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Malcolm X College student Laura Ponce with her advisor, David Cruz, who is helping her map out a route to graduation.
Malcolm X College student Laura Ponce with her advisor, David Cruz, who is helping her map out a route to graduation. Credit: Photos: Candice Cusic

CHICAGO — Bio 226. Math 125. At least a 2.75 grade-point average. Sixty-four credit hours for an AS. An 80 on an entrance test, or better, to transfer to a four-year university and get a BSN.

David Cruz reels off numbers, deadlines, acronyms, and the minimum requirements for Laura Ponce to finish community college and move on to a bachelor of science degree in nursing. He’s also printed them out in five neatly stacked and stapled piles of paper, with the courses she still needs to take highlighted in neon yellow.

It seems dauntingly convoluted, but it’s better than what many students get: almost no help at all in navigating the extreme complexity of college. They’re instead left to struggle through thick and indecipherable catalogs of thousands of courses and to figure out their own ways to graduation.

Without these patient explanations from a reassuring Cruz, her advisor at Malcolm X College, Ponce said, “I’d be lost.” The first in her family to pursue a higher education, she said, “It’s difficult to decide” from all the choices of courses, and next to impossible to know what she’ll need to transfer from this community college to a four-year school.

“I feel like he’s walking me through it,” said Ponce, who is 19 and in her second year of community college.

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That’s the idea behind a concept being pioneered at institutions such as Malcolm X, part of the City Colleges of Chicago: helping students map out the paths to their degrees and the careers they want.

Only 5 percent of community college students earn their two-year degrees within two years, and fewer than one in five of their counterparts at four-year public universities finish in four.

It’s a dumbfoundingly simple solution to a problem that derails countless students who take courses they don’t need and flounder through college, wasting time and money and never graduating — or, if they do, failing to rack up the necessary prerequisites go on to further educations, forcing them to take more courses at an even greater cost of time and money to themselves, their families, and taxpayers who subsidize public higher education.

It also exposes the often unfathomable maze that college has become in many cases, with too many choices and little attention paid to helping students find the exits.

“I think we overcomplicate it,” said Cruz, who likens the advising sessions with his students to checkups with a doctor. “It could be pretty simple.”

Only 5 percent of community college students earn their two-year degrees within two years, according to the advocacy group Complete College America, racking up about 21 credits more than they need, on average, many of which don’t count toward graduation in specific majors. Fewer than one in five of their counterparts at four-year public universities, and 36 percent of those at the top public flagship universities, finish in four years; they take, on average, about 15 credits’ worth of courses that can’t be applied toward their majors.

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college advising
Malcolm X College student Laura Ponce with her advisor, David Cruz, who is helping her map out a route to graduation. Credit: Photos: Candice Cusic

This costs students and their families $50,933 at community colleges and $68,153 at public four-year programs in tuition and fees plus forgone wages for each for each additional year they stay enrolled, Complete College America calculates. It says taxpayers who subsidize public universities and financial aid are on the hook for another half a billion dollars a year for every credit students earn beyond what they actually need to graduate.

Giving students maps to graduation “just seems like common sense,” said Paul Markham, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is pushing the so-called “pathways” concept. (The Gates Foundation has been among the funders of the Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

It starts when students first arrive. They sit down with an advisor who helps them decide on a career goal, sometimes by administering tests that gauge their interests. Then they work out a path to graduation, with the courses needed to eventually arrive at a degree in a particular major.

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“If you look at the population of students that, for example, we’re serving here, many of them are low income, many of them are the first in their families to go to college,” said Lenore Rodicio, provost at Miami Dade College, which also has a pathways program. “They don’t know how to do college. They have to be guided. Because, coming in, they don’t have that. They don’t know that one choice can have unintended consequences.”

“You first have to develop a culture that this is why we exist: for the students.”

For example, Rodicio said, students interested in science might mistakenly take the course called Survey of Biological Systems, not realizing that it’s meant for non-science majors.

