Data in Higher Education Series | Episode 8

Co-curricular Pathways: Building a Better Student Experience in Higher Education

Published January 10, 2019

Annemieke Rice, Vice President of Campus Success, sits down with Campus Success Consultant Moira Phippen to discuss co-curricular pathways and how we define them, what makes a great one, and their importance.


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Show notes:

Why co-curricular pathways matter:

It matters because this is how learning takes place. We know from so much learning theory that having intention and driving students to these outcomes and learning goals requires a calculated and guided approach. It also helps us with completion and other outcomes of a college degree. We’re seeing more and more legislators and grant funders look to the concept of guided pathways as a way to assist with that.

Guided pathways and comprehensive student records:

The guided pathways movement today is showing how to take degree paths—courses that students take and milestones they hit along the way—and make sure they proceed along a certain path within a certain amount of time to increase their likelihood of being completed. Not just being completed—but being completed with the skills that will help them get a better job, with less debt, and greater sense of outcomes of a college degree.

We also see a concept of a comprehensive student record. This is about making sure a student’s experience and record of their experience doesn’t just include steps inside the classroom, but also the steps outside the classroom. Organizations like NASPA, Lumina Foundation, and AACRAO (American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers), are really thinking about how to bring together those two components.

Career readiness:

Recently we’ve seen an increased focus on employability-skills and career-readiness as an outcome of a college degree. So not just receiving a diploma, but also being able to develop the skills you need to succeed in the post-grad world. Employers need quantitative reasoning skills and written communication skills, but also teamwork and ethical reasoning skills. We consistently see evidence that these skills are reinforced and applied outside the classroom. In a time of diminished resources, we need to make sure every experience counts, and that we drive students to—and through—these outcomes.

Tangible usefulness:

Co-curricular pathways can help answer: What is the next step for the students? We can target students to the experiences they need at the right time, driving them towards an experience based on what they want to achieve. It can also help students understand when they’ve “got it”—when they’ve achieved their goal or skills, so they can move on to developing new skills. Co-curricular pathways also help outreach to students who might think they’ve already got it covered, or the first-gen students who aren’t sure where to start in the first place.

Students as participants in a co-curricular pathway:

It depends on exactly how a campus has configured what they want the pathways to look like, what outcomes they are targeting, or what experiences they have available as options. Typically, there is a defined set of targeted experiences available to students that have demonstrated a connection to meaningful outcome achievement. This means they’ve been assessed and have shown to contain a link to certain outcomes, for example having achieved an ability to engage with people from different populations, engage in civic discourse, demonstrate resiliency, or practice leadership. Students will browse available options in each defined learning outcome area and select opportunities in that area. Some might be defined as mandatory, like all students needing to go to orientation; however, others will be optional, like choosing by most preferred topic areas or what fits their schedule. The students may have a portfolio at the end to demonstrate everything that’s contributed to their outcome development. This is something they can take to interviews or use in cover letters and other post-graduate opportunities.

What makes for a good pathway:

Just creating a set of experiences and putting them underneath the category of learning isn’t a pathway.

Look to use foundational elements of learning design. Begin with: What am I driving towards? Oftentimes that is completion. In other cases, it may be retention, or perhaps employability skills may be a large focus. So, thinking about the goal and then designing the pathway to work towards that is a big factor at the start.

Pathways should also include active and integrated learning experiences. Active means the student is participating in the discussion, reflection or application of learning, and they understand that’s what’s happening—that they’re involved. Also, they should be getting some formative feedback from leadership, faculty or peers. Those experiences should also be integrated between environments, meaning if students have one experience in one area, they should be able to compare or integrate it with an experience from a different environment.

Where pathways are going in the future:

Pathways are recently starting to get valuable recognition within the greater field of higher education. We’re seeing opportunities for emerging areas in learning. Looking at different co-curricular pathways our Member Campuses create, we see some bubbling up of career skill pathways, we also see topics like civic engagement, intercultural competence or diversity/inclusion. I think our educational climate is calling for more learning outcomes in those areas and we’re interested to follow those and see if they grow soon.

Finally, the key area that needs focus is evidence of learning. As we are guiding students through these experiences, engaging in reflections, participating in group discussions, engaging in roleplays, we’re not doing a great job of collecting the evidence and using authentic measures of documenting that learning. We need to hold co-curricular pathways to the same standards as classroom learning.

For those who don’t know if your institution has co-curricular pathways, don’t assume you don’t! Speak with some student affairs colleagues to better understand how they’re crafting the educational experience and how that can connect to your overall efforts.

Member Campus examples:

University of New Haven

A co-curricular pathway can really help coordinate efficient use of resources and guide collaboration between offices. University of New Haven’s co-curricular pathway is structured out of a leadership office but incorporates opportunities across campus. Students can develop across competency and resiliency for instance, through campus recreation programs. They’re also able to attend leadership programs on this topic. So instead of having different offices replicate efforts and resources, the pathway facilitates a way for administrators to talk to one another and figure out what programs are the most successful for meeting these outcomes and guiding students to them.

Western Michigan University

They do a wonderful job of marketing and incentivizing students to learn more, but they also have “graduates” of the co-curricular pathway program come back and do video spots or write-ups about what their capstone projects were. Some are alumni and will talk about how that experience and Signature project helped them get their job, or that their research project or experiential opportunity helped them get a better placement in graduate school. Reflecting on this matter as time well spent is the best intrinsic motivation they can leverage: telling students they’re here to learn, but also here to prepare for the rest of their life and this experience will help them excel in that respect.