Strong Start to Finish: How Course Pathway Maps Increase Student Success

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This post comes from Strong Start to Finish, an initiative at Education Commission of the States that aims to help colleges and universities increase the number and proportion of low-income students, students of color and returning adults who succeed in college math and English.

As developmental education reforms gain momentum across the country, course pathway maps help policymakers improve the student experience by identifying roadblocks to math and English course completion and, ultimately, a college degree. Course pathway maps create a visual guide, connecting the dots between every class in a sequence ending with the first college-level math or English course applicable to a degree.

Increasing the number and proportion of students completing college-level, aka gateway, courses in their first year is the explicit goal of Strong Start to Finish, an initiative of the Education Commission of the States. In support of meeting that goal, SSTF collected curricular information from six higher-education systems across the country and created over 440 individual maps. Three significant takeaways emerged from the hundreds of thousands of data points. We share what we learned to help higher-education systems better understand the structural and institutional barriers created through policies that impact student success and to suggest how they can be addressed.

Clear and Simple Maps Help Advisors Guide Students

From a human-understanding standpoint, the simpler the map, the clearer the path for both students and advisors. Using course names, numbers and descriptions from institutions, these course pathway maps demonstrate the sometimes-complex web of classes a student can take to complete a degree requirement in math or English.

In some cases, we found randomized or nonsequential course numbering systems, which are confusing to both students and advisors. These can lead students to take unnecessary and/or noncredit bearing courses. Clear, simple and sequential course numbering systems are a way for institutions to illuminate math and English pathways and streamline the enrollment process for both advisors and students. When course pathway maps are clear and simple, advisors have a powerful tool to show the benefits of reducing and/or eliminating lengthy or confusing sequences of remedial classes and paths that do not lead to a gateway course.

Asset-Based Course Names Spur Success

Though the intent of collecting institutional course data was to create a visual representation of course pathways for students, advisors and institutions, a troubling trend emerged around course names and descriptions. Many institutions used terms like basic, low-level or remedial to describe developmental education courses, which can negatively affect the mindset of students. Deficit-based language focuses students and faculty on a lack of skill rather than on fostering growth and encouraging academic persistence.

Institutions could remedy this issue by conducting comprehensive reviews of course names and revising naming conventions with an asset-based lens. When simple, sequential numbering systems and clear asset focused language are combined, course pathway maps guide students and advisors on a path to success.

Consistent Definitions Aid Students

Mapping data for this project also revealed a lack of agreement across institutions on the definition of a gateway course. While SSTF defines a gateway course as the “first college level course in math and English that meets degree requirements” the names and titles of the courses collected suggest substantial differences across institutions. This could lead to challenges with transfer credits and with students making progress to a degree when transferring to another institution. Consensus across institutions on what a gateway math or English course is allows students to understand degree requirements.

The work is far from over. The six systems serving as SSTF Scaling Sites have access to these course pathway maps to inform conversations with institutions. And they are making meaningful changes with the support of Student Ready Strategies. In sum, course pathway maps provide a useful tool to ensure more students meet degree requirements in math and English.

Author profile
Senior Project Manager at Strong Start to Finish |
As a senior project manager for Strong Start to Finish, Emily focuses on engaging systems that commit to implement actionable, evidence-based policy and practice at scale to improve student entry and success in their initial year of college. Emily comes to Education Commission of the States with over 12 years of experience in higher education and program management at the university level. She also has a passion for advancing diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of an organization. When she is not at work, Emily can be found hiking, camping, skiing and generally enjoying all of the outdoor activities that Colorado has to offer.

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