Transforming Higher Education: The Guided Pathways Approach

Community colleges must move from a model that promotes access to enrollment to one that supports access to completion. Leveraging technological resources can be a key to instituting transformative change. STAR was the Guided Pathways technology needed to provide a deep transformational shift across the University of Hawaiʻi system, community colleges included.

photo of white arrow drawn on green sidewalk looking down on person's feet at its base

The landscape of student success in higher education is changing. Practitioners recognize that merely providing institutional access won't suffice — institutions must take responsibility for serving students from a multiplicity of backgrounds and with varying preparation. We must strive to keep our promise to help students through to graduation. Although historically not designed to promote completion, community colleges must move from a model that promotes access to enrollment to one that fosters access to completion. Previous efforts at reform have not had broad impact. The Community College Research Center finds that limits of prior reforms have largely resulted from their focus on one area of the college or on a small population.1 The CCRC proposed the Guided Pathways Approach model of deep transformation.

Guided pathways "start with the students' end goals in mind, and then rethink and redesigns programs and support services to enable students to achieve these goals."2 The model focuses on laying out a clear, cohesive academic program for students and aligning the support services to assist students down their program path to successful completion. Visionary leadership and a sense of urgency are essential to drive the change. Further, for this model to truly transform the institution, the changes must occur across structural, process, and attitudinal domains.

Considering Adrianna Kezar's research, CCRC explains these multiple levels of change as they relate to the work of Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (IPASS).3 They argue that for change to be transformative, it must occur at all three levels: structural, process, and attitudinal.

  • Structural changes are "…changes to the organization or design of systems and business practices."
  • Process changes are "…changes in individual engagement, behaviors, and interpersonal interactions with systems and business practices."
  • Attitudinal changes are "…changes in core underlying attitude, values and beliefs."4

This article examines the adoption of a new degree planning, audit, and registration system, in concert with multiple other initiatives, at Honolulu Community College as a case study on the complexity of transformational change. We will discuss the importance of leadership across levels and of urgency, and will use Melinda Karp et al.'s framework on transformational change to examine the process of creating transformation. In using this framework, understand that distinguishing between domains of change is inherently difficult because

transformation bridges the micro/macro divide. Institutional changes can encourage and reinforce (or discourage and restrain) micro level changes, and vice versa; as individual changes bubble up or percolate through an institution, its overall culture begins to shift. The relationship between the micro and the macro is iterative. At times, it is difficult to discern where individual change ends and institutional change begins because the two interact, reinforce one another, and span various stakeholders' engagement.5

Therefore, although change will be laid out along structural, procedural, and attitudinal domains, keep in mind that these changes overlap domains and interact with each other.

Honolulu Community College Transforms the Student Experience

The guided pathways approach, adopted after the implementation of other success measures, has quickly become the guiding framework for the University of Hawaiʻi Community College system's student success work. Academic programs are built to support student objectives of employment or transfer. Support services are designed to quickly enter students onto a pathway, assist them in staying on the pathway or in moving them to a more appropriate pathway, and building the skills for students to thrive beyond the scope of the community college. Technology is deployed not as an extra tool, but rather as an instrument to guide students along a pathway to success.

Honolulu Community College (Honolulu CC) is a small, urban school located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. The main campus, along with several satellite facilities, serve roughly 4,000 students per year in career technical and liberal arts programs. The college is part of a larger 10 college system. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (a land, sea, and space grant institution) is the flagship campus, with two other baccalaureate granting institutions and seven community colleges spread across four islands, with an additional satellite campus on a fifth island.6 The college serves many Native Hawaiian students, Pell Grant recipients, military veterans, and a variety of other underserved populations. Meeting the unique needs of these students lies at the forefront of Honolulu CC's mission and work.

Honolulu CC has, for many years, committed to a "student-centered, student-focused" mission. Student success sits at the center of Honolulu CC and the broader system's mission and strategic plans. Putting the mission into action has required cross-department and cross-campus collaboration; a willingness to make structural, process, and attitudinal changes; and support from administrators in the form of visionary leadership to drive those changes. It is a deliberate process that requires piloting, data collection, review of impact, refining, and scaling. This process is cyclical, and evaluation is ongoing. The task of reimaging new structures and technologies to support student success has never relied on one initiative or tool; instead, it is a concerted effort to implement multiple initiatives, practices and supporting technologies simultaneously, a series of steps in optimizing the student success framework.

