 
  4. Provide proof and stories. Stakeholder buy-in is easiest to gain when you have facts, data, and truth on your side. One of the biggest changes Ivy Tech faced was their transition to 8-week courses and their move to Ivy Online divisions. A cornerstone of their approach was to be transparent with their data, which allowed stakeholders to ask their own questions about the data. 
  5. Put students at the center of your change initiatives. When implementing change at your institution, think about the needs of your students. How does your schedule align with their needs? What are the public transportation schedules? What are your students' work hours? Take as many of these factors into consideration as you can, and then work to create a schedule that meets your students' needs. 

Interested in learning more about operationalizing pathways? Click here