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Guided Pathway Programs Need More Marketing Support

More community colleges are adopting Guided Pathways as a means of supporting student success. The public needs to know.

In 2015, the Community College Resource Center introduced Guided Pathways, a framework developed to improve the student experience at community colleges. Too many students were struggling to complete their programs because of confusing credit structures leading to excess credits or courses taken out of order. These problems were not only contributing to higher costs for students, but were also slowing down their progress and causing them to lose momentum. Guided Pathways was developed as a solution to this challenge.

Guided Pathways describes four pillars for community colleges to focus on in order to improve completion rates and create more equitable outcomes:

  1. Clarifying paths to student education and career goals.
  2. Helping students choose a path.
  3. Keeping students on their path of choice.
  4. Ensuring students are learning across programs.

Since its introduction, Guided Pathways has been adopted by hundreds of community colleges nationwide. As with any broad institutional change, success has been mixed. New research shows that Guided Pathways has succeeded in improving completion rates in community colleges that have made significant, whole-college overhauls based on the Guided Pathways principles.

However, achieving this overhaul is a multi-year process requiring continuous investment—not a silver bullet that can instantly change outcomes for students. Furthermore, these studies have shown that while Guided Pathways increases student performance across the board, it does not reduce achievement gaps. In other words, disadvantaged students perform better in colleges that have successfully adopted Guided Pathways—but so do their peers. The program is a rising tide that lifts all boats, but it does not undo systemic inequity.

Despite these qualifications, Guided Pathways is clearly achieving its goal of breaking down barriers to community college access and helping more students through their educational journey. The next step—especially for colleges that have already invested in this program—is to make sure students know about it. Here’s how marketing can support Guided Pathways programs.

1. Speak directly and positively to the concerns Guided Pathways programs are meant to address.

While Guided Pathways may not solve every problem, the framework admirably addresses concerns many prospective students have about attending community college—especially first-generation college students who have fewer social resources to lead them through the first critical semester. New students need early victories to sustain the momentum that comes from making a major life commitment.

When students hit roadblocks in their first semester—such as finding partway through that some of their credits won’t count toward their degree or that they missed a critical prerequisite course necessary for the next year—the emotional discouragement and practical setbacks can lead to them dropping out. Their bad experience then passes by word of mouth to their peers, who then grow wary of signing up for courses themselves.

The clarity that Guided Pathways brings to the community college experience can significantly alleviate anxieties among incoming students—but it can also help convince students who are on the fence, or who have hesitations about signing up. Students shouldn’t discover Guided Pathways only after they’ve already made the decision to enroll. Instead, it should lead your marketing efforts.

2. Use marketing to connect Guided Pathways programs to transfer options and careers.

Even in programs that follow a Guided Pathways approach, students could still find their pathway choice disconnected from real employment opportunities when they graduate. First-generation students especially have less awareness of how co-curricular pathways could broaden their opportunities by allowing them to graduate with additional certifications. Those that are aware of the path they want to follow may also leave college without the right vocabulary or knowledge of local job markets to know where to begin their search.

Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania recognized these challenges and took a proactive approach, highlighting a co-curricular track that would give students a broader educational base, enabling more flexible employment options after graduation.

This kind of career-track emphasis is essential for students who know their intended career, as it offers the reassurance that their chosen paths will align with their goals. But it can also be eye-opening for prospective students who are just starting to consider community college as the first step in their employment path.

3. Leverage multiple communication channels to spread a consistent message.

Marketing channels have varying levels of penetration, longevity, and engagement. Think about the marketing effort that goes into incorporating a new piece of information into brochures or onto the college website. These efforts tend to stay in place for a while, but they may not get as much visibility as other campaigns. Meanwhile, posts on social media may achieve a broad reach, but they’re gone in a week.

A program like Guided Pathways, which requires broad, institutional changes, benefits from a multichannel marketing approach. Using website and print materials to anchor messaging helps students find reliable information about the program whenever they need it, while time-limited campaigns through social media help spread awareness to new demographics who may not have heard of the program before.

Aperture Content Marketing can help you spread the word about your Guided Pathways programs.

As a multichannel marketing platform with a specialization in community college content marketing, Aperture can help your institution move the needle on enrollment growth. We have a content library full of researched and information-rich articles linking community college programs with employment pathways around the country. Our articles can be used as customizable templates for your internal team to edit, or used as-is to bulk up your current marketing efforts. Meanwhile, we offer marketing channels through social media, customizable micro-sites, and print mail magazines. Contact us today to learn how our platform can help you achieve your marketing goals.

Read More: Community Colleges Must Market Careers to Grow Enrollment