The Power of Pathways: Lessons Learned from the GEMs Pathways Project

With generous support from the Endeavor Foundation, the General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) Pathways project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) brought together two- and four-year institutional transfer partners in California, Indiana, and Texas to improve students’ educational experience through more effective guided pathways. These pathways focus on general education, preparation for participation in signature work, improvements to the transfer process, and ways to increase degree completion. California, Indiana, and Texas are all LEAP States, which use AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) framework to advance statewide essential learning outcomes, high-impact practices, and assessment of student learning. With support from AAC&U, GEMs project participants collaborated with various educational stakeholders—including two- and four-year institutions, community partners, and business leaders—to advance high-quality degree attainment, respond to stakeholders’ needs at the state level, and stay engaged in the national dialogue. Project participants focused on

  • affirming or amplifying shared essential learning outcomes for signature work at the two- and four-year levels;
  • ensuring that curriculum design (at the program, course, and assignment levels) is mapped to learning outcomes;
  • developing or clarifying outcomes-based articulation agreements;
  • improving student support systems, such as collaborative advising and peer mentoring;
  • developing authentic assessments of student learning using AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics; and
  • piloting shared ePortfolios to document and assess student learning (AAC&U, n.d.).

The project was based on the General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs): Designing Meaningful Pathways to Student Achievement (AAC&U 2015) framework and the LEAP Challenge ( The LEAP Challenge puts students at the center of their learning and encourages them to pursue signature work, requiring them to integrate and apply their learning to complex problems and projects that are important to them and to society. These projects should take place over the course of at least one semester, but the work is connected to students’ learning over their entire educational experience. It can come in the form of capstone projects, civic engagement, practicums, or undergraduate research.

The GEMs principles—proficiency, agency and self-direction, integrative learning and problem-based inquiry, equity, and transparency and assessment—provide a framework for an intentional, integrated, and inquiry-centered educational experience. These principles are also present across students’ curricular and cocurricular experiences, general education, and majors, and they ensure students make connections between formal and informal learning.

Over the course of the project, the GEMs Pathways included seven participating institutions—California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) and Santa Barbara City College (SBCC); Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Ivy Tech Community College–Central Indiana; and Collin College, Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD), and the University of North Texas (UNT). These institutions learned from each other about their existing efforts, shared ideas for changing their practices, attended convenings on the LEAP Challenge and GEMs Pathways, and participated in webinars to learn more about signature work, meaningful pathways, and GEMs. AAC&U staff members, fellows, and consultants also spent dedicated time on campus assisting the teams as they refined their work. The community of practice that emerged has much to share about how this kind of work can be advanced in very different states and with different types of partnerships between two- and four-year institutions.

While the institutional partners all worked on developing or honing effective general education programs focused on guided pathways, student preparation for signature work, and ways to ease the transfer process, the articles about each partnership in this issue of Peer Review concentrate on a particular dimension of the three goals. The aim of each institutional partnership was deeply connected to the local environment, leading the partner institutions to address pedagogy and high-impact practices, institutional culture, and alignment across institutions to meet their particular needs and the needs of “swirling” students, who attend multiple institutions in their quest for a postsecondary degree.

With an emphasis on signature work, the participating institutions took a closer look at their entire curriculum to ensure students were prepared for culminating assignments at the end of each educational experience. IUPUI and Ivy Tech changed their curricular emphasis to more closely examine their pedagogical practices and decided to focus on high-impact practices (HIPs). Due to the intentional integration of HIPs at both institutions, students who transfer from Ivy Tech to IUPUI would already be familiar with the practices and not “miss out” on participation in HIPs in the general education curriculum. Through these institutions’ work to integrate and scale HIPs, scaffold high-impact experiences, and provide multiple opportunities to participate in HIPs, students on both campuses will be better prepared to engage in higher-level HIPs when they reach their signature work.

As part of their work with the project, CSUCI and SBCC concentrated on the development of a broader institutional culture for faculty and staff, and within the classroom, to enhance student experiences. As they focused on curricular alignment, the partner institutions realized the importance of involving faculty, staff, and counselors throughout this process and wanted to ensure everyone felt comfortable participating in meaningful and equitable ways. As a result, the partners rotated meetings across campuses and offices, learned more about their own diverse institutional cultures, and realized that they also had to address their differences as they worked to provide equitable opportunities for participation for their students. This led to the faculty- and counselor-driven iPATH program, which you will read more about in their article later in this issue.

