Know the Difference: Career Pathways vs. Guided Pathways

Published jan. 22, 2018

This blog post tackles one of the toughest issues of our time: how to help more Americans complete enough postsecondary education to find a good job and achieve economic stability. That's our passion at Jobs for the Future, and periodically (spoiler alert) we need to get deep into the weeds of our work in order to address the large-scale changes required in our nation's education and workforce systems. Today's topic… pathways. If you are a community college leader looking to improve outcomes for your students, this blog's for you. Specifically, we'll get into:

1. What's the difference between a "career pathway" and a "guided pathway"? 

2. Is either type of pathway the ticket to greater economic opportunity? 

3. What should practitioners do to draw on the best elements of career and guided pathways?

Creating pathways to and through postsecondary education is a foundational strategy for transforming the delivery of education and workforce training in the U.S. JFF designs and scales two types of pathways—career pathways and guided pathways—and the language can get confusing, even to those in the field. We see an urgent need to reconcile the terms, and the approaches, in order to maximize the value of both and ensure that pathways are designed to help all learners attain postsecondary credentials and successful careers.

Let's start with the basic definitions:

  • Career pathways, as implemented at a community college, are discrete programs of study developed in response to the hiring needs of local employers. They often:
    • involve employers in the development of the program and curriculum
    • provide critical support services, such as assistance in finding a job after graduation, and
    • tend to have program elements that improve success for learners of all ages and skill levels, such as reducing the need for remedial education and co-enrolling students in education and technical courses so they can apply academic lessons in job-like situations.​
  • Guided pathways are a framework for redesigning an entire community college to improve the student experience for everyone, from entry through graduation. Guided pathways initiatives involve:
    • reforms in advising and registration processes to help all students identify their goals early in their academic careers
    • improvements in how students are supported throughout their courses of study 
    • clear "maps" for each program of study that guide students as they select courses, and
    • programs that, ideally, are aligned with career opportunities in the labor market.

In the early 2000s, when the concept was first taking hold, JFF developed career pathways as a means to overcome community college challenges, such as low graduation rates and the misalignment of credentials with the labor market. But like many researchers and practitioners, we came to see that career pathways alone could not solve systemic problems. The approach was successful for students who were part of a target population and interested in the targeted industries, but it didn't help all students succeed. We began to see guided pathways as a way to make the systemic changes needed so that all students would benefit.

Recently, we have observed that while designing and implementing guided pathways, some practitioners have missed essential lessons learned from the success of career pathways. These are the very elements that make career pathways so powerful—employer engagement, industry alignment, and focus on students' future careers. In addition, many guided pathways efforts haven't focused enough on elements to help underprepared learners succeed. (The Community College Research Center highlights this issue in a June 2017 report, Implementing Guided Pathways: Early Insights from the AACC Pathways Colleges.)

Meanwhile, among many state and college leaders, career pathways and guided pathways are seen as distinct approaches—or even as competing priorities—both in need of attention and resources. In these cases, the two approaches are often implemented by different, siloed divisions within a college or system office. This limits the ability of colleges to apply the high-impact elements of both, ultimately limiting their ability to scale approaches that are needed to drive student completion and attainment of family-supporting jobs.

Based on JFF's deep experience working with both approaches in the field, we propose that colleges need the best of both career pathways and guided pathways in order to truly increase economic advancement. We know of several colleges implementing pathway programs with the goal of seamlessly integrating the two approaches. They emphasize whole-college redesign so that all students select a pathway early in their journey, they provide students with support throughout the pathway, and they ensure that those pathways have a high level of industry alignment. Examples in the CCRC report include Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Pierce College, and St. Petersburg College.

JFF is committed to helping more community colleges—and community college systems—draw on both of these powerful approaches to create effective pathways for all students.

Tell us about your own experiences! Are you beginning to look for ways to integrate career pathways and guided pathways to ensure greater student access and success? We are eager to highlight examples of integration. If you have a story to share, or are interested in learning more about our work, please contact Jennifer Freeman at

Jennifer Freeman is a program director at JFF.