STAR: Technology as a Catalyst for Guided Pathways

STAR is a degree planning, audit, and registration tool founded in the belief that Guided Pathways improve students' success. The development of the tool began in 2005 with three primary goals, as explained by Gary Rodwell, a key STAR founder:

  1. Create transparency between institutions and their students, allowing students and advisors to become partners together in creating degree pathways and tools to helps student stay on track.
  2. Unite all of the 10 public postsecondary institutions and their 60,000 students in Hawaiʻi (seven community colleges and three four-year institutions), so seamless degree pathways could be created using courses from any UH institution.
  3. Feed all the student degree pathway data back to the programs offering the degrees, so the programs can analyze, understand, and overcome the constraints that are restricting their throughput (such as a lack of seats in core courses or overly complex degree requirements).7

Laying out a clear academic pathway for students minimizes barriers to degree completion. A structured, clearly outlined degree path can reduce students taking off-program courses, accumulating excess credits, and planning to take courses in a semester they are not offered. Students save money because they do not pay for excess credits and do not run into financial aid issues by taking unqualified off-program courses. Institutions can maintain a high level of academic program guidance even in the face of understaffing or budgetary cuts.

Bringing tools like STAR to a college is more about using the technology to mediate deep shifts in beliefs and practice than about a standalone technology implementation. When speaking with Melodee Himuro, a counselor at Honolulu CC, the deep transformation is clear. She explained:

"I use STAR as a tool to empower them [the students] to take accountability to track their progress towards completion. I am most inspired about how students can now take ownership a little bit more than before."

When students log in to their STAR account, they are brought to the Academic Essentials screen (figure 1), which provides information about where they stand on their path to a degree. They can see the requirements they have met and which are still outstanding. Additionally, information about holds and any notes from advisors are visible.

Figure 1. The Academic Essentials screen in STAR

Courtesy of the STAR team

Figure 1. The Academic Essentials screen in STAR

Shared Vision across Multiple Levels of Leadership

Leadership and support across all levels was necessary for Guided Pathways and STAR to succeed in the University of Hawaiʻi system. Those leading the initiative had to foster a common understanding that STAR was the Guided Pathways technology needed to provide a transformational shift. Levels of leadership can be quite complex in any public university system. Figure 2 depicts all stakeholders who worked collaboratively to provide input and support for STAR and Guided Pathways.

Figure 2. Stakeholders for STAR and Guided Pathways

Figure 2. Stakeholders for STAR and Guided Pathways

The state of Hawaiʻi has committed to increasing completion rates of postsecondary credentials. The Hawaiʻi Graduation Initiative (HGI) focuses on the need to "increase the educational capital of the state by increasing the participation and completion of students, particularly Native Hawaiian, low-income students and those from underserved regions and populations and preparing them for success in the workforce and their communities."8 Further, the state has committed to the 55 by '25 campaign, which set the goal of increasing the total percent of working adults in Hawaiʻi having a two- or four-year degree from 43 percent in 2015 to 55 percent in 2025. Further, with backing for STAR by Complete College America, the State Legislature included funding for STAR in several state budgets, providing not only money but also clout to the project.

The state's essential support for adoption of Guided Pathways and STAR also required end-user feedback to move the project from conception to full use. Marilynn Ito-Won, an academic counselor at Honolulu CC, talked about the importance of feeling that counselor feedback was valued. She explained how the core STAR team would solicit their feedback and figure out what was possible. Decisions happened quickly. Some projects use a drawn-out process where several committees consider feedback, and end users can feel unheard. Because the STAR team could act immediately on adjustments and explain why they could not make some changes, the counselors began to trust the team and the tool.

Throughout the process, teams of STAR builders on each campus met regularly to coordinate with key stakeholders on their campuses, such as instructional faculty, registrars, schedulers, and Banner staff, to ensure optimal construction of pathways. Teams met on a weekly basis as a group with the central STAR office. At these meetings, they shared challenges and offered each other advice about building, implementation, and subsequent processes, as well as attitudinal shifts.

Implemented in spring 2017, the fall 2017 registration cycle required that all students in the University of Hawai`i system, were required to be provided the opportunity to register via STAR. Special population students may have been assisted with manual registration. The campus STAR teams continue to meet to refine and improve the technology tool, develop best practices around assisting students with registration, and voice the challenges and successes surrounding the day-to-day implementation.