As three institutional partners working together in Texas, Collin College, DCCCD, and UNT were well positioned to address students who were “swirling” among multiple institutions over time and struggling to pull the credits together to attain a certificate or degree—a reality for a number of today’s college students. The 60x30TX Strategic Plan requires mapping for eighth graders in public schools to connect learning from high school through associate’s degrees and beyond. Students earn credits from early-college high schools through dual-credit programs and on the campuses of two- and four-year colleges. As a result, the three institutions must work together to clearly articulate their pathways and ensure students understand how the transfer process works across institutions. This attention to student mobility up the education ladder and across the rungs means that institutions must consider how and where credits attained at an early-college high school, or attained by students directly enrolled at a two-year college, will count. This work in Texas also shows the implications for state higher education policy and the ways institutions respond to new policies that affect the way they count credits.

The number of students in higher education is growing and becoming more diverse, with students of color and students from low-income families representing much of this growth, according to a May 2019 Pew Research Center report (Fry and Cilluffo 2019). As these numbers increase and the population changes, it is critical that we pay closer attention to the types of experiences these students are having. Many educational researchers, journalists, and policy makers have noted that more students are attending some college but not completing a degree. The overall benefits of attending but not completing have been mixed for students (Giani, Attewell, and Walling 2019). This is just one of many reasons we must continue to explore programs and projects that align two- and four-year institutions. We must emphasize quality experiences for students across institutions and inform and prepare students for what to expect at each institution from start to finish. Guided pathways provide these transparent, intentional opportunities for students to allow for a seamless transition once the articulation agreement has been signed or the state mandate has been passed. Students must also be prepared for real-world problem solving in both the two-year and four-year contexts. Guided pathways ensure students have scaffolded experiences and are ready for the level of work during each step of their academic study. Faculty and staff must also be prepared for students who swirl across institutions. With state-level partnerships, discussion can go beyond the broader issues of curriculum and transfer processes. Discussions about learning management systems, ePortfolio platforms, and sharing advising notes and other relevant information for individual students can also be addressed to ensure students truly have a seamless experience from start to finish, even if it is on their timeline, not ours.

The other goal of this project is to share examples from these partnerships that can be replicated—in part or whole—in other contexts. It is our aim that you will find these models useful as you seek to strengthen the pathways for your students.



Colleges and universities should provide clear statements of desired learning outcomes for all students. Similarly, general education, in all institutional and alternative settings, should provide programs, curricula, and experiences that lead to the development of demonstrable, portable proficiencies aligned to widely valued areas of twenty-first-century knowledge and skill. Students should achieve and demonstrate progressively higher levels of proficiency through problem-centered work on significant issues relevant to their interests and aims.

General education should play a critical role in helping all students understand, pursue, and develop the proficiencies needed for work, life, and responsible citizenship. Students should be active participants in creating an educational plan in which they identify and produce high-quality work on significant questions relevant to their interests and aims. Undergraduate education should enable students to understand the intellectual and personal capacities they are developing that will help them achieve their educational and professional goals, enrich their lives, and act in principled and constructive ways, both as individuals and in their roles in society.

Students should develop and demonstrate proficiency through a combination and integration of curricular, cocurricular, and community-based learning, as well as prior learning experiences, including in institutions and in local, global, and virtual communities and networks. Students should demonstrate proficiencies through inquiry into unscripted questions and problems that are relevant to their interests and aims and where a full understanding of the problem requires insights from multiple areas of study.

General education programs should be equity-minded in design and implementation. This requires a cognitive shift in the ways faculty and administrators understand and address inequalities in outcomes among students of color, students with disabilities, low-income and first-generation students, returning adult students, veterans, and others. General education programs should advance practices and policies that are aimed at achieving the full spectrum of learning outcomes for all students regardless of their backgrounds.

Students, faculty members, and other stakeholders should understand what proficiencies are being developed in any general education program, course, or activity, and how these proficiencies can be demonstrated at key milestones in students’ progress toward the degree. Students and institutions should be able to point to students’ work, especially their “Signature Work” in problem- and project-based inquiry, as demonstrations of proficiency worthy of credit across institutional settings and as a body of work associated with earning the degree.



AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2015. General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs): Designing Meaningful Pathways to Student Achievement. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

———. n.d. “GEMs Pathways.” Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Fry, Richard, and Anthony Cilluffo. 2019. “A Rising Share of Undergraduates Are from Poor Families, Especially at Less Selective Colleges.” Pew Research Center. May 22, 2019.

Giani, Matt S., Paul Attewell, and David Walling. 2019. “The Value of an Incomplete Degree: Heterogeneity in the Labor Market Benefits of College Non-Completion.” Journal of Higher Education.


Dawn Michele Whitehead, Vice President, Office of Global Citizenship for Campus, Community, and Careers, AAC&U


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