SALT LAKE CITY — If college courses could be likened to a Las Vegas-style buffet, it's hardly surprising that students are overwhelmed by their academic choices.
How does one select among seemingly endless options such as prime rib, crab legs and shrimp, not to mention the salad bar, pasta station and dessert bar?
The same could be said of academia. Traditionally, colleges and universities have prided themselves on the breadth of their offerings, particularly community colleges, said Jeff Aird, Salt Lake Community College's vice president of Institutional Effectiveness.
But for students who are relatively new to adult decision-making and are trying to weigh the costs and benefits of their choices, navigate college and determine how course selection aligns with the program they want and whether the credits will transfer, a smorgasbord of options can be bewildering.
"It just becomes overwhelming. The research shows what happens is these students go into decision deferral. They essentially say 'Well, I'll figure that out later because it's too complicated. I can't process all the information I need to process' so they stop taking classes," Aird said.
Typically, these are students who are doing well in their classes. They have similar GPAs to students who remain enrolled and are taking similar credit loads, he said. Yet they elect to take extended breaks from college, SLCC's qualitative research shows.
When SLCC officials ask students why they're not in school many of them say "I'm still figuring it out. I don't want to take more classes right now until I can figure out why I'm taking them," Aird said.
Clearly, students need additional guidance to help them navigate college and work toward goals, Aird said. Likewise, colleges need to evolve to better serve students and make better use of precious resources.
These are two of the major goals of Salt Lake Community College's Pathways initiative, Aird said.
"How do we better support students in their decision-making that can help them achieve their goals faster and more efficiently? We want to be more efficient with the student dollars. We want to be more efficient with the state dollars and we think this initiative can help us do some of that," he said.
Recently, Salt Lake Community College was awarded a grant to help students map pathways to their goals and ensure they are learning.
SLCC was one of 20 institutions nationwide to be awarded a $30,000 grant offered by the Association of American Colleges and Universities with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The grant will help support the Pathways initiative, expected to be fully implemented by 2023, according to the college website.
According to Tia Brown McNair, the association's vice president for diversity, equity and student success, one goal of the effort is to learn from the work of the 20 institutions to inform pathways work at other institutions.
“If we, as a nation, are going to close equity gaps in student outcomes, we must engage in collaborative and comprehensive efforts to help institutions that serve our most diverse students enhance their existing structures and practices to fully prepare students for success,” Brown said in a press release.
While developing its Pathways program, SLCC officials discovered that two-thirds of SLCC students are in a "general holding program called general studies" that is "literally, completely unstructured," Aird said.
Under SLCC Pathways, the college helps students identify their strengths and start to map out how they will achieve their goals.
"We have them meet with faculty earlier on and then we design their early courses that helps reinforce that. We don't just say 'Take some courses and figure out what you want.' Hopefully, we're going to get to the point the courses themselves are going to reinforce that developmental decision-making," he said.
The approach asks students to see their course-taking differently than in the past. Instead of simply filling up their plate at the proverbial buffet, the initiative guides them to make informed, thoughtful and intentional choices in selecting courses.
One component of the advising is helping students select among eight areas of study.
They include arts, communication and digital media; business; computer science and information technologies; health sciences; humanities; construction, manufacturing and applied technologies; science, engineering and mathematics; and social and behavioral sciences, education and human services.
SLCC Pathways requires that the institution change its approach, shifting to a case-management model that educates students about program options, develop "motivational relationships" with students, communicate with them at crucial points of their academic programs and continually advise them of their progress.
SLCC Pathways is an evolving process, Aird said.
"We've had to understand that our job as a college is more focused than just providing a large set of courses. We have to design and provide intentional, structured programs and the student can make a better, educated decisions, not just what I'm doing this semester but what I'm doing in my entire academic experience."