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Promoting Transfer Success through the AAC&U GEMs Pathways Project
To meet current and future workforce needs, the United States must increase its levels of post–high school educational attainment, but for many students, achieving the American dream is challenging because of a variety of roadblocks along the way to success and graduation (Sawhill 2013). A higher education team from Texas, representing Collin College, Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD), the North Texas Community College Consortium (NTCCC), and the University of North Texas (UNT), responded to these challenges and joined the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) Pathways project on transfer pathways and signature work, funded by The Endeavor Foundation.
The Texas GEMs Pathways project team is located in the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington Metropolitan Statistical Area, the fourth-largest US metropolitan area, with a population of 7,399,662 and a current postsecondary attainment rate of 41.6 percent. The Texas team worked to coordinate curriculum and transfer pathways to support student success in this population when moving from two-year to four-year institutions and to develop articulation agreements based on learning outcomes.
National Focus on Transfer
Lumina Foundation was an early leader in identifying the urgent need for postsecondary education, and on the Stronger Nation report web page, the foundation tracks American progress toward their 2025 goal that “60 percent of Americans hold a credential beyond high school—a quality credential that prepares people for informed citizenship and economic success” (A Stronger Nation 2018). Lumina’s data tracks the proportion of adults ages twenty-five through sixty-four with at least an associate’s degree.
According to Lumina’s metrics, the degree attainment rate in Texas is 43 percent, so it is clear the state still has significant work to do, but there is promise in the fact that Texas’s overall attainment rate has increased by 9.7 percentage points in the past eleven years.
The Texas Transfer Landscape
Recognizing the need for increased postsecondary attainment, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board launched the 60x30TX strategic plan in 2015, a road map to help Texas meet the need for 60 percent of Texans ages twenty-five to thirty-four to hold a postsecondary credential by 2030. This is a key goal for Texas to meet the demands for a skilled workforce that will drive its economy and support its families. Today, the Texans targeted by 60x30TX are fourteen to twenty-three years old.
Under 60x30TX, Texas has been divided into ten regions, and each region has developed its own targets and strategies. Collin College, DCCCD, and UNT reside in Region 3: Metroplex, which includes the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington metropolitan area and sixteen surrounding counties and is home to thirty-six public and private higher education institutions. Texas educational institutions must focus their attention on building strong partnerships that map a clear path from the selection of future career paths in high schools to dual-credit opportunities, career and technical education (CTE) certificates, associate’s degrees, and beyond. The students who enter dual-credit programs, early-college high schools, collegiate academies, and similar programs will have the opportunity to acquire CTE certificates as well as the associate of applied science, associate of arts, or associate of science degrees as they simultaneously fulfill high school endorsement requirements and meet 60x30TX goals. Because of these trends, Texas is likely to see a significant increase in the number of students who will earn academic and technical certificates and degrees in the coming years.
Students in the Metroplex Region swirl between higher education institutions, commonly accruing credits at multiple community colleges and universities on the way to receiving a higher education credential. With exponential increases in credits earned through dual-credit and early-college high schools in the Metroplex, almost all college students hold transcripts from at least two institutions. For those faculty members working on the Texas GEMs Pathways project team, transfer is a way of life.
Responding to the 60x30TX goals
By 2030, Dallas County is projected to have more than 2.8 million people, with the majority made up of minorities (39 percent Hispanic and 15 percent African American). The current college credential completion rate is significantly less for Hispanics and African Americans than it is for whites. If nothing in higher education significantly changes the current trajectory, educational achievement in Dallas County will remain static at fewer than 37 percent or will decrease, with the current projection of only 190,000 of those ages twenty-five through thirty-four having degrees by 2030 (40,000 short of our 60 percent goal). Only 27 percent of the 2010 high school graduates in Dallas County earned a degree by 2016, and of students from the great majority of Dallas high schools that predominantly serve minorities, fewer than 15 percent earned a certificate or degree in six years (11 percent for Hispanics and 13 percent for African Americans). Although North Texas and Dallas County are increasing in population (projected to increase by 27 percent by 2030) and employment opportunities (a total of 5.1 million non-construction jobs by 2030), there is a stark inequity in income and educational attainment for its residents, with more than 70 percent of the 460,000 public school students in Dallas County eligible for free or reduced lunch. Historically, only one in ten economically disadvantaged eighth-grade students has gone on to earn a college credential.