Creating a Sense of Urgency

In Hawaiʻi, the evidence for needed change was clear. In 2014, 19 percent of students registered for courses that did not count toward their degrees. In 2015, only 17 percent of Honolulu CC's first-time freshman took at least fifteen credits.9 Further, students took many courses that did not count toward their degrees and accumulated excess credits. A small percentage of these courses that did not count were remedial or repeat courses, which means that even with redesign of remediation, the problem would persist. A full 75 percent of courses that did not count were neither remedial nor repeated.

The process of getting stakeholder support was ongoing and required using data to demonstrate that without Guided Pathways students made slow progress toward a degree and were hindered by taking excess credits that did not count. Further, throughout the development of STAR the team used the tool to generate momentum. For example, by using STAR the team could demonstrate that students might lose velocity through an inability to get a seat in a course. They created a dashboard to show this information directly, and in real time, to the appropriate campus stakeholders, who then could visually understand the need for Guided Pathways and the STAR tool and act on that knowledge.

Structural Change

Implementing STAR as a degree planning, audit, and registration tool represented a significant structural change, which catalyzed major process and attitudinal changes. STAR replaced previous structures: printed degree planners, and audit and registration through the University of Hawaiʻi's portal.

To obtain end-user feedback during the pilot registration via the STAR system, Honolulu CC began by conducting a small focus group during which students previewed the registration interface and provided comments. In the fall of 2015 20 students in the Computer, Electronics, and Networking Technology (CENT) program registered for their spring 2016 courses through the STAR system. Following the pilot, students were surveyed about their experience. All 20 of the students participating in the pilot had previously registered via the University of Hawaiʻi's portal and thus could compare the two processes. When evaluating STAR registration versus previous methods, 95 percent of students found it easier to locate courses. All students participating in the pilot felt confident that they had registered for the correct courses, with one student indicating slight confidence and the rest indicating moderate to high confidence. For fall 2016 all new students to Honolulu CC registered via STAR, along with CENT students who had previously used the tool. The group was expanded again for spring 2017 registration; all new students and all students who had previously registered via STAR used the system.

Process Change

The process of academic planning and registration has changed with the implementation of STAR. Previously students would (optimally) consult the catalog and work with an advisor to choose courses and understand degree program requirements. They would then search the University of Hawaiʻi portal to find these courses, look for openings, and register in the portal for classes. Counselors would use printed degree plans and write course sequencing for students on paper, but if a student lost the plan, wanted to move courses around or change the course load, or even decided to change their major, course sequencing and course eligibility toward degree was difficult to understand.

With STAR degree planning, students no longer need to hunt through a catalog to identify required courses and guess when they should take them. With the degree audit, they can verify with confidence that they are on track toward their degree. With the most recent addition to STAR, registration, students can register for classes directly from their pathway. Students no longer need to refer to multiple places to determine whether a course counts toward their degree; the system removes guesswork.

To plan course sequence and register, students visit their Graduation Pathway. Plans are pre-made, but students can move courses around, add personal choices, and select electives. See figure 3.

Figure 3. The Graduation Pathway screen for course planning and registration

Courtesy of the STAR team

Figure 3. The Graduation Pathway screen for course planning and registration

A student who recently graduated explained how STAR benefitted her:

"Creating 'What If' journeys helped me explore different academic pathways that I could pursue when I transfer to UHM [University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa]. Seeing categories that I needed to satisfy gave me a general understanding about classes and helped me plan out each semester. STAR also helped me communicate with my counselor aspects I didn't quite understand."

Other students also noted the value of the "What If" feature. This tool allows students to explore the impact of changing their major and what would be required if they transferred to another institution. Students can easily see which classes that they have already taken will count toward a different degree and which won't. Additionally, they can anticipate how long their academic journey will take. For example, one student studying Education at a different community college in the system but taking her spring courses at Honolulu CC indicated that she used STAR to see what would transfer back to her home campus. She also checked the impact of switching her associate's degree to Liberal Arts on her long-term goal of earning a bachelor's degree in Education.

Another student described a similar experience:

"You can use it [STAR] to see if you change your major how much longer it will take you to finish. You can see what classes will count toward the new major and which won't. I am thinking of changing to Liberal Arts and then transferring to Mānoa to study Political Science, so it helps to see how long that will take. Before, I would have had to write down all of the classes and look through the catalog for what counted. I would have had to meet with a counselor; now I can figure it out on my own."

Students feel empowered by the tool to craft their own journeys. Further, this allows counselors to work with students who still do not know their goals or who need more support, because students can take more ownership of the planning.

