Recent Blog Posts

Why pathways matter to student success

Pathways to Results (PTR) is aimed at improving student transitions to and through postsecondary education and into employment. It provides methods, tools and templates to address inequities in student outcomes and improve student, program, organization, and system performance. PTR emerged as a method to improve Programs of Study in the state of Illinois, but it can be applied to any program and process that seeks to improve outcomes and performance.To date, PTRhas involved a total of 66 completed projects involving 43 of the 48 community colleges in Illinois along with high school and community partners. Trade Adjustment Act Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) consortia that are partnering with OCCRL as third-party evaluators are implementing PTR as well. Further, OCCRL is integrating PTR into the Transformative Change Initiative, which seeks to scale pathway and program of study innovations nationwide.


Marcy Drummond, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, presents at the March 5, 2014 Scaling Up Pathways to Results Conference.

On March 5, the Office of Community College Research and Leadership along with the Pathways Resource Center held the fourth annual Scaling Up Pathways to Results 2014 conference. In her keynote address, Marcy Drummond from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation discussed the pathways students navigate in our education system.

Because youth transitions are taking longer and today’s students are less likely to attend college immediately upon graduating for high school, are independent, working, going to school part-time, and in some cases are raising children as single parents … their engagement in postsecondary education is increasingly nomadic. They stop and come back. They move between colleges or simultaneously attend multiple colleges. They change majors. They start at a community college and continue on to university, sometimes with a break in between for gainful employment. And at each transition, they risk losing momentum or dropping out completely. Even moving from high school directly to college is a challenge where high school graduation and college entry standards don’t align or where remediation is often required. Learners need to be able to easily transition from high school to college, among colleges, and between college and the workforce over the course of their lifetimes particularly taking into consideration most learners do not take linear paths as their personal lives, education, and careers evolve.

She goes on to say:

Secondary and postsecondary education providers and employers need to work collaboratively to design and implement education to employment pathways that are more learner-centric, structured, adaptive, learning outcome-focused, and portable.

The PTR process helps practitioners to understand obstacles to student success (from the students’ perspective) so breakthroughs can happen, but it is going to take all of us working together to help scale these pathway initiatives. We need to ask ourselves, how can we foster effective transitions?  How can we develop and implement more structured pathways?

View the video of Ms. Drummond’s presentation:

View selected clips from the presentation:

Pathways to Results is funded by the Illinois Community College Board. The Pathways Resource Center is funded by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Conference materials and a photo gallery from the event are available at the conference webpage.

Ann C. JonesAnn Jones is the Project Coordinator for Pathways to Results. She works closely with the current PTR teams and is responsible for organizing meetings and webinars. Ann can be reached at

Pathways to Results: Review and Reflection

On Thursday, April 11th, Nick Melrose and I conducted a webinar on Review and Reflection, which can be accessed on the Pathways to Results website.  Review and Reflection1 comprises the final group of activities that PTR teams go through in a PTR cycle.  Review and Reflection affords PTR teams the dedicated time and outlines specific processes to help them document what they have learned throughout the PTR process.  Taking time to pause and think about individual and organizational learning is a relatively unique opportunity for many practitioners.  I’d like to share a bit more information about the four concepts that provide the foundation of activities conducted during Review and Reflection.  The first is storytelling.  We include storytelling in PTR for several reasons: to share information informally but in a structured meeting among PTR team members, to create new knowledge and raise awareness among the group about others’ perspectives, and to expand our own thought processes by hearing others’ views.  In telling stories, PTR teams help create a culture and collective identity of people who are dedicated to program improvement, to using data to make decisions, and to focus on more equitable outcomes for all students. Through storytelling, PTR teams achieve a deeper understanding of the PTR process and the outcomes it achieved.