Expansion of Dual-Credit and Early- College High Schools
DCCCD initially began the development of guided pathways through its partnerships with Dallas County public schools interested in expanding dual-credit and early-college high schools. Joe May, DCCCD’s chancellor, and Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD), set the vision and direction for such an expansion by designating a steering committee of district administrators from DCCCD and Dallas ISD composed of representatives from involved colleges and high schools. Dallas ISD, which had four early-college high schools with three DCCCD colleges in 2015–16, planned for the implementation of twenty new early-college high schools by 2017–18, taking the expansion to scale. A new model, Pathways to Technology (P-Tech), was adapted to incorporate career and technical education certificates and degrees and industry partners to support the students’ career development and pathways to employment.
Each high school has two or three industry partners (such as American Airlines, HCA Healthcare, Bank of America, AT&T, Microsoft, and fifty others) associated with the career pathways. Faculty and curriculum development specialists at DCCCD developed more than fifty certificate and degree pathway maps to align the high school and college requirements to ensure that the students would graduate with both a high school diploma and college credentials. More than nine hundred ninth-grade students at the first eight Dallas ISD P-Tech schools completed the first year of dual-credit college courses in 2016–17, with a course success rate (grades of A to C) of more than 87 percent and a retention rate (from ninth to tenth grade) of 96 percent. By fall 2017, more than three thousand Dallas ISD students were at twenty-four early college high schools that partnered with all seven DCCCD colleges. A total of thirty-one early-college high schools and collegiate academies (Dallas and other ISDs) and more than fifteen thousand total dual-credit college students are supported each semester by DCCCD colleges through tuition scholarships, instructional services, and support services. Each DCCCD college contributed to the development of dual-credit course pathways in collaboration with independent school districts that lead to certificates, degrees, or seamless transfer. DCCCD also worked with the North Texas Community College Consortium and its twenty community college members to partner with fifteen regional universities in the development of pathways for career and technical education students completing associate of applied science degrees to transfer college credits and complete bachelor of applied arts and sciences degrees.
Texas Pathways Project
In fall 2016, the Texas Association of Community Colleges’ Texas Success Center invited DCCCD to be part of the first cadre of colleges to participate in the Texas Pathways project, based on the American Association of Community Colleges Pathways model. May appointed a leadership team, including three college presidents and members of his executive staff, to lead the effort, and the college presidents selected fifty key faculty, staff, and administrators to be part of the DCCCD Guided Pathways to Success team. Starting in November, DCCCD analyzed student data, conducted further research, identified targets for improvement of success milestones associated with Texas performance-based funding, and developed a district-wide action plan. The project team developed informational materials, workshops, and web-based promotional material referencing research from the Community College Research Center (Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins 2015). The team identified seven career paths (meta-majors) that are aligned with Texas high school career endorsements and the National Career and Technical Education career clusters (O-Net Online, n.d.). In addition to participating in Texas Pathways project institutes involving almost fifty community colleges that featured nationally recognized speakers and research leaders, DCCCD brought in Rob Johnstone, founder and president of the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement, for local workshops for administrators and personnel.
Guided Pathways to Success at DCCCD
Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) is Dallas County Community College District’s integrated, district-wide approach to student success. The district’s new guided pathways—documents that clearly show the correct courses to take (and when to take them) to best prepare students for success—complement the degree plan that each student uses to finish the classes he or she needs to earn an associate’s degree or certificate (DCCCD, n.d.). It is designed to help students stay on track, avoid taking unnecessary classes, finish on time, launch their careers, or transfer to a four-year college or university.
