GPS Part IV: CCA as a Dot Com Bubble

Many states and colleges are engaged with the Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) program and other methodologies supported by Complete College America (CCA).  In this post in the series, I will suggest that this observation if essentially true:

The influence of CCA will be similar to the dot com bubble of the 1990s.

In other words, the CCA is advocating dramatic action using unproven methods for a large group of investors (states and colleges).  Some methods involve components which have sufficient evidence for scaling, but the magnitude of change being created exceeds any reasonable prediction for a positive return on investment.  Even if the labels (like GPS) stick, the market will collapse within a few years as states and colleges get data indicating the large amounts of money are being lost with little gain for students.

To understand why this observation is made, take a look at a quote from the CCA materials:

But game changers don’t spontaneously happen: They are caused by people who act boldly and decisively in response to challenges

The ‘game changer’ reference is designed to pull in the big investors; investors are drawn to promises of large returns, especially when there is an apparently simple plan for the large returns promised.  The declaration of ‘boldly and decisively’ is a propaganda tool meant to turn off any inclination to be skeptical of the rationale for the components of the plan.

The question is this:  Why do we need ‘game changers’ in the first place?  Few of us would like the process of education being equated with any game or set of games; let’s set that valid concern aside.  “Game changer” is defined (Merrian-Webster) as “a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way”.  Some components of the methods suggested by the CCA would meet this definition (such as ‘full time is 15’); however, the methods are more accurately summarized as “changing the game” rather than “game changers”.

The push toward GPS and other ‘game changers’ is accompanied by a rationale that sounds reasonable to those with smaller amounts of understanding of culture of our institutions … community colleges in particular.  I am reminded of the many novice arguments presented by my students for why their incorrect mathematics was actually ‘correct’: such arguments convince other novices, and perhaps some professionals who turned of their skeptical (critical) functions.

In spite of the obvious and reasonable doubts about the “CCA Game”, their marketing has worked very well.  Several states are deep in to the “CCA com” (like dot com) bubble.  The press for CCA has been extremely one-sided … partially because they create much of the press themselves.  No organization has stood up to question the CCA messages, even though the messages lack significant professional history.

I commend the CCA for a hustle well played.  It’s disappointing that so many leaders and policy makers have been hustled like this.  The prediction for the collapse of this CCA bubble is supported by the track record of prior changes … prolonged change tends to be consistent with, and supported by, the work of professional organizations.  The CCA bubble is supported by a network of change agents, much like the ‘dot com’ bubble.

The unanswered question: How long will the CCA bubble last?

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GPS Part III: Guided Pathways to Success … Informed Choices and Equity

In the structures used for Guided Pathways to Success (GPS), colleges are encouraged to provide information to students about selecting a major.  That is great, obviously, until one reads the next detail:

Colleges use a range of information such as past performance in high school to provide recommendations to students about programs of study that match their skills and interests.

In other words, we would limit information to each student based on our interpretation of their background.  I want every student coming to my institution to consider (even dream) about goals that exceed their history and the accidents of their background.

The push to have students select a program of study is well-intended … we all want students to ‘succeed’.  However, we can not be so short-sighted that we encourage students to only consider goals that seem reasonable based on the data we might happen to have available.  Such methodologies will tend to maintain social class and economic standing; therefore, I see a fundamental conflict between this GPS method and the basic purposes of community colleges … upward mobility.

Statistics does not work for limiting choices at the individual level.  In the medical uses of data, providers can get very close to a valid ‘limiting’ of choice … when the statistical analysis has a small margin of error, due to understanding a physical process well.  Education does not deal with small margins of error (not in this decade, anyway).

The CCA website repeatedly shows ‘data’ with the implication that the results are statistically determined.  For example … community college students average 81 credits for a 60 credit degree, proving that students accumulate ‘too many’ credits.  That only makes sense if you look at the 130% credit count as measuring wasted effort; this has never been determined for a group of students, even though the CCA would like us to believe that it has been.

What’s your thought on what the ‘extra’ 30% represents?  Personally, I look at that 30% as being composed of several parts:

  • Excess remediation (should be 10% or less); is likely to account for 15%.
  • Intentional program credits (programs requiring 61 to 64 credits are common).
  • Intentional student choices (deliberately taking a course at CC … often because it’s cheaper).  This one probably accounts for 10% in that 30%.
  • Uncertainty causing choice of courses inappropriate for the student

I do not see the rationale that says this 30% ‘excess’ means that students must make a choice of program of study EARLY and that we should direct them to fields appropriate to their background.  I believe that the CCA does not understand the community college environment, with the factors influencing student choices about courses; this, combined with a bad use of a piece of data, results in a socially unacceptable suggestion (that we track students based on their background).  Following the CCA advice seems to amount to “keeping the wrong people out of the important programs”.

Equity is a fundamental part of our work in community colleges.  Equity and upward mobility are more important than arbitrary metrics of credits earned in community colleges.  State and local policy makers should be very concerned about following the CCA advice to implement GPS with a heavy emphasis on selecting the best program of study right away.

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GPS Part II: Guided Pathways for Success, a Mathematician’s View (Part II)

Guided Pathways (GPS) is one of the current ‘movements’ in higher education, both at the associate degree and bachelors degree level.  A description of GPS is available at (although quite a bit of this document is rhetoric designed to convince the reader of a point of view).

