I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Widening “guided pathways” and revealing hidden costs of income-driven repayment.

As “summertime” fades here in D.C., I’ll share one more annotated reading list before resuming this newsletter’s regularly scheduled reporting. This week I feature insights on making a proven student-success strategy more flexible, pandemic lessons from corporate universities, and an equity-minded critique of income-driven student-loan repayment.

  • Guided pathways are no longer novel. For several years, colleges have been designing structured but not rigid academic roadmaps to help students progress toward a degree. Now, some of the primary researchers and biggest advocates of the model are out with recommendations to make pathways a little less prescribed — and a little more reflective of students’ current needs.

    The report, “How to Achieve More Equitable Community College Student Outcomes,” by the researchers Davis Jenkins, Hana Lahr, and Amy Mazzariello of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, looks at five areas: program organization and design, new-student onboarding, remediation and academic support, student advising, and teaching and learning. Of the many sound suggestions, two struck me as especially important: the call to incorporate experiential learning into all curricular and co-curricular programs and the recognition that so-called onboarding needs to be more responsive to the needs of adult students. “Older working students may have a clearer idea of what field they want to enter and need help developing a plan for efficient completion of a program in that field,” the report notes, “whereas younger students may need more time and support to explore their interests and options.” For the hundreds of colleges already following some version of guided pathways — and those that could still apply some elements of this approach — the research-based ideas in this report are worth a look.

  • It wasn’t only schools and colleges that moved instruction online during the pandemic. Corporate universities did as well. As Andie Burjek notes in Chief Learning Officer magazine, many companies used that pivot to rethink their overall approach to on-the-job training.

    Some companies’ new hybrid approaches offer useful lessons for higher ed. Deloitte, for example, analyzed outcomes and found that employees learned technical content as well or better online, but “high-touch” topics were still better taught face-to-face. Now, I imagine most folks at colleges’ teaching and learning centers are still overworked and overwhelmed. But whenever they can look back on these extraordinary last 18 months, it would be helpful if they, too, could glean some insights — and find ways to apply them.

  • The myriad problems with income-driven repayment plans for federal student loans are well documented, most notably the concerns about loan servicers misinforming borrowers and the Education Department itself approving loan forgiveness for just a minuscule fraction of millions of eligible borrowers. But in a new report published this month by the Student Borrower Protection Center, Mark Huelsman argues that the deeper fault lies with the very design of these income-driven programs, not just how they’ve been administered. “Many of the borrowers who stand to benefit most from IDR are stuck in a perpetual debt trap,” he writes in “Driving Runaway Debt.”

    As the report notes, even when borrowers with low incomes are eligible to pay only small amounts — or are exempt from repaying their loans — the interest that continues to accrue on their debt can damage their financial health, since it affects credit ratings and can lead to higher costs for car loans, credit-card balances, and mortgages. Not to mention the effects on borrowers’ mental and physical health, too. All of that isn’t new. But the data in the report, particularly the breakdowns by race and ethnicity of who carries this debt — and the ways it can compound existing wealth disparities — offer some sobering and important context to policy makers now weighing changes to IDR programs.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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