Anna Mays, DCCCD associate vice chancellor for educational policy and student success, explains, “Using DCCCD’s higher education network—plus pathways, degree plans, advisors, navigators, career coaches, faculty, and staff—we work together to help our students identify their career goals and put them on the right path so they can become completers and enter the workforce with credentials that employers want and need.”
In order to support students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, it is essential to give students information about the types of degrees and careers and the paths by which to reach them. College and district leadership communicate clear benefits for guiding students on these pathways. “Finish earlier and with less debt. Get a good job or transfer to a university to continue on your higher education path. These are all of the benefits that guided pathways bring to our students,” May said.
A guided pathway for the associate of applied science degree in personal computer support, for example, provides a semester-by-semester plan and action steps, including certificate awards; it also provides links to the degree plan. DCCCD’s GPS also offers associate’s degree pathways that are designed to transfer to a bachelor’s degree program at a university.
“While the degree plan is the official document our students use to complete their credential, a guided pathway serves as the students’ navigation tool,” said Doris Rousey, the district’s director of strategic initiatives. Degree plans are published in the official DCCCD catalog, which is posted on the district’s website.
To implement the GPS support system at DCCCD, “champions” are trained to provide local support at each of the district’s seven colleges. As leaders of this effort, the main goal for campus guided pathways champions is to help students from each district graduate from their colleges faster and more efficiently and go on to live successful, productive lives.
“You have a real opportunity to influence others about what guided pathways mean at your college,” Anna Mays said at a recent training session. “It’s really critical that we have everyone involved in the guided pathways process.”
The event began informally, with a discussion of what guided pathways would have meant to the champions when they were still students. Each person recounted a unique experience, but all roads eventually ran together. Nearly everyone stated that guided pathways would have provided a consistent path and made their lives as a college student easier.
“I came to the United States in junior high, and I didn’t speak English, but I understood math because there was no language barrier,” said Alla Kelman, STEM professor at Eastfield College. “So I knew I would do something math-related. But with guided pathways, someone would have suggested that I try some education classes so I could see how math relates to education.”
“I changed my major about nine times,” said Sharon Jackson, math professor at Brookhaven College. “I was good in math, but back then I didn’t even like it. Through something like guided pathways, I could have discovered what my dad knew all along—that I would teach.”
“I originally went into political science to become a professor,” said Jose Adames, president of El Centro College. “I tried law school for a semester, but it wasn’t a good fit, so I went into a linguistics program and eventually became an ESL adjunct, then taught full time for seventeen years before eventually landing in administration. Guided pathways would have cleaned up that trajectory a lot, and I probably would have figured out law school wasn’t for me before I tried it.”
Through training, champions learned more about the expectations for their work. “We’re leaving today with tools that will hopefully open and expand our idea of the importance of guided pathways, as well as some practical things we can take back to our campuses,” said Tiffany Kirksey, director of guided pathways at Eastfield College.
For the newly trained champions, the session reinforced the value of DCCCD’s GPS approach. “When I first learned about guided pathways, I thought it was a practical, sensible, and responsible framework for assisting students and getting them to persist and complete their degrees,” said Cornelius Johnson, dean of academic advising and student success at El Centro College.
Guided pathways provide a common tool for the college to communicate effectively and consistently with students. Advisors and student services staff have endorsed using the pathways in their work directly with students.
“I saw guided pathways as the ability to connect all three sectors of education—high schools, community colleges, and universities,” said Marisa Pierce, vice president for student services and enrollment management at North Lake College. “It’s a real opportunity to continue those collaborative efforts for student success and really streamline these processes on a state and even national level.”
“This is really a perfect opportunity for faculty, advisors, and staff to work together in helping students with educational and career planning. It really does take a village!” said Brenda Dalton, executive dean for student and enrollment services at Brookhaven College.
