Tool Kit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Pathways for Learning and Transfer at California State University-Northridge and Pierce College


“Why do I have to take this course?” It’s a question that most faculty members have probably heard at some point—especially if they teach courses that satisfy general education requirements. The General Education (GE) Pathways program, first developed at California State University–Chico and now being piloted at several other CSU institutions, aims to make general education more cohesive and meaningful by organizing general education courses into thematic clusters, or Pathways, and offering certificates or minors for students who complete a sequence of courses within the same Pathway. California State University–Northridge (CSUN) and Pierce College, a nearby community college, have developed a set of common GE Pathways to facilitate student transfer and to offer an integrative general education experience that spans both institutions.

The GE Pathways align with many of the goals of General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs), AAC&U’s initiative to develop a portable and proficiency-based framework for general education that helps all students, and especially those who have been traditionally underserved by higher education, learn most effectively and demonstrate and apply their learning outside the classroom. Debra David, director of the Give Students a Compass project in California (launched through AAC&U’s LEAP States initiative), says the GE Pathways embody this approach to general education—focusing on preparing students to address real-world challenges.

“Students need to learn how to cope with unscripted problems, or what some might call ‘wicked problems,’ David says. “These are problems that are so complex and contested—problems like global climate change, poverty, educational equity—that as soon as you start addressing them on one side, they change. These Pathways encourage students to look at an issue from multiple perspectives and see that no one discipline can address the big questions facing the world.  That’s an important function of general education.”

Making General Education More Cohesive

The GE Pathways program was originally developed at CSU–Chico during the first phase of Give Students a Compass and was further refined through California’s ongoing Compass project.  Students who complete eighteen credits of their general education requirements, including three upper-division general education courses, through one of the GE Pathways—social justice, for example—can earn a certificate or minor. The model is now being adopted by several other CSU campuses, including Bakersfield, Fullerton, and Northridge, which developed its GE Pathways in conjunction with Pierce College.

“One of our biggest issues is that a lot of students don’t see general education as relevant or coherent,” says David. “We have high attrition rates in the first two years, and part of the reason, we think, is that students take a lot of general education courses that they perceive as unrelated to their intended major or their goals.” The Pathways offer themes inteded to capture students' interest and perhaps have some connection to their intended major or career—the sustainability Pathway at CSUN, for example, might appeal to potential science majors.

Combating this kind disengagement from general education was the primary motivation for establishing the Pathways at CSUN. “We realized that students were taking random courses in order to ‘check boxes,’ and not really understanding that there are connections between general education courses and concepts,” says Patricia Juarez-Dappe, GE Pathways faculty director at CSUN. “For many students, general education was more of a burden than something worth doing.” But easing and encouraging student transfer was also a big driver of the program. The Northridge program is unique within the CSU system in that it was developed in conjunction with a complementary program at Pierce College, a community college with which CSUN has a strong transfer relationship.

About 600 students transfer from Pierce to CSUN every year. The two institutions currently offer five common GE Pathways: arts, media, and culture; global studies; health and wellness; principles of sustainability; and social justice (a sixth path, evolutionary thinking, is available only at CSUN). Students can begin a Pathway at Pierce and finish it at CSUN and receive a certificate, and soon they will be able to receive a minor, offering further incentive to complete a thematic sequence of courses. Neither CSUN nor Pierce, nor any of the CSU programs, require that students complete all or most of their general education requirements within one Pathway.

But Raymond Lim, faculty coordinator of the CSUN Path Project at Pierce, says the program can help all students graduate or transfer, regardless of whether they are continuing along a GE Pathway at Northridge, because the model helps students chart a more deliberate path through their general education. “We would have students taking classes based purely on the convenience of the schedule or on their friends’ recommendations,” Lim says. “They might take multiple classes within one distribution area, which could end up delaying their graduation.” The Pathways offer a limited selection and a clearer sequence of courses, making it easier for students to complete all requirements without duplication.