At the heart of GPS is the concept of one set of courses for the student to take for their program, starting (hopefully) in their first semester.  Mathematics is specifically addressed in the GPS model … “Math Alignment to Majors”, and this echos movements within the mathematics profession to create pathways leading to multiple end-points (college algebra/calculus, statistics, quantitative reasoning or QR).

This apparent congruence is a concern for me.  Here is the issue … math alignment is intended to divert students out of the college algebra path as early as possible.  This is somewhat true of pathways in general, but the GPS work tends to create rigid walls around the paths.  A student declares a major like nursing (which the CCA considers “STEM”, by the way) … and is likely to take statistics as their math course (possibly QR).  What happens when this student gets inspired to pursue a truly STEM field, such as biology or pre-med?  Actually, the student will not have much chance to be inspired in their math courses; the GPS work has a goal “as little as possible” when it comes to mathematics.

One of the reasons I believe so strongly in the QR course we offer is that it builds algebraic reasoning (as well as statistical reasoning and proportional reasoning).  If all QR courses did this, I would have fewer concerns about GPS paths … if QR was the default math path.  In many parts of the country, statistics has become the default math path (outside of STEM); I am concerned about a student’s only college math course being in one field of mathematics when the student’s program does not call for specialized or focused mathematics.

GPS also presents the idea of milestone courses; mathematics is likely to be on an institution’s short list of milestones, especially in the first year.  I do not want students to see that the world shares their desire to get math out of the way, nor do I want to see mathematics used as gatekeepers for programs.  Certainly, if the student’s program involves courses which will actually use the mathematics in their math course, by all means … require the math in semester #1.

Too often, however, our colleagues in other disciplines have de-quantified their subject … even STEM disciplines.  Intro science courses are often presented (at the associate degree level in particular) in a conceptual way, without the mathematical methods (or ideas, even) used in current work in those fields.

GPS holds promise, and our students can benefit if we do a good job.  We need to avoid the pressure to swallow the GPS pill whole; each component needs critical thinking and the professional expertise we can bring.

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Guided Pathways For Success: a Mathematicians View (part I)

The largest wave of external influence hitting colleges (especially community colleges) at this time is “Guided Pathways for Success” (GPS).  GPS is a package of talking points aimed at supporting degree completion at a higher (much higher) rate.

Here are the basic components of the GPS (see

GPS is one of the ‘game changers’ being advocated by Complete College America (co-requisite remediation is another).    One problem with the implementation of GPS is that the work is very complicated, which usually results in a lack of sufficient information for almost all of the people working on the program.  We’re starting ours this year, at my college, and a handful of people have a complete view of our work … the rest of us only know about parts of one of the 6 efforts.  It’s also true that colleges doing GPS often attempt to take on another ‘game changer’.

One specific issue where people often lack knowledge is the initial student choice … which program?  meta-major? Non-degree (and non-certificate)?  For students receiving financial aid through any federal program, they can choose a specific program leading to either transfer or employable occupation.  The idea of the meta majors is that these would be a shared starting point for clusters of eligible programs, designed to provide occupational information and specific program selection in the first year.

As a mathematician, I see several advantages to GPS … and some areas of concern.  This initial post will summarize some advantages and explore an area of concern.

So, here are some things I like (from a math point of view):

  1. A strong emphasis on setting a goal (not much is worse than having students in class who have no idea what their goal is).
  2. An established sequence of courses for the program.  [My college, like many ‘CC’, have drifted far away from structure for courses.]
  3. A message that picking a major is a serious step, best done without a dart board but with sufficient information.
  4. Putting an academic purpose in front of advising (completion).

Clearly, one area of concern related to GPS is the fact that other efforts (co-requisite remediation, for example) are often put into a ‘bundle’ of efforts for a college.  That is not a GPS issue; my first concerns with GPS relative to mathematics exist around the ‘milestone’ course idea.

Historically, mathematics has been used (and abused) as the ultimate gate keeper.  Students are required to take certain mathematics courses to prove that they are okay for the program.  Yes, mathematics is important for many careers; however, a gatekeeper context creates negative expectations for students.

If a program or meta-major requires mathematics (which they mostly will), what course will be most commonly selected for a milestone course in the first year?  Mathematics has already been mentioned for this role on my campus.  If the program is STEM or STEM-related, this is a great idea; students in these programs will have a sequence of mathematics to complete … and will also be using mathematics in other classes during most semesters.

Outside of those programs, I do not want students to (generally) take mathematics in the first year.  Many of these students currently wait until their very last semester to take mathematics, and this is a bad thing … but not as bad as being told that you must take that math course in the first (or second) semester.  I am concerned about student attitudes towards learning, combined with the challenges of starting college, within the mathematics classroom.

So, when a student looks at their program choices from among the non-STEM options, they might see “Math125” (or whatever) on their list of expected first semester courses.  The meta major option related to their program might not have a math course (because math is ‘aligned to majors’).  Likely result?  Students pick a meta major, in order to delay taking mathematics … or, we see reluctant (or resistant) students in math classes.

At least when students put off their math class until ‘late’, they come motivated to pass … perhaps not understanding what this means, but motivated.  First year CC students are likely to be reluctant and not especially motivated to pass mathematics.

Admittedly, this first concern discussed is not the best choice to begin the conversation.  The concern deals with the factors influencing student choice along with motivation.    I’ll try to do better next time!!

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