Image13Review and Reflection is, at its essence, a form of reflective practice.  Of the many models of reflective practice, OCCRL adopted Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s work and the concept of double-loop learning. Argyris and Schön tell us that human behavior is never accidental but rather, based on our belief systems – both known and unknown.  As a result, we inadvertently have created some of the problems we try to solve. However, by constantly examining and questioning the thinking behind our actions and the processes we create, we can improve our processes and thus, the outcomes that are the result of them. The activities undertaken during Review and Reflections ask PTR participants to think about what they believe, how they feel, what they learned so that when faced with similar situations in the future, their actions and the processes they develop will reflect what they have learned works better. In other words, as our learning improves through reflective practice, so will the organizational practices we create.

There is a lot of talk about sustainability in education these days.  We know that some things are sustained in every organization.  Some work and some don’t; what’s a mystery is that even those practices and policies that don’t work are sometimes sustained! With PTR, our goal is to sustain the improvements that we have data to support, as measured by the outcomes and evaluation measures we create in PTR that help determine their value.  PTR is based on using data, and we use that data to make decisions on what to sustain.  So, an important part of Review and Reflection is to have conversations about sustainability, which is built into the process from the beginning when the PTR partnership is formed.

Finally, the solution arrived at via the PTR process is meant to be scaled up or spread to other programs of study, to other departments, to any part of the career pathway system that recognizes the value it adds to program planning and improvement. It’s important to recognize that the nuances and details of a very good, improved process will likely have to be changed to some degree in order to adapt to a new application. That is normal and should be expected. What does not change when scaling up PTR improved processes are the values and core beliefs PTR is based on: a commitment to equity – to learning – to improving processes so more students achieve better outcomes, and to using data to make those decisions.  I encourage you to go to the OCCRL website and watch a short video by Jeanne Century of the University of Chicago who talks about sustaining and scaling educational innovations.




Cathy Kirby is a Research Information Specialist at the Office of Community College Research and Leadership. She has provided coaching and professional development to PTR teams and others since its inception.




    1.Bennett, S., Bragg, D., & Kirby, C. (2012). Review and Reflection.(Rev. ed.). Champaign, IL: Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Benchmarking and Evaluating to Improve Programs through Pathways to Results

PTRJeff Flesher, an independent consultant, was asked to reflect on the recent webinar he and Debra Bragg conducted.

On Tuesday, April 8, Debra Bragg and I presented a webcast on Process Improvement and Evaluation, which is now available on the Pathways to Results website.  The session was based on the PTR modules Process Improvement & Evaluation1 and Evaluation & Benchmarking2 along with some of reflections on previous practice and suggestions to ensure a more successful accomplishment of the process.

In each part of the PTR process, there is a need to maintain a focus on the targeted improvements in student outcomes and equity.  As teams design potential solutions, opportunities exist to engage and involve key stakeholders and consider the multiple possible improvement ideas these perspectives can contribute to the team.  Teams may also use internal benchmarking to identify possibilities to integrate institutionally meaningful tools (i.e., existing College planning models and processes) to leverage resources and align with institutionally meaningful practices.

The benchmarking process is actually helpful in both design and implementation of solutions and evaluation as components like accreditation standards can be helpful in both design and the measurement of outcomes.  Another great opportunity for teams is to leverage the experience of previous PTR teams through OCCRL materials and direct communication.  These connections can build on past success and continue to grow our collective knowledge of what leads to successful outcomes and equity improvements.  Benchmarking for evaluation efforts could include survey design, using technology to capture the number of website visits, or innovative practices in embedding measures during the implementation of improvements.

Evaluation measures in PTR include both the number and duration of interventions (Activities), and a focus on the impact of those solutions on the outcome and equity improvements (Outcomes).  Evaluation planning is accomplished before implementation efforts to ensure that activity measures are accurately collected and that the teams are able to get feedback for adjustments to solutions if needed.  In many cases the final measurement of outcomes will take time as solutions are fully implemented and improvements realized.  In these cases the PTR teams must also plan to create a sustained process of measurement that may outlive the formal team, being integrated into institutional measures and staff responsibilities.