If a student wants to explore changing majors, for example, the What If Journey screen shown in figure 4 accounts for the courses the student has already taken, letting the student see what would and would not count toward a new degree. Additionally, the student can determine how long a new academic program would take to complete and explore transferring to other campuses in the UH System.

Figure 4. The What If Journey Screen for exploring and planning a degree journey

Courtesy of the STAR team

Figure 4. The What If Journey Screen for exploring and planning a degree journey

For students to be empowered, however, they do have to know how to use the tools. Since implementing STAR registration, academic counselors have spent time collaborating on how to best deliver new student registration. NSR, which previously focused on getting students registered for the immediate semester, now focuses on teaching students how to use the tools in STAR to give them agency over their academic plan. Counselors have incorporated a career exploration and major verification component into the registration process so that students feel confident about their decisions.

Rodwell explained that one of the major goals of STAR was to "turn the monitor around" so that students and counselors were working on the same tool. According to Honolulu CC counselors Ito-Won and Himuro, the tool has changed individual advising appointments. Himuro highlighted the biggest advantage of STAR: "It helped me engage students and get them excited about planning their graduation pathway, or their semesters leading up to graduation. The information is all there." She also noted the added flexibility — advising over the phone or e-mail — because STAR ensures that she and students are looking at the same information. Ito-Won explained that when she works with students, "They log in and navigate themselves." Students can take the driver's seat in planning their own academic pathways, and they can learn how to find and use STAR.

The implementation of guided academic pathways in STAR increased collaboration between academic affairs and student affairs. Instructional faculty and academic counselors had to work together to make sure that program pathways were coherent and aligned with stated program goals. STAR made apparent issues of inappropriate sequencing and discrepancies between stated program plans and actual course offerings. Himuro, who assists in the building of campus pathways into STAR, indicated that a large role for the builders is to communicate with the instructional faculty to make sure that course changes, prerequisite requirements, and sequencing are accurately mapped and that changes made in one semester do not negatively impact the students' ability to stay on track.

STAR provides counselors, administrators, and faculty with real-time and semester data regarding registration failures. These failures include students trying to sign up for courses not offered, students not meeting prerequisites, and courses being full. Live data is sent via a dashboard to key counselors, administrators, and program faculty. They can use this data to communicate with students around issues such as prerequisite errors and can make immediate adjustments such as opening additional seats or sections of a course. Figure 5 shows that for the Spring 2017 semester two students registering via STAR were unable to get a seat in English 100T. English faculty and administrators received this data in live time and find solutions to meet students’ needs. As the system extends so that all students register via STAR, the data will be used to predict student behavior and adjust scheduling prior to the registration period — yet another process change.

Figure 5. Dashboard screen for faculty and administrators to identify capacity limitations

Figure 5. Dashboard screen for faculty and administrators to identify capacity limitations

Process changes are not always easy, particularly when they involve the incorporation of unfamiliar technology. The academic counseling department at Honolulu CC, like many academic counseling divisions, has an intergenerational team, some of whom are digital natives and others who are digital immigrants, having gained exposure to the quickly evolving world of technology only in adulthood. For deep change to occur in processes, beliefs and values must evolve as well.

Attitudinal Change

Structural and process changes require attitudinal changes by those tasked with implementing them. Further, these changes lead to growth and foster further changes to beliefs and values. For example, understanding of the potential role of technology in academic planning has shifted. Even those who used to be resistant to relying on STAR for degree planning now talk about the importance of using the tool. The academic counselors understand that even though errors might still occur, the long-term benefit of correcting those errors outweighs the benefit of using alternative means for registration and planning. Ito-Won explained that previously she would complete overrides for every student with an error in their STAR graduation pathway. Now she makes sure to communicate with builders to address the error and ensure that more students can plan and register via the pathway without errors. There must be trust that if the technology is optimized, students can have more empowered experiences with planning and registration.

Full adoption of STAR and belief in the merit of Guided Pathways required a fundamental shift in the understanding of the optimal student experience. Historically, college was a time for students to explore and try out many different disciplines. A common belief exists that "'Free choice' [is] the cornerstone of American higher education."10 Having more information on social psychology and the impact structuring choice has on decision making, has allowed institutions to rethink how they structure the choices they offer. Developing an understanding that structured choices help students make better decisions and feel more positively about those decisions is important for understanding the value of Guided Pathways. Institutions that can deeply transform to a Guided Pathways framework understand that the shift is not about limiting student choice. Instead, it involves reorganizing the choice to reflect connected programs of study as opposed to individual course selection. Consequently, adoption of STAR as a tool has also required a shift in understanding students' needs.

