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 http://completecollege.org/the-game-changers/):
- Whole programs of study (as opposed to individual course selection)
- Informed choices and “meta majors“
- Default pathways (changing majors requires approval)
- Guaranteed milestone courses (each semester)
- Intrusive, just-in-time advising
- Math alignment to majors
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):
- A strong emphasis on setting a goal (not much is worse than having students in class who have no idea what their goal is).
- An established sequence of courses for the program. [My college, like many ‘CC’, have drifted far away from structure for courses.]
- A message that picking a major is a serious step, best done without a dart board but with sufficient information.
- 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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