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Adopt Guided Pathways

Adopt guided pathways to credentials and require institutions to monitor progress toward on-time completion

Create Smarter

To increase attainment and produce more postsecondary credentials, states will need a multifaceted strategy to improve completion among traditional college-going populations but also will need to engage larger numbers of high school graduates and adult learners. To ensure their success, states and institutions need to support and incentivize institutions to address the challenges and obstacles that so often derail both traditional and nontraditional student populations. Guided pathways offer clear, structured programs of study for students to follow through to graduation and into the workforce. They eliminate common obstacles and accelerate progress. They often minimize student choices about which courses to take, require students to choose a major or program of study early, such as in the first or second semester, and provide more intensive advising.

Such pathways should make it clear to students how they can efficiently progress through their program as well as reduce the average amount of time and number of credits needed to reach completion.

States and systems should support and incentivize publicly financed institutions to create innovative, guided pathways with the following features, which are  identified in the Complete College America report Guided Pathways to Success: Boosting College Completion:

  • default pathways or whole programs of study;
  • informed, limited course choices;
  • early selection of a major or meta-major (a broad cluster of majors);
  • academic maps that provide a semester-by-semester schedule of courses;
  • milestone courses that must be completed in prescriptive order; and
  • intrusive advising for students not on track.

Improving postsecondary attainment rates will require that institutions serve more students and, in the current economic climate, do so at a lower cost per degree. A McKinsey & Company study looked at the productivity of higher education institutions by examining cost per degree. It also conducted detailed studies of eight institutions with high levels of degree production at a lower cost per degree. The eight included two-year and four-year institutions in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Utah with open access or less competitive admissions since they serve about half of all enrolled students and the majority of low-income students.

The McKinsey report found a set of five practices that appear to raise degree productivity without compromising quality or access: systematically enabling students to reach graduation, reducing nonproductive credits, redesigning delivery of instruction, redesigning core support services, and optimizing noncore services and other operations. Efforts to enable students to persevere to graduation include providing structured pathways to graduation.

Research conducted by the Community College Research Center indicates that community college students who do not enter a program of study within one year of enrollment are less likely to enter a program of study and less likely to earn a credential. More than half of those who entered a program of study within the first year completed a degree or credential, transferred to a four-year institution or earned a bachelor’s degree from another institution, compared with 37 percent of those who entered a program in the second year.

State Examples

Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.


Arizona State University created its eAdvisor program to help provide students with clear information about degree requirements as well as tools to help students choose a major, track their progress and connect them with advisors and student supports. When students are identified as being off track, the system reports it to the advisor. Requiring contact between the student and advisor helps a student identify a degree that might be a better fit and reinforces in-person advising. The eAdvisor system is improving student retention and success. Retention rates among first-time, full-time freshmen increased to 84 percent, and 91 percent of students are now identified as “on track,” an increase from 22 percent three years earlier.


Florida State University (FSU) Degree Mapping is an academic advising and monitoring system that provides an eight-semester map for each major field of study and a plan for graduating within four years. Student progress is measured each fall and spring term. Students do not have to complete every course in the specified term but must complete those designated as milestone courses, earn at least a C- in those courses and maintain a minimum grade point average. Students not making appropriate progress have a hold placed on their registration and must consult with an advisor about alternatives for getting back on track. Since it started mapping, FSU has cut in half the number of students graduating with excess credits. Further, in 10 years, FSU increased its graduation rate 12 points to 74 percent for all students and closed gaps in completion among various underrepresented populations. FSU increased graduation rates to 77 percent for African American students, 72 percent for first-generation Pell Grant recipients and 70 percent for Hispanic students. For more information, see Replenishing Opportunity in America: The 2012 Midterm Report of Higher Education Systems in the Access to Success Initiative: Florida State University, The Education Trust, May 2012.

In 2013, Florida lawmakers enacted SB1720, which required the State Board of Education, in consultation with the Board of Governors, to develop a series of academic meta-majors, broad content areas of focus, and academic pathways designed to guide students to degree completion. The law also requires Florida College System institutions to use placement test results to determine if students possess the skills required for their chosen meta-majors. Institutions must advise students and urge their enrollment in college credit-bearing courses as quickly as possible and limit developmental education to content identified as necessary for succes in the chosen meta-major.  The State Board of Education, which oversees the Florida College System, adopted a rule in September 2013 that establishes eight meta-majors and gateway courses for each meta-major.


Georgia State University adopted a comprehensive approach to improve student success on their campus, including intrusive advising, degree maps, and predictive analytics.  Their intrusive advising efforts included creating a Graduation and Progression Success (GPS) Advising system using seven years of data to develop more than 700 alerts that indicate behaviors that put a student at risk of not graduating. Each alert is communicated to a student’s advisor and triggers an institutional response to provide support services. The GPS system provides students, advisors, and university leaders with current information about student status and progress. These initiatives have helped to increase graduation rates at Georgia State by 20 points in ten years and to eliminate the achievement gap even as enrollment has grown and become more diverse and more economically disadvantaged..For more information, see The Education Trust report Learning From High-Performing and Fast-Gaining Institutions.


The Tennessee Technology Centers are a statewide system of 27 institutions that provide a range of one- and two-year technical and occupational programs and have high completion and job placement rates in high-skill, relatively high-wage fields. One of the reasons for the centers’ success is their focus on completion and job placement as the driving force behind all policies and practices while also maintaining a mission that is educational and not solely focused on job training. Additional contributing features include a rigorous, prescribed program structure; self-paced, competency-based learning; universal, integrated developmental education; and the provision of critical student supports. Once enrolled in a program of study, students do not choose which courses to take or when. They follow a standard program, completing program objectives and demonstrating mastery at their own pace. The Tennessee Technology Centers were an early leader in providing students with clear pathways and supports and have an average 70 percent completion rate. For more information, see A Working Model for Student Success: The Tennessee Technology Centers (Preliminary Case Study).

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