As STAR is tweaked and implemented on each of the University of Hawaiʻi campuses, there will be further structural, process, and attitudinal shifts as the transformation of the institution continues. For example, following the fall 2017 registration period, for the first time the UH System will have data from all students registering via STAR. Counselors and program faculty can analyze the data to look at instances of inappropriate course sequencing, instances where capacity limited the institution's ability to fill obligations, and instances where students signed up for courses that do not count toward their degrees. What the colleges will do with this information remains to be decided, but certainly access to this information will lead the way to greater transformation.

Interacting Initiatives

Currently the University of Hawaiʻi system is implementing several interconnected initiatives that will merge with STAR. For faculty and staff to support the initiatives, they must connect to one another and see this connection clearly. Three such initiatives underway are Purpose First, exploratory majors, and restructuring of developmental education.

  • Purpose First is an initiative of Complete College America that focuses on advising students about their career and major pathway prior to registration. The goal is to "…end current practices where students discover majors by wandering through a disorganized, smorgasbord curriculum."11 The goals of Purpose First align well with what has already been implemented in STAR.
  • Efforts to implement exploratory majors align with STAR, Guided Pathways, and transfer work. Providing students who might be undecided about their long-term academic or career goals with structured pathways based on their general field of interest will allow faster movement toward degree completion with fewer excess credits. Currently, exploratory pathways are being built into the STAR system, and collaboration with the program faculty continues to ensure that courses offered during a student's exploratory period (in the case of Honolulu CC, the first 30 credits) provide an opportunity to identify specific interest while also moving the student closer to their degree.
  • To further reduce completion barriers, the University of Hawaiʻi Community Colleges have adopted a co-requisite model for English and Math developmental courses to restructure developmental education. Advising efforts focused on ensuring that students are in the correct math pathway prior to registration. STAR builders have worked to see that appropriate math and English courses for students auto-populate and that pathways recommend students take these courses at the start of their journey.


CCRC argues "that innovative organizational practices have the greatest effect on performance when they are implemented in concert with one another and are well aligned to achieve organizational goals. Thus, improving organizational performance requires systemic changes in practice."12 Leading indicators of STAR performance as part of that concert of initiatives suggest that Hawaiʻi is moving the needle on student completion. System-wide registration via STAR for spring 2017 courses revealed that only about 5 percent of students took off-program courses as opposed to 19 percent in fall 2014. As Guided Pathways work continues, the system will collect and evaluate data and adjust accordingly to improve student completion outcomes.


  1. Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); and Davis Jenkins, "Redesigning Community Colleges for Completion: Lessons from Research on High-Performance Organizations," Working Paper No. 24 (New York: Columbia Teachers College, Community College Research Center, 2011).
  2. Thomas R. Bailey et al., Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, 16.
  3. Adrianna Kezar, How Colleges Change: Understanding, Leading, and Enacting Change (New York: Routledge, 2013).
  4. Melinda Mechur Karp, Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian, Serena Klempin, and Jeffrey Fletcher, "How Colleges Use Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) to Transform Student Support," Working Paper No. 89 (New York: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center, 2016), 11.
  5. Ibid., 15.
  6. "About UH Mānoa," University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, last modified April 12, 2017.
  7. Gary Rodwell, "Providing Transparent Information to Empower Students' Devision Making and Develop Institutional Capacity," in Applying the College Completion Agenda to Practice (San Francisco: Wiley, 2014), 54.
  8. "Hawaiʻi Graduation Initiative (HGI)," Information Technology Services, last modified 2017.
  9. "Data," 15 to Finish, last modified 2015.
  10. Rob Johnstone, "Guided Pathways Demystified: Exploring Ten Commonly Asked Questions about Implementing Pathways," National Center for Inquiry and Improvement, 2015, 6.
  11. Complete College America, "USA Funds Awards Complete College America $1.5M Grant to Develop and Deploy Purpose First," December 2, 2014.
  12. Davis Jenkins, "Redesigning Community Colleges for Completion," 2.

Rachel Mullins Veney is project manager, Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success in Higher Education Grant, University of Hawaiʻi Honolulu Community College.

Lara H. Sugimoto is interim dean of Student Services, University of Hawaiʻi Honolulu Community College.

© 2017 Rachel Mullins Veney and Lara H. Sugimoto. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.