Jeff t1Jeff Flesher is president of Prairie Fire Development a management, training and organization development consultancy providing global services to corporate, education and non-profit organizations.  Dr. Flesher also holds academic appointments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His teaching has included classroom and online courses in strategic planning, technology transfer, evaluation, quality and process improvement, and organization development. Dr. Flesher has consulted with OCCRL on PTR projects, TAACCCT evaluation, and the Transformative Change Initiative.


1Harmon, T., Liss, L., Umbricht, M., & Flesher, J. (2012). Process improvement & evaluation(Rev. ed.). Champaign, IL: Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
2Flesher, J., & Bragg, D. (2013). Evaluation and benchmarking module.Champaign, IL: Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bringing college success to scale: Promoting pathways at Hillsborough Community College

After recently presenting a breakout session at the Scaling Up Pathways to Results 2014 conference, OCCRL asked Karen Griffin to share more about the work being done at Hillsborough Community College.

Hillsborough Community College (HCC) is an Achieving the Dream (ATD) Leader College with a history of increasing support for student success. HCC is committed to the adoption of a completion agenda designed to reduce the loss of momentum students may experience at entry into the College and during progress with their degrees. Data indicate that students who are placed into remedial coursework experience considerable loss of momentum during their first term, and HCC is working on identifying all loss of momentum points in an effort to increase student retention and success. In 2012, in support of the completion agenda, HCC’s Student Success, Retention, and Placement Committee recommended bringing a course to scale: SLS 1501 College Success. Bringing the course to scale translates into making the course a requirement for all First-Time-in-College (FTIC) students to take during their first term. Term-to-term and year-to-year retention data collected since fall 2004 demonstrate increased persistence among students who take SLS 1501 versus those who do not. Coupled with the course requirement will be an intrusive advising approach that ensures students are developing educational plans, entering programs of study during their first term, and staying with their choice. Jenkins and Cho1 emphasize the importance of students identifying a program of study, entering it within their first year, and adhering to it.

Photo courtesy of Hillsborough Community College

Photo courtesy of Hillsborough Community College

From one of many options to the requirement

Currently, SLS 1501 is one option among the student life skills course options required of all students who, at entry into HCC, place into developmental education courses, whether or not they are FTIC students. The positive impact the course has on student retention provides the strongest argument for making the course the requirement for all FTIC students. The course requires students to develop an achievable academic plan and to refine the skills needed to become master students. HCC is developing customized versions of the course for students who need to choose a major and contextualized versions of the course for discipline-specific areas such as allied health and nursing, business, STEM, social and behavioral sciences, and English, arts and humanities curricular areas. To assist in this endeavor, faculty are updating academic program tracks, which includes expansion of the “pre-major” tracks for the Associate in Arts degree. To provide additional institutional support, HCC’s six principles supporting student success2 (adapted from Terry O’Banion’s Six Principles that Support Student Success) include as the second principle the SLS 1501 mandate partnered with the development of an academic plan. The principles that HCC adopted are as follows:

  1. Every student enrolled in the A.A. degree or an A.S. degree program will undergo mandatory orientation.
  2. Every FTIC student will be enrolled in SLS 1501 College Success and will develop an academic plan.
  3. Every degree-seeking student will be placed in a program of study from day one.
  4. Every student will be monitored throughout the first term, and interventions will occur to help students be successful in their first-term courses.
  5. All decisions regarding policies, programs, practices, processes and personnel will be based on evidence to the extent possible
  6. Professional development will focus on providing opportunities for faculty to learn new strategies and strengthen existing approaches to maximize student success and completion as the highest priority.

Bringing SLS 1501 to scale requires a “one-college,” united approach to the endeavor. To bring the course to scale, HCC will have to provide considerably more sections of the course than are currently being offered. In fall 2012, 69 sections of the course were offered. If all FTIC students were accommodated, approximately 215 sections would have been needed. The College will also need to align resources to ensure that adequate support is provided in terms of academic services such as supplemental instruction, learning communities, and summer bridge programs.

