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Guided Pathways: “What Is So Bad About Getting Folks Through College Quickly So They Can Join the Workforce?”

Mar 29, 2019

By Ian Duckles and Kelly Mayhew, AFT Vice Presidents


As you hopefully know there is a major push across the community colleges for what is known as Guided Pathways. This is an initiative from the California State Chancellor’s office that is intended to address a number of purported problems with community college education as it is currently organized. These are summarized in the Chancellor’s Vision for Success, which identifies problems and sets targets for improvement for the community college system as a whole. A major theme of this “Vision” is that students take too long to complete their degrees or certificates, and they accumulate too many units in the process of doing so. The Guided Pathways initiative is then intended to address this problem through a number of mechanisms.

These mechanisms include efforts to streamline programs so students can complete them more quickly and enter the workforce, and a push to get students to select career paths as early as possible when they enter the community college. One method for achieving the latter goal is the creation of “Metamajors.” While this concept is frustratingly ill-defined, the basic idea seems to be that different majors and programs will be reorganized and grouped together under broader areas of interest so that students who are interested in, for example, a career in healthcare would take courses that contribute to that larger goal. In this way, students won’t “waste” their time taking courses that don’t quickly lead them to a degree or certificate in their chosen field.

Many faculty and professional staff are worried about this concept because they have seen these sorts of initiatives used elsewhere to gut a variety of academic programs that are deemed “inessential” or that don’t lead students quickly enough to a career. The example of the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point is illustrative of this:

UW-Stevens Point faces a deficit of $4.5 million over two years because of declining enrollment and lower tuition revenues. It proposes adding or expanding 16 programs in areas with high-demand career paths as a way to maintain and increase enrollment.

To fund this future investment, resources would be shifted from programs with lower enrollment, primarily in the traditional humanities and social sciences. Although some majors are proposed to be eliminated, courses would continue to be taught in these fields, and minors or certificates will be offered.

As a result of this way of thinking, the University was reorganized in such a way that 13 majors including English, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Geography, Geoscience, and a number of languages were eliminated because these programs were not seen as contributing to the financial bottom line of the university.  Aquaculture, Fire Science, and English for Teacher Certification (instead of English), on the other hand, made the grade as they shunt students straight through college and into narrowly conceived career paths.

Despite some clear evidence that these initiatives are driven by the bottom line and not a concern with actual education, many faculty, professional staff, and members of the public believe that these initiatives are very valuable. Some ask, “What’s so bad about getting folks through college quickly so they can join the workforce?” They will argue that this is what the students want, they are the “customers,” and it is our job as educators to give them what they are asking for. Who are we, they often say, to impede our students’ progress?

To respond to these questions, it is worthwhile to unpack some of the assumptions that underlie them. Most significantly, these questions assume that the only point of education is job training.  This is an attitude that has, unfortunately, become increasingly prominent in higher education, particularly at the community colleges. According to Malcolm Harris, this shift in attitude was the result of “an Obama-era education policy that basically seeded this idea that education was all about job preparation.” But, one might ask, “so what?” If the colleges are funded by the public, then the public deserves a return on its investment by putting people into jobs where they earn money that can be taxed by the state and thus be used to repay the education these students have earned. As Harris goes on to argue, though:

…that puts you on a really dangerous course because that’s all about human capital production, and then you have a system where the schools set out to produce skills in children based on what people who own companies say they want those kids to have, what skills they’ll need from their workers.

So our entire lives are framed around becoming cheaper and more efficient economic instruments for capital. That, taken to an extreme, has pretty corrosive effects on society, particularly young people.

In effect, this entire approach reduces education to job training, and reduces students to commodities or widgets that can be plugged into a job as needed, and then discarded when they are no longer useful. Since there will be a ready supply of new college graduates with up-to-date skills looking for jobs, older workers (who often earn higher salaries) can be discarded in favor of these new college graduates (often with massive student debt) who can be paid entry level wages. This becomes even easier when every employee is a part-timer, or a freelancer, or an “independent contractor” in the gig economy. This churning through of workers will also make organizing people into unions difficult, further strengthening employers at the expense of the employees. And this will have negative impacts on those employees as well as society as a whole insofar as each person will be competing against every other one in a Hobbesian war of all against all where individual existence is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

As educators, we don’t want to simply “train” employees. We want to educate citizens who are capable of looking at society and the factors that shape it, and develop novel solutions for correcting injustice and restructuring society along lines that are more equitable and fair for everyone. We teach critical thinking skills and help students navigate their own paths toward multiple knowledges so that they have a broad base of learning that they themselves can hone into what ever career they choose. Simple job training of the sort envisioned by proponents of initiatives like Guided Pathways cannot accomplish that. One might even assume that this is by design—that an educated citizenry no longer serves the interests of those who own the future.

It is because of concerns such as these along with a desire to see how this new initiative was being rolled out in the San Diego Community College and Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College Districts that AFT 1931 created a Guided Pathways subcommittee. We function as a clearing house of sorts, with each campus reporting on their Guided Pathways journey, work load concerns, shared governance issues, and philosophical hesitations because of the top-down manner in which the new initiative has been imposed by the State Chancellor’s office. Of particular concern is the fact that major education reform foundations, such as Lumina and Gates, are behind the Guided Pathways framework, and that so much of it is tied to the new performance-based funding formula California has inadequately rolled out for community colleges.

Pressures to produce degrees and certificates, to push our students through our curriculum whether they’re ready or not, necessarily entail a lot of questioning about what we’re doing here. Where is the research that shows such “streamlining” actually benefits students themselves? What are they getting out of their educations? Are we actually serving them? If not, then, who are we serving? As we continue on in our work, we hope to address these central questions in order to slow the Guided Pathways train enough in order to help our students and not harm them.

Please check out the AFT Guided Pathway Committee’s list of questions here:


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