The Pathways can also help students understand their general education as an important part of preparing for that next step. The sustainability and social justice Pathways are currently the most popular at Pierce, Lim says, which makes sense given what students see happening in the world around them. For many employers, diversity issues and resource management are top concerns, and when students understand how their general education is relevant to their future job prospects, they are more engaged and feel greater incentive to complete the courses.

The Recruitment Challenge

By design, each Pathway offers a limited set of courses, and some faculty worried that students would have trouble putting together a schedule that includes all the courses they need to complete the Pathway. But while there have been some minor scheduling issues, Lim and Juarez-Dappe say the biggest challenge at both institutions has been just getting students enrolled in the Pathways in the first place.  

“I thought when we started that the main challenge would be getting faculty on board, as general education courses can be some of the most challenging courses to teach, and this might be perceived as adding something else on top,” Juarez-Dappe says. “But faculty have been really enthusiastic—the real challenge is convincing students that this is good for them.”

In fact, students don’t even necessarily know that the GE Pathways exist. “Pierce is a community college, but it’s also very much a commuter college. Students are in and out, and they don’t always see everything we have to offer,” Lim says. CSUN, also a commuter campus, faces the same issues—just getting ahold of students long enough to explain what the Pathways are can be difficult. Lim and Juarez-Dappe meet regularly with faculty members, especially those faculty members who teach courses within a Pathway, to discuss the program and encourage them to speak about it with their students. The two coordinators also will visit classrooms at faculty members’ invitation to talk to students themselves about the Pathways.

Juarez-Dappe has focused on doing outreach earlier, even going to area high schools to talk about Pathways. By the time students arrive on campus, they’re already overwhelmed, she says, so it’s better to reach them early, before that stress sets in. Pathways sessions at early orientation programs have also proved fruitful—especially at sessions for the parents of incoming students.  “When we speak with parents, they are adamant that their kids enroll in Pathways,” Juarez-Dappe says. Indeed, once people learn about the Pathways, the idea seems almost intuitive, David says: “When I’ve talked about this outside of higher education to friends and family, they say ‘why haven’t we been doing this sooner?’”

Building Community around Pathways

Pierce is working to get students into Pathways earlier by introducing the option during the college’s summer bridge program and within a new first-year experience that includes interdisciplinary learning communities. Lim is also working with campus counseling services to incorporate discussions of GE Pathways with students in a more intimate environment. Pierce College President Kathleen Burke has been a strong supporter of these and other general education reform efforts, Lim says, and has provided funding to experiment with new approaches. As the Pathways program expands enrollment, faculty are working to incorporate into the GE Pathways other high-impact educational practices (HIPs), such as e-portfolio use and cocurricular events, including “town hall” events modeled after the Town Hall program at CSU Chico.

CSUN is also working to incorporate more HIPs into its Pathways courses, and new funding has allowed the coordinators to host events and bring in speakers related to the themes of the various Pathways. This expansion into the cocurriculum has an immediate, short-term benefit for students, but perhaps the bigger and more unexpected benefit has been the sense of community these events and the Pathways program as a whole have created.  “Getting people to feel part of these communities has not been easy on a commuter campus like this,” Juarez-Dappe says, but first-year students who don’t yet have friends or established networks on campus are starting to find them through their GE Pathways.

And that community building extends to faculty too, Juarez-Dappe says—“I’ve been teaching here a long time, and this is the first time I feel I am part of something bigger than my own department.” Pathways participation has grown rapidly to include more than one hundred courses taught by eighty faculty. Juarez-Dappe attributes that growth in part to the fact that the GE Pathways program has been faculty-led from the beginning, both at CSUN and at Pierce—“and that makes this easy to replicate. All you really need is an energetic faculty creating the path,” she says. “But you have to make sure that [faculty members] are the ones making decisions. We’re the ones teaching in the classroom, and we know what’s best for our students.”

Read more about the GE Pathways at Pierce College and CSU-Northridge and the original GE Pathways project at CSU-Chico. You can also find more information about the GEMs project and other resources for general education reform from AAC&U.

California State University–Northridge