Dallas County Promise
In fall 2017, DCCCD also initiated the Dallas County Promise with the financial support of the DCCCD Foundation and Commit, a collective impact community group involving more than fifty nonprofit agencies as well as the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce. Dallas County Promise is a last-dollar scholarship funded by the DCCCD Foundation with matching scholarships from partner universities (University of North Texas at Dallas, Southern Methodist University, Prairie View A&M University, and others) for students who complete an associate’s degree at a DCCCD college. The initial pilot, which began October 1, 2017, included the thirty-one high schools that have DCCCD college partnerships for early college high schools and collegiate academies. By January 31, 2018, more than 8,600 high school seniors completed a pledge to enroll in a DCCCD college or another institution of higher education, and those who complete the admissions and financial aid applications indicating that they plan to attend a DCCCD college in fall 2018 will be given a foundation scholarship to cover tuition if they are not awarded full financial aid. This new initiative is based on the success of the Rising Star scholarship program, historically limited to fewer than six hundred students. Dallas County Promise is a transformational effort between school districts, colleges, universities, the workforce, and communities to increase college completion. At the core, the promise is a scholarship from the Dallas County Community College District Foundation in partnership with matching university scholarships aligned to high-demand jobs.
This transformational effort between school districts, colleges, universities, the workforce, and communities seeks to increase college completion and develop a pipeline of world-class talent that creates equity in outcomes for students, families, and the community.
Seamless Transfer Pathways
Inspired by their AAC&U GEMs Pathways project work, UNT and Collin College next participated in Education Design Lab’s Seamless Transfer Pathways Design Challenge funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. UNT and Collin College made up one of four institutional pairs that participated in the fifteen-month design process exploring ways for students seeking a bachelor’s degree to transition smoothly from a community college to a four-year institution.
Established in 1890, UNT is one of the nation’s largest public research universities, with nearly 38,000 students. UNT graduated 8,500 students last year from its thirteen colleges and schools and offers 101 bachelor’s degrees, eighty-two master’s degrees, and thirty-eight doctoral degree programs. As the university has grown, so has its reach and impact. UNT recently opened the New College at Frisco, located in Collin County, which offers bachelor’s and graduate degree programs, as well as certificates and professional development.
Collin College serves more than 53,000 credit and continuing education students annually and offers more than one hundred degrees and certificates in a wide range of disciplines. Collin College also provides customized training and workforce development with business, government, and industry and operates the Collin Higher Education Center, which serves 3,100 additional students each year in partnership with UNT, a founding partner, and other universities.
UNT and Collin College focused on seamless transfer pathways in business, since many Collin transfer students identify business as an interest but are missing prerequisites needed to take upper-level courses and regularly incur an additional eighteen credit hours post-transfer.
The two institutions addressed this mismatch by creating a new general business degree designed with input from students and advisors and focused on accelerating Collin College’s associate of arts and associate of science graduates to the UNT bachelor’s degree within two years. The general business degree has been structured to apply nonbusiness coursework toward the degree—reducing excess credits—and is informed by employer demand through partnerships with local businesses, including the opportunity for career exposure placements before graduation. The new degree launches in fall 2019 at the UNT New College in Frisco.
NTCCC TransfEr Collaborative
In addition to the projects and partnerships that Collin College, DCCCD, and UNT have embarked upon, the primary outcome of the Texas team’s GEMs Pathways project work has been the creation of the Transfer Collaborative.
Collin, DCCCD, and UNT are all members of the North Texas Community College Consortium (NTCCC), established twenty-eight years ago to provide professional development and leadership programs and to facilitate communication, cooperation, and collaboration among member institutions.
NTCCC is made up of UNT and twenty community colleges across north Texas, representing 225,298 enrollments (31.5 percent of all Texas community, junior, and technical college enrollments). Two of the primary issues for member colleges are college credit transfer and degree applicability. Recognizing the swirling pattern of north Texas postsecondary students, the institutions focused on streamlining transfer and providing support for students, counselors, and advisors.
One growing but traditionally underserved student population is those earning AAS degrees, and with the development of Dallas ISD early-college high schools within Dallas County Community College District, most of which yielded AAS degrees, the time was right to highlight and clarify baccalaureate pathways for AAS graduates.
