Guided Career Pathways: A New Postsecondary Framework for Today’s Learners

Recognizing that community colleges must sharpen their focus on career outcomes to better serve today’s learners as they navigate lifelong journeys of work and learning, JFF has developed a new postsecondary framework called Guided Career Pathways.

By Jennifer Freeman and Brianne McDonough


By Jennifer Freeman & Brianne McDonough

Our country’s workforce and education ecosystem is undergoing seismic shifts, and postsecondary institutions must evolve accordingly and adopt new approaches to help students succeed as they navigate lifelong pathways of work and learning.

The majority of students at two-year colleges are “nontraditional” learners, and the lines between learning and work are fading as people find that they must continually develop new skills throughout their careers to keep pace with the demands of an ever-evolving economy. On top of that, remote instruction is now commonplace, and the traditional degree is no longer viewed as the sole indicator of skills or career readiness. And tremendous disparities persist: Black, Latinx, and Indigenous workers, as well as those in low-wage jobs, experience greater barriers to access and success in higher education. The disparate impacts of COVID-19 have laid bare society’s equity gaps; ensuring all learners and workers can identify and remain on a clear path toward economic mobility has grown all the more urgent.

These new realities have created an environment that requires a new model for postsecondary education—one that prioritizes equitable economic mobility for an increasingly diverse student population, addresses the needs of the “new traditional” learner, opens opportunities for working people who are not currently seeking a college degree, and aims for equitable outcomes across all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups.

To meet that need, JFF has developed a new postsecondary framework that we call Guided Career Pathways, which incorporates best practices and innovations of two earlier reform initiatives—guided pathways and career pathways—to imagine new intersections between work and learning. Over the past decade, educators and workforce development professionals have trusted JFF to play a lead role in developing and implementing guided pathways and career pathways nationally, and this new initiative builds on our longstanding work with our partners in those fields.

JFF’s Guided Career Pathways framework focuses on these three core elements to improve pathways:

  • A labor-market-informed design that reflects regional economic needs and the needs of individuals in the community.
  • Expanded outreach, on-ramps, and support strategies to better serve adult students and ensure equitable outcomes for learners across racial and socio-economic lines.
  • Integrated work and experiential learning strategies at multiple points along educational pathways.

Our new framework combines the best of what we know about pathways design and builds on innovations taking place at community colleges across the country. Some colleges have started to explore how to address learners’ career-related needs within guided pathways. This evolved approach truly meets students where they are and acknowledges that people’s lifetime journeys no longer follow sequential routes with discrete phases of training, education, and work. These strategies require strong partnerships with employers, four-year colleges and universities, workforce development stakeholders, and community-based organizations (CBOs).

This new model asks post-secondary institutions to use labor market data to understand and respond to economic changes. It also creates a vision for aligning new on-ramps to pathways to reach learners from populations that are underrepresented in postsecondary education. In addition, the goal of all programs—from short-term micro-credential courses to longer-term pathways that lead to transfers to four-year institutions—must be to help learners prepare for and secure quality jobs, and educators must engage learners to help them achieve their career goals.

Drawing on Two Powerful Pathways Reforms

More than 400 colleges have implemented the guided pathways model, and research suggests that it has proven to be a powerful framework for redesigning the student experience and has had a measurable positive impact on student success. JFF helped lead the first early guided pathways reform effort, Completion by Design, which took place at nine colleges in four states in 2011. The guided pathways model was later formalized in the 2015 Community College Research Center publication Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.

Since then, JFF has been a leader in the most prominent effort to implement guided pathways across the country, the Pathways Collaborative. Working with several other members of the collaborative, JFF helped develop the four-pillar guided pathways model and supported a national effort to design, scale, and implement guided pathways. JFF also built the 16-state Student Success Center Network—an initiative that has helped expand guided pathways to more than 50 percent of the community colleges nationwide.

For its part, the career pathways model has been embraced by educators who are focused on career outcomes for students, particularly those who have faced barriers to participation in traditional education systems. JFF helped develop the first career pathways toolkit published by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2011. Since that time, JFF has worked on a number of efforts to implement career pathways nationally. For example, we supported the 256 colleges and consortia grantees of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) initiative, helping educators and training providers design education and training programs that lead to high-value credentials in specific industries and working collaboratively with employers and community partners.

Career pathways have helped create bridges across noncredit and credit-bearing adult basic education programs. They are intentionally designed with multiple on-ramps customized for learners of varying ages, educational backgrounds, and levels of work experience, and they include robust support services to help students identify their chosen pathway, complete a credential (or multiple credentials), obtain employment, and advance economically.

However, we have observed, and research confirms, that more work needs to be done to address the needs of today’s learners, close continued racial equity gaps, improve transfer pipelines, and promote a stronger focus on career outcomes, and that is why we have developed a new framework that incorporates both guided pathways and career pathways.

Expanding the Pillars of Guided Pathways

The original guided pathways framework established a strong model for institutional redesign across the following four goals, or pillars: Clarify paths to student end goals, help students choose and enter a pathway, help students stay on that path, and ensure that students are learning. The pillars set standards for structuring programs and curricula to support the student experience and ensure that schools can achieve the goals that are central to each pillar. However, as one of the coauthors of the guided pathways framework, JFF now recognizes that there is a need to expand each pillar and incorporate elements of the career pathways model. We brought these two high-impact reform efforts together in our new Guided Career Pathways framework to better serve the “new traditional” learner; address gaps in access, equity, and success; and build pathways that lead to sustainable careers.

