Navigating the complicated path through college can be overwhelming. Did you pick the right major? Take the right classes? It becomes even more complex when a student transfers from one institution to another. Will credit hours transfer? Do the degree requirements differ? Too many Texans are wasting both time and money or giving up on college altogether. Among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, Houston ranks 34th in educational attainment: 72 percent of people 25 years and older in the area don’t have a college degree.

The key to navigating college may not be all that different from the GPS navigation system in your car or smartphone. Giving students turn-by-turn directions from one institution to the other and ultimately to the final destination of a degree is the idea behind Houston Guided Pathways to Success (Houston GPS). It’s a step-by-step road map that provides a timely, structured and seamless pathway for students transferring from Gulf Coast-Houston area community colleges to Houston area universities.

Just as navigating your time behind the wheel becomes more complex and uncertain when you’re making multiple stops in the car, students transferring from a community college to a university face similar challenges. They need to know how to foresee the hazards, avoid the detours and find the fastest route.

The University of Houston is leading the collaborative partnership between University of Houston-Clear Lake, University of Houston-Downtown, University of Houston-Victoria, Texas Southern University, Houston Community College System, Lone Star College System, San Jacinto College District, Wharton County Junior College and Victoria College. In all, more than 300,000 students could be impacted by the program.

“The spotlight is on us because there are many institutions across the country trying to address the educational needs of young people in a more timely and cost effective manner. In a sense, it’s about unlocking access to the American dream,” said Paula Myrick Short, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, University of Houston System, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, University of Houston. Short initiated Houston GPS and is leading the effort.

The Problem … and Solution

During a year of intense planning and research funded by the Houston Endowment and led by cross-institutional task forces, a study found that transfer students were graduating with an average of 150 credit hours for a baccalaureate degree—well beyond the required 120 hours. The reason? Some hours didn’t transfer between two and four-year institutions, and students were selecting the wrong classes to meet the requirements of their majors.

“They accumulate so much unnecessary credit, and that not only runs up the cost of college but also leads to it taking six or seven years to finally get a degree … if at all,” said Short.

Developing effective degree planning, or academic maps, is a lynchpin to full implementation of Houston GPS, which is slated for fall 2018. Instead of wandering aimlessly through the course catalog, the program offers a semester-by-semester map of sequential and established class schedules to ensure students stay on track. It starts from the minute a student enrolls in a community college and guides them through their transfer to a four-year university and eventual graduation—one program that works across all of the participating institutions. These default pathways would require permission to take courses not on the schedule.

The Houston GPS task forces identified the evidence-based criteria necessary to improve graduation rates. They include the need for students to take at least 15 credit hours per semester and receive comprehensive guidance about academic major choices and what careers are even possible with a particular major. By using high school performance and other measures to recommend meta-majors, or broad collections of majors that have related courses, students are more likely to choose a degree path based on their interests and abilities. In addition, research shows they need to be engaged in that discipline from day one.

“That way they can see what their degree is potentially going to lead to, so they’re more likely to persist,” said Teri Longacre, Houston GPS project director and UH vice provost and dean for undergraduate student success. “We needed to address the issues specific to our region. A cookie-cutter approach does not work.”

Many college students are required to take remedial courses that don’t count toward a degree but still need to be paid for by the students and state. In higher education, it’s called the bridge to nowhere. In Corequisite Remediation, a key component of Houston GPS, students enroll directly into college-level courses and receive academic support until they get up to speed.

“We’re all doing this together,” said Longacre. “Houston GPS is a unique collaboration where two and four-year institutions are coming together to implement these strategies as a package.”

Houston GPS builds a culture of timely graduation that will save everyone time and money, most importantly students.
Houston GPS builds a culture of timely graduation that will save everyone time and money, most importantly students.

Making an Impact

Short believes in this cohesive, integrated system so strongly, that she joked about locking all of the chief academic officers in a room until they agreed to adopt the strategy. They did, but no lock was necessary because the benefits could be immense. Short notes that a student can save $200,000 by graduating in four years instead of six when calculating lost earnings and retirement funds and the cost of taking additional courses.

In 2016, Houston GPS received national recognition, becoming the first metro region to be asked to join Complete College America’s Alliance of States. CCA is a nonprofit working to significantly increase the number of Americans with college degrees and to close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.

“This is not just somebody’s opinion about what we should be doing to address the issue, it’s backed up by research by national groups who look at what impact these initiatives have on college completion,” she said.

It’s not just students and Gulf Coast-Houston area community colleges and universities that stand to benefit from Houston GPS. It’s unprecedented potential has captured the attention of higher education leaders nationwide.

“The future of this city really resides in how well we prepare our students with the appropriate skills and education to be vibrant citizens,” said Short. “If we can do it right, we can become a model for this country and that’s very powerful.”