Students who successfully earn AAS degrees have demonstrated their ability to succeed in college-level coursework and to finish what they start. These students most often represent adult, first-generation, low-income, and minority students, and they possess clear awareness of the marketable skills they acquire through the AAS. A pathway that provides opportunities for “stackable credentials” provides these students and their families a bridge to a better future. Unfortunately, the old paradigm that divides education into “academic” and “vocational” tracks can create a barrier that limits the long-term advancement of some students. Often, advancement into managerial and executive ranks requires, or at least favors, candidates with a bachelor’s degree. Most AAS graduates are unaware that there are degree programs that will honor their technical course hours and help them progress quickly toward a bachelor’s degree and beyond.
The Transfer Collaborative helps to address this problem. The twenty North Texas Community College Consortium colleges, in conjunction with fourteen universities representing 240,497 enrollments (36.8 percent of all Texas public university undergraduate enrollments), have built the collaborative.
The first-year outcome of the collaborative was the development of a “common template” that clearly shows how AAS degrees align with BAAS degrees across North Texas. The AAS-BAAS guided pathway is not intended to replace a degree audit but to function as a guided pathway for students, leading to informed decision-making. The template does not create policy, but rather organizes already existing information at each college into a single readable and consistent form. It is structured as a full-time, eight-semester pathway but can also be used as a checklist for part-time students.
For the past three years, the Transfer Collaborative has expanded to include academic guided pathways for agriculture, architecture, business, communications, computer science, criminal justice, education, engineering, kinesiology, music, nursing, psychology, and sociology, representing 80 percent of Texas transfer majors.
Information on transfer pathways—including DCCCD’s GPS program, the Collin College to UNT general business degree, and programs of other participating community colleges and universities across Texas—resides on the Transfer Collaborative website (http://ntxccc.org/pathways), providing students and their families, as well as secondary counselors and postsecondary community college and university advisors, with clear and consistent transfer information in a single location.
The Texas Team's Impact
The Texas team’s participation in the AAC&U GEMs Pathways project has produced strengthened relationships between the participating institutions as well as the development of the Transfer Collaborative, which provided proof of concept for a statewide transfer portal scheduled to be launched in spring 2020 and housed at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
This article was written with information from the Education Design Lab, North Texas Community College Consortium, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Bailey, Thomas, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins. 2015. “What We Know About Guided Pathways.” Community College Research Center. https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/what-we-know-about-guided-pathways-packet.html.
DCCCD (Dallas County Community College District). n.d. “About Guided Pathways to Success.” Accessed November 9, 2019. https://www.dcccd.edu/cd/gps/pages/about.aspx.
O-Net Online. n.d. “Browse by Career Cluster.” Accessed November 9, 2019. https://www.onetonline.org/find/career.
Sawhill, Isabel V. 2013. “Higher Education and the Opportunity Gap.” The Brookings Institution. October 8, 2013. https://www.brookings.edu/research/higher-education-and-the-opportunity-gap.
A Stronger Nation. 2018. “A Path to a Better-Educated, More Racially Just America.” Lumina Foundation. http://strongernation.luminafoundation.org/report/2019/#predictive.
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. 2015. Texas Higher Education Strategic Plan: 2015–2030. https://reportcenter.thecb.state.tx.us/agency-publication/miscellaneous/60x30tx-strategic-plan-for-higher-education.
Ann Hatch, Former District Director, DCCCD Media Relations; Anna Mays, Associate Vice Chancellor, Educational Policy and Student Success; Doris Rousey, Associate Chief, Strategic Initiatives; and Mary Brumbach, Chief Strategy Officerl; Monica Young, Senior Digital Editor/Writer, Digital Communications Team—all of Dallas County Community College District; Christine Hubbard, President, North Texas Community College Consortium; Jean Keller, Professor of Kinesiology, Health Promotion, and Recreation and Co-convener, North Texas Regional P–16 Council, University of North Texas