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In the News/Important Info






Pathways to Student Success

CCTI Summit – March 2006

by Kay McClenney

A reasonable person might well ask this question: Why is this work - the work of developing career pathways, of creating seamless transitions for students from high schools to community colleges to jobs and further education - so important? Why does it really matter?  

The succinct and straightforward answer is this: The whole future of our communities and of our country, not to mention countless individuals, depends significantly on the ability of community and technical colleges – along with their partners in education and the employer community – to do a far better job of moving students to and through our institutions, toward better jobs, toward continuing education over a lifetime. 

The Pathway to the Middle Class

For both individual students and their communities and states, learning matters, attainment matters, postsecondary degrees matter. The realities that back up that statement are well known to most community college educators. To put it simply, the rules of upward mobility have changed in American society. Clearly, higher education, including both the associate degree and the baccalaureate, makes even more difference now than it once did. Many of the benefits, both to individuals and to their communities and the society, have been documented in research. To put that research in summary terms, educational attainment level is positively correlated with nearly every other thing we care about as a society: The higher a person’s education level, the more likely that person is to be gainfully employed, earning relatively higher wages, paying taxes, participating in the democratic process, making charitable contributions, doing volunteer work, able to care for the health and education of his or her children. And conversely, that more educated person is less likely to be publicly dependent – on welfare or in prison. 

Furthermore, a companion reality is the compelling fact that “…increases in a country’s overall level of educational attainment cause corresponding increases in its overall rate of economic growth. Increasing a country’s average level of schooling by one year can increase economic growth by about 5 to 15 percent” [emphasis added] (Carnevale and Desrochers, 2004).


Because the work is critically important, it is likewise important that it be done exceedingly well. Like community college students, the institutions and organizations involved in CCTI are on a pathway. We too have transitions to negotiate and navigate. Thus, it is worthwhile occasionally to take stock of our own progress – our own institutional, organizational, and collective transitions from where we started out to where we ultimately need to be in this work to create coherent, rigorous, and effective pathways for students. A half dozen of those critical transitions are briefly described below.

Transition #1:  From just us to a national movement

CCTI itself has now expanded from its original 15 partner sites. First, a number of those sites are expanding internally the number of career pathways available to students. More than 100 additional colleges are now part of the new CCTI Network.

Beyond CCTI – and often in partnership with it – are other organizations and initiatives involved in promoting and strengthening career pathways – the Workforce Strategies Institute, SREB, CORD, CCRC, and others. There is a growing partnership with the Ford Foundation’s national Bridges to Opportunity Initiative, managed through the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas and working with community college systems, policymakers, and other constituencies in six states.

Across these initiatives, we see some distinctive work, but we also and mainly see a lot of common ground. Not surprisingly, our common ground also defines our common challenges. Nearly all of these initiatives are dealing, for example, with these issues:

  • There is continuing work to be done in building and sustaining meaningful partnerships between community colleges and other educational institutions - high schools, career and technical schools, senior colleges and universities - along with employers; community-based organizations; and workforce, human service, and economic development agencies.
  • The misalignment of high school exit competencies and the requirements for entry into college-level courses emerges as a major issue in settings all across the country.
  • More broadly, articulation of credits across educational institutions and sectors, the necessary basis for seamless transitions, remains a challenge in many locations.
  • Ultimately, the ability to ensure smooth transitions from level to level of education and into the workforce will depend on more adequate means for assessing and documenting student learning outcomes. This is tough and time-consuming work. If it weren’t necessary, we wouldn’t do it. 
  • And the list goes on…

Transition #2:  From just a project to sustainability 

The message here is a little tough on all of us. If projects - Title III projects, Title V projects, TRIO projects, other soft-money projects – really worked, we wouldn’t be here. We would have solved our problems. We wouldn’t be losing the numbers of students we’re losing; and we wouldn’t be looking at some of those dismal statistics about student academic preparation, persistence, and degree attainment. 

The truth is that educators are very accustomed to the project mentality - building marginal, boutique programs that may well benefit a few fortunate students but do not get scaled up and too often do not live on beyond the end of the grant funding. 

This work on career pathways deserves to be expanded and sustained. But to do that successfully, the work must be moved from the margins to the mainstream of our institutions. That’s the third transition.

Transition #3:  From marginal to transformational change

As more than one smart person has observed, our educational systems are perfectly designed to produce precisely the results we are typically getting.

The kind of change that is required to accomplish what we need to accomplish – more successful outcomes for many more students - is not marginal change. It is transformational. It is change in the fundamental ways we do the business of education. It is change that requires strong leadership, relentless focus, and sustained effort over time.

And it is, therefore, the kind of change that necessarily comforts the afflicted but afflicts the comfortable. Sustained effort and transformational change lead in turn to the larger outcomes we seek – and the fourth transition.

Transition #4:  From success for a few fortunate students to increasingly successful outcomes for all students.

There are persistent and troubling gaps in our educational systems that cry out to be addressed more powerfully and more effectively. The gaps referred to are those that separate low-income students and students of color from their more affluent but less colorful peers. Gaps in participation, gaps in persistence, achievement ,and degree attainment. These gaps are intolerable. Closing the gaps is the most important work we can do. Further, it may just be the most important work in America. 