Here are our four expanded pillars, with explanations outlining why we expanded each one in the way we did. We also call out examples of initiatives in place at community colleges across the country that demonstrate how these pillars can strengthen pathways.

Pillar 1

Create clear curricular pathways to employment and offer opportunities for ongoing skills development to support career mobility.

The Guided Career Pathways framework expands the first guided pathways pillar to ensure that program pathways dynamically reflect the ongoing evolution of the economy and provide learners with opportunities to quickly develop skills that are currently in demand in the labor market. Many of today’s learners need to work while attending college, and we need to design programs that enable these learners to obtain credentials quickly and continue building skills so they can advance in their careers.

Guided Pathways in Action

The states of Wisconsin, Virginia, and Texas, among others, have supported colleges’ efforts to help students prepare for quality jobs quickly by assessing the skills that are in demand in the labor market and developing pathways that include short-term credential courses in both longer-term associate degree programs and programs that lead to transfers to four-year institutions. In many states, Student Success Centers are providing support to colleges for those efforts.

Pillar 2

Help students choose and enter their pathways, build on prior experience, explore career options, and connect with work.

Today’s students must be able to build on the skills and knowledge they acquired in previous jobs or educational and training programs. It is not enough to help students choose their pathways. We should design programs that take into account what they already know, award them credit for that knowledge and expertise, and thereby enable them to complete their coursework more quickly. This is an equity strategy that benefits working adults and learners from low-income backgrounds by saving them time and money. Programs should also provide learners with access to career navigation services and resources and offer them opportunities to participate in work-based learning experiences throughout their pathways. To expand their capacity to connect learners with employment opportunities, programs should forge partnerships with workforce boards, CBOs, and employers.

Guided Pathways in Action

Using prior learning assessments (PLA) to ensure that adult learners can get course credit for the skills and knowledge they already have is key to the success of any Pillar 2 strategy. Several states, including California, Wisconsin, and Colorado, have developed statewide PLA strategies for all students who enter community college.

Pillar 3

Help students stay on their paths to complete their employment and transfer goals, and design programs with the flexibility to allow learners to reenter at any point.

The third pillar emphasizes the need to promote student retention and persistence. Many of today’s learners are juggling family and work responsibilities as they pursue education. Some may experience life events that interrupt their studies; others may simply need to take breaks from formal learning to achieve the right balance of school, work, and family. Retention and reengagement strategies, flexible program models designed to accommodate the needs of all learners, and tailoring supports to address individual needs will foster more equitable outcomes. We can build such programs by collaborating with transfer partners, workforce development boards and CBOs to provide the holistic supports and case management services many students need.

Guided Pathways in Action

New Jersey community colleges partner with community-based organizations to provide students with support resources such as housing and food assistance. These efforts, supported by the New Jersey Center for Student Success, help students experiencing financial insecurity stay on a path to completion.

Pillar 4

Ensure that learning happens with intentional outcomes in both the classroom and work-based settings.

In addition to ensuring teaching practices have a critical lens towards culturally-appropriate and inclusive teaching, our Guided Career Pathways framework calls for programs to add robust work-based learning opportunities. These introduce students to occupations and industries, give them practical experience for mastering classroom-acquired skills, and build important understanding of workplace processes that can only be learned at work. In addition, work-based learning helps open avenues to advancement for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian-American students who are both overrepresented in and disproportionately limited to entry-level roles. As pathways expand in that direction, programs must start to measure the knowledge and expertise students gain in the workplace and give them credit for it. For such approaches to succeed, faculty and staff will need training to learn how to link workplace and classroom curricula. Importantly, pathways should also recognize both formal and informal work-based learning to provide equitable opportunities for all students.

Guided Pathways in Action

Lorain County Community College in Ohio has developed a dynamic program that integrates on-the-job training and classroom instruction, allowing learners to earn money and college credit as they gain practical experience that prepares them for family-supporting employment in high-demand fields. It’s one of a growing number of similar programs across the country.

Join Us

Join Our Push to Expand and Strengthen Guided Pathways.

JFF invites community college leaders to adopt our Guided Career Pathways framework. Colleges that embrace this model will fill an urgent need for postsecondary programs that foster equitable economic mobility by enabling a more diverse population of workers and learners to build skills that are in demand in the labor market.

In the coming weeks, we will dive deeper and present the specific strategies involved in the updated and expanded pillars of the Guided Career Pathways framework. And the full Guided Career Pathways framework, which we plan to publish in the near future, will offer more detailed explanations of how carry out this expansion, adding specific strategies to each pillar.

We recognize that, in addition to calling for changes in practice, we must join postsecondary leaders in advocating for education and workforce training policies and funding models that facilitate adoption and scaling of the strategies we propose. JFF is excited to begin working with partners in the field to explore ways to bring these promising strategies to scale, broaden our definition of success, and identify opportunities for policy change.