Effective advising is also a critical part of the completion agenda. Integral to bringing SLS 1501 to scale is the deployment of the College’s online advising module, which FTIC students will use to develop their academic plans as a requirement of SLS 1501. Advisors will work with students to evaluate, refine, and update academic plans developed in the course with the use of the online advising tool. Combining the three strategies of (a) on-line advising technology with (b) intrusive advising within the requirements of the (c) SLS 1501 course leverages the abilities of all three to enhance student success at HCC. We are committed to sharing what works and what does not work with bringing SLS 1501 to scale, and we would like to hear from others who are pursuing this approach.

OCCRL wants to hear from you.  What do you think about Dr. Griffin’s perspective?   Do you agree?  Please share your thoughts with her and other OCCRL readers.

Karen GriffinKaren Griffin is director of the Associate in Arts programs at Hillsborough Community College, with more than 24 years at HCC. As co-chair of the Student Success Committee for the past four years, she has worked closely with faculty to assess data related to student success and identify strategies to help students navigate the educational paths at HCC. She welcomes your questions about HCC’s completion agenda. She can be reached at

1. Jenkins, D. & Cho, S.W. (2012) Get With the Program: Accelerating Community College Students’ Entry into and Completion of Programs of Study  (CCRC Working Paper No. 32). New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.
2. O’ Banion, Terry. Principles for Student Success. Retrieved electronically on March 17, 2014 at DESIGNS

Scaling Up Innovation in Community Colleges

Lisa Soricone of Jobs for the Future penned this guest blog after presenting a breakout session at the Scaling Up Pathways to Results 2014 conference.

How can we broaden the reach of promising approaches to impact larger numbers of community college students? Jobs for the Future (JFF) explored this question in Thinking Big: A Framework for States on Scaling Up Community College Innovation. Through interviews with leaders of states and colleges that had successfully scaled innovation, we derived a framework that captured common elements of their experiences.

The “Arc of Scaling” consists of 4 phases:

1) Preparation and Planning: defining the problem and considering solutions; engaging stakeholders and building relationships; and thinking at scale from the beginning
2) Initiating: selecting the first implementer; creating systems and infrastructure; learning from experiences in the field
3) Expanding: incorporating and supporting new colleges; balancing fidelity and flexibility; and fostering ownership
4) Sustaining: promoting culture change; addressing policy and finance; and evaluation


Courtesy of Jobs for the Future

The Arc in Action
At OCCRL’s March 2014 Scaling Up conference, we presented our framework, and asked our colleague, Harmony Little, of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), to comment on its applicability to Kentucky’s experience of scaling JFF’s Accelerating Opportunity (AO) initiative. Based on Washington’s I-BEST model, AO is aimed at helping low skilled students succeed in college and earn credentials that will lead to family–sustaining wages through career pathways that integrate basic skills and occupational training.

Harmony described how, in the preparation stage, the three state partner groups,— representing adult education, workforce, and KCTCS, —planned to align AO with other system efforts and partner missions, and sent a clear message of intention to scale AO statewide. At first, the initiative was rolled out with Phase I colleges, that later served as mentors for (the remaining) Phase II colleges. Colleges established leadership teams that mirrored the state- level collaboration. The state team set up structures for communication and feedback, and shared best practice and lessons learned among colleges. During expansion, Phase II colleges received technical support, professional development, and links to the national AO network. During this time, the state also focused on shared learning, identified champions and celebrated accomplishments. As of January 2014, Kentucky successfully scaled AO to all of its 16 colleges. The state team is working on sustaining the initiative by drawing on data and continuing to the work toward culture change and the institutionalization of processes.

Harmony noted how the Thinking Big report validated Kentucky’s experience, though she would encourage folks to think about culture change and evaluation throughout the scaling process, not just at the point of sustaining.

Lisa-SoriconeLisa Soricone is a senior project manager at Jobs for the Future in Boston. Harmony Little is the Accelerating Opportunity project coordinator at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.