Transition #5:   From compliance reporting to data-driven strategies for improvement

Extensive experience suggests that one of the most powerful levers for change is when community college people decide to tell the transparent truth about the student experience. Decide to take an honest and thoughtful look at data that paint a credible picture of what happens to students as they move to and through our institutions. Decide to use that data to figure out where they’re doing well and where they need to make significant improvements.

The flip side of this phenomenon is another thing I’ve learned: We don’t get better at what we’re not willing to look at.

Building this culture of evidence is no simple thing. For one thing, you have to have the data tools, the technological capacity. But that is surely not the biggest challenge. In the early going, people may not be eager to hear about that 8 percent graduation rate, or the baseline 74 percent of students who need remediation in math, or the 30 percent success rate in the freshman biology course. Or the fact that the numbers look even worse when you have the courage to disaggregate them by race, ethnicity, or income level. Evidence challenges our assumptions, challenges the practices with which we are comfortable, challenges the status quo. But it also helps us to see the pathway toward excellence. 

Consider the notion of being accountable. Not submitting accountability reports, not holding someone else accountable, but being accountable. There’s a lot more to accountability than instituting a policy or submitting a report. One of the most powerful developments in an educational institution or any other organization occurs when people assume collective responsibility for achieving significant results. And the thing that most powerfully prompts this is data. Transparency. Truth telling. 

Transition #6: From conference rooms to classrooms

This transition points to another reality that I think all of us understand. That is, we can have a great collection of four-color charts depicting ideal career pathways; we can have sophisticated models for data collection and analysis; we can have great conversations at meetings in Atlanta and in Washington, DC. We can have all of that and more, and it won’t amount to a hill of beans if we are not able to change what goes on in classrooms. We have to be focused, if we’re really serious about better student outcomes, on these very basic things:

  • Alignment of curriculum level-to-level
  • Alignment of teaching to curriculum (Is the described curriculum the real curriculum?)
  • Improving the quality of instruction (The curriculum may be taught, but is it taught effectively?)
  • Strengthening student engagement – expanding the use of effective educational practice, both in and out of the classroom
  • Defining and assessing student learning outcomes (Never mind what was taught – the ultimate question is whether the students learned anything!)

This is the heart of the work, and it is ultimately where we will either succeed grandly or fail miserably. 

Student Voices:  The Importance of Pathways

It is important to return, finally, to the point of all of this work – the lives and careers of individual students in our schools and colleges, communities, and states. There’s something particularly interesting that we learn through the work of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. Through the survey, we ask students – almost a half million of them so far – which in a long list of student and academic support services are most important to them. The list includes, for example, financial aid, child care, computer labs, advising and academic planning, career counseling, job placement, transfer assistance, and the like. 

It comes as a surprise to a lot of community college people that students consistently report that the service of most importance to them is academic planning and advising. When we have followed up, conducting focus groups with students, we have asked them to talk about why they place this level of importance on advising and academic planning. Typically, the first thing they say is that it’s not about someone just helping them to fill out their class schedule. Rather, it’s about creating a plan - defining a pathway, with milestones along the way, that shows them the route from where they are to a different place they want to be. Students have further explained that that plan and those milestones essentially then compete with all of the other issues and obligations in their often complicated lives, giving them reasons to return to class the next week and the next semester. 

Career pathways, done well, don’t just build workforces.  They change lives. 


While on an airplane not so long ago, I was thinking about how to communicate to policymakers and other important constituent groups just what it is we are asking of community colleges. What is the task we have set for these institutions? Here’s what I scribbled on a notepad:

  • Our institutions must reach out to populations not currently well served, building bridges to college participation.
  • They must build relevant and rigorous curriculum, along with effective student and academic support services, bridging the chasms that currently exist between adult basic education, remedial education, the arts and sciences transfer programs, and the programs for technical, career, and professional education.
  • They must produce world-class excellence in developmental education, securing an unfailing footbridge from academically underprepared to academic success at the college level.
  • They must collaboratively develop and effectively deliver workforce education and training that is responsive to employer needs and the regional economic development agenda while ensuring that individual students achieve the knowledge and skills that will be the bridge from unemployed to employed, from underemployed to optimally employed.
  • In order to do this work well, the colleges will:
    • Build strong and collaborative relationships with a variety of stakeholder groups;
    • Strengthen their connections with K-12 systems and four-year colleges and universities;
    • Establish effective partnerships with business and industry;
    • Ensure credible and productive relationships with elected officials and other policy leaders;
    • Oh, and by the way – employ, develop, and pay a highly competent, highly diverse, and highly motivated faculty and staff who are committed to effective practice and focused on results.
  • All of this these colleges and their partners will do in an environment characterized by:
    • Increasing demand for postsecondary education;
    • Escalating expectations for fiscal and academic accountability;
    • And, in all too many places, public disinvestment in postsecondary education and the development of human capital.

That’s all … or nearly all. Otherwise, we don’t have much to do. It’s time now to get on with the work.


Carnevale, A.P and D.M. Desrochers, “Why Learning?  The Value of Higher Education To the Society and the Individual.”  In K. Boswell and C.D. Wilson, Keeping America’s Promise.  Denver, Education Commission of the States, 2004.

Kay McClenney is Director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement and an adjunct professor in the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin.  She serves on the CCTI leadership team and advisory working group.  Portions of these remarks are drawn from “Building Lives While Building Workforces:  Why Policy Matters,” an article in a forthcoming issue of the Community College Journal.