Online Guided Pathways: Ideas for Colleges and Universities

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Technology & Development, Web Design

Online Guided Pathways: Ideas for Colleges and Universities

A four-year graduation rate of 33 percent at public colleges and universities, and a six-year graduation rate of 60 percent.

For private colleges and universities, the numbers increase to 52.8 percent for four years and 65.4 percent for six years.

And at community colleges, fewer than 40 percent of students earn a certificate or degree within six years of enrollment.

These are scary numbers—and one of the main reasons that higher ed administrators are scrambling to figure out ways to increase retention. There is evidence, however, that a guided pathways model can simplify the academic journey by providing students with a clearly delineated path to graduation.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • The definition of a guided pathways model.
  • Guided pathway pillars.
  • The benefit of a guided pathways framework for students.
  • Tips for implementing student pathways at your school.

Throughout, you’ll see examples of schools that have successfully implemented online guided pathways models.

Learn practical ways to combat declining retention and graduation numbers using guided pathways.

What is the guided pathways model?

The guided pathways model is a way to nurture students in their academic journey by providing simple, clear paths from enrollment to graduation and ultimately, the workforce. Guided pathways requires buy-in from everyone on campus. It’s about meeting students where they are and then guiding them to where they want to go.

Guided pathways on your website is a bit different. Once your college or university has defined guided pathways, you can design your website navigation to lead students through a guided pathway in a specific major, career, or personal interest.

How is guided pathways different from the traditional “cafeteria-style” approach?

Historically, the cafeteria-style approach gives students too many choices for classes, some of which don’t even count for college credit. You’ve seen this approach—a list of classes by department, with no real information about majors that require the class or majors with generic class listings, but with few real specific classes defined.

Guided pathways is an attempt to streamline the process with clearly defined pathways, or academic journeys, that students must complete to graduate.

A guided pathways initiative meets students where they are and helps them move from college to the workforce.
A guided pathways initiative meets students where they are and helps them move from college to the workforce.Image courtesy of Virginia Community Colleges System


What are the pillars of guided pathways?

The guided pathways model has four distinct steps, or pillars:

  1.  Mapping, or outlining the path.
  2.  Exploration of careers and academic programs, or entering the path.
  3.  Helping student progress toward graduation, or keeping students on the path.
  4.  Measuring learning outcomes.

These guided pathways pillars form the foundation for this streamlined approach. Mapping and keeping students on the path requires guidance and intervention from faculty and staff. Career exploration and selection of academic programs, along with measuring learning outcomes, are steps where you school’s website can impact the guided pathways model.

OmniUpdate customer Linn-Benton Community College is a pioneer in the guided pathways model.
OmniUpdate customer Linn-Benton Community College is a pioneer in the guided pathways model.


How does the guided pathways framework benefit students?

If a student knows exactly what they want to study, a guided pathways framework is ideal. The student simply enters the path for a specific academic program on your website and then self-selects an academic program. From there, the student is guided through specific classes to meet graduation requirements.

Most 18-year-olds, however, have no idea about what they want to do. In this case, you can design a guided pathway based on a personal interest. A student self-selects an interest and then is guided through an academic program based on those interests.

Finally, the guided pathways also works for non-traditional students. These students have a career in mind, so they can self-select by choosing a career and then following the academic guided pathway to meet those academic requirements.

What are some tips for implementing student pathways at your school?

If you want guided pathways to work on your campus, then every department as well as administration and faculty must buy in to the approach. You need academic expertise to build out the pathways for each program.

OmniUpdate customer Tacoma Community College’s website offers several ways for student to self-select a guided pathway.
OmniUpdate customer Tacoma Community College’s website offers several ways for a student to self-select a guided pathway.


Once you have the paths defined, then it’s a matter of redesigning your website navigation to guide students through a guided path. In fact, your website is the most useful tool you have in making sure that students engage with the guided pathways model.

Unsure of how to structure your pathways? Download our white paper College and University Website Redesign: The Ultimate Guide to learn more about creating student personas.

What are the top three tips for implementing guided pathways?

  1.  Make sure you have a content management system (CMS) that can support the interactivity that guided pathways requires. Your CMS should include built-in features like an accessibility checker, content contributor permissions, and template customization—all of which make it much easier to support your digital approach to guided pathways.
  2.  Have a guided pathways plan. The SUNY Guided Pathways project is a good example of how to outline the project so that everyone on your campus understands what you’re trying to do.
  3.  KISS, or Keep It Simple for Students. Make it easy for students to find the information they need on your website and keep calls to action (CTAs) short, clear, and visible. You want students to know exactly what to do and when to do it.

These tips will help you get started on your pathways project, but you’ll also want to check out our white paper Designing a Digital Guided Pathway for Your College or University Website for additional suggestions and a more comprehensive approach to implementing guided pathways.


When confusion is supplanted with a clear path to success, it’s only natural that students benefit. The guided pathways model is proven to work. And when students win, so do colleges and universities.

If you’re ready to implement guided pathways for your website, it might be time to discuss a redesign, and maybe even a new CMS to power it. Schedule a demo to begin the path toward a dynamic and engaging online presence for your institution.

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