It’s nice to have choices, said Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center, or CCRC, at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of the new book “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success.” But “let’s organize it. Let’s help them. Let’s not just give them hundreds of choices and let them stumble into what they want to do.”

The reality is that students “have a catalog this thick that makes no sense to anybody,” said Cheryl Hyman, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, demonstrating by holding her hands about three inches apart.

That’s what Jurgen Hidalgo confronted on the day he arrived at Miami Dade with the hope of becoming an aerospace engineer after doing well in high school.

“My biggest fear was, okay, I’m here, I made, it, but what do I take?” Hidalgo recalled. “I was lost. I needed help. I didn’t know what road to take.”

On that day, he said, he met with an academic advisor and mapped out a route to an associate’s degree that also meets the prerequisites to transfer to a four-year university without wasting money, time, or credits.

“Within one day,” he said, “everything was set.”

Miami Dade has 3,000 courses, so many that focus groups revealed students didn’t know where to start or what to take.

“It was a huge a-ha moment,” Rodicio said. Faculty “get so focused on the work we’re doing on our individual courses that we lose sight of the great difficulty our students have navigating our systems.”

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In fact, said Hyman, instituting what her school calls GPS, or Guided Pathways to Success, required faculty and administrators to recognize something people outside higher education may have thought was equally dumbfoundingly obvious.

“You first have to develop a culture that this is why we exist,” said Hyman: “for the students.”

The pathways model is too new to gauge how well it works, but initial reports appear promising. At Miami Dade, the dropout rate is down, and more students are on track to graduation, Rodicio said; the proportion who enrolled last year and returned was 76 percent, 1 percentage point higher than those who began in 2011 and 3 points above those who started in 2010. When Florida State University started helping students map their educations, the on-time graduation rate rose from 44 to 61 percent, and the percentage of students with excess credits plummeted from 30 percent to 5 percent, the CCRC reports. A similar program at a campus of the City University of New York — which was also accompanied by financial support and other assistance — nearly doubled graduation rates, the social policy research organization MDRC determined.

There are some costs for this. The CUNY program costs about 60 percent more, per student, than what the system spends on other students, MDRC found, since it includes full financial aid, bus and subway fare, extra tutoring, and other support services, all in addition to the advising called for by the pathways concept. But because more of them make it to graduation, the cost per graduate is lower. Miami Dade hired an additional 25 advisors spread across its seven campuses and two outreach centers, for about $2 million a year.

“In the larger scheme of things it’s not an enormous investment,” Rodicio said.

There are also savings, since colleges and universities can more accurately and efficiently predict when students, following their carefully prescribed plans, will need particular courses. That, in turn, also means those students aren’t shut out of overcrowded courses, which has proven another obstacle to graduation.

There is some opposition to this. CUNY faculty sued to block the pathways program, saying they were left out of the planning for it. They lost.

The union’s president, Barbara Bowen, said mapping out their educations in advance strips students at community college and public universities—where the pathways idea is mostly being applied—of the same chance to sample the good kinds of choices available to counterparts at more elite schools, and is a way to justify spending less per student.

“It is not being tried at schools where the children of the upper middle class and the rich get their degrees,” said Bowen. “It’s being imposed only at public institutions, especially at institutions where students who are working class and poor go.”

Back at City Colleges of Chicago, work is under way to reverse-engineer the pathways idea back into high school, encouraging students as early as eighth grade to decide on possible careers and start doing the work they need to get them. That idea, being pushed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has yet to get under way.

Cruz wrapped up his advising session with Ponce by giving her a test: He asked her to repeat what he’d just told her she needed to graduate.

As she does, Ponce realizes she can become a registered nurse while still working toward her final goal of a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Assuming she keeps up her GPA, that means she’ll have a guaranteed seat in several bachelor’s programs. And she’ll be able to work as an RN in the meantime.

“Does that make sense?” Cruz asked her.

Ponce smiled.

“Yes,” she said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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