Each choice we make in life leads us one step farther along our path. In a perfect world, we want to make choices that get us to our desired destination as fast as possible so we can live out our dreams.

One important choice we face is whether to continue our education through a degree program at a community college like Wallace State in Hanceville, one of the nation’s leading 2-year colleges.

On the surface, the right choice seems obvious because the numbers don’t lie: Students with at least a two-year degree typically earn at least $400,000 more during their working years than someone with only a high school degree, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

More significantly, around 30% of individuals with an associate’s degree have higher salaries than those with a bachelor’s degree, according to a recent study by Georgetown University. Recent graduates with a 2-year degree in an occupational or technical field can achieve starting annual salaries in the $40,000 range, depending on the degree program and where the student takes a job.

Despite the obvious benefits of an associate’s degree, students face many challenges on the path to degree completion. One of the biggest is confusion about what courses to take and the fastest route to degree completion.

Through the Pathways Project, Wallace State Community College in Hanceville is working to eliminate this source of confusion and help students move forward to achieve their education and career training goals as quickly and effectively as possible.

“The Pathways Project is a new model where we guide students toward four major career pathways and eliminate them from having to make so many choices,” said Wallace State Dean Dr. Johnny McMoy, who was instrumental in helping Wallace State become selected for the project.

Wallace State is one of 30 community colleges across the United States selected to participate in the Pathways Project, an initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

From Buffet to Beacon

Pathways offers a paradigm shift in how students move forward in their college experience. The project supports WSCC President Vicki Hawsey Karolewics’ goal that every student “Start Early, Start Right, Finish and Succeed.”

The old model of higher education is like a buffet featuring hundreds of menu items. The only difference is that students choose courses and a major, instead of salads, meats, vegetables and desserts.

“Forcing students to make cafeteria-style choices can become bewildering and intimidating,” Dean McMoy said.

The number of major choices can be daunting for a college student, especially when the value of a particular major isn’t clear. Sometimes, the focus of a major turns out to be different from what the student expected. This often causes the student to change majors and can mean lost or wasted credits for courses previously taken. In other situations, students are so confused by the variety they don’t make a choice at all and eventually drop out.

Instead of starting with a smorgasbord, the Pathways Project begins by identifying the student’s end goal. This might be employment in a particular field, further education at a 4-year college, or both.

The student’s end goal, along with strengths and interests, determines the best Pathway.

Four distinct Pathways are available:

  • STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math
  • Liberal Arts/General Studies
  • Healthcare
  • Applied Technologies

“With the Pathways Project, we tell the students which path to take based on their interests,” Dean McMoy said.  “We can offer students a full-time pathway or part-time pathway. Everything is mapped out.”

The Beacon Lights the Pathway to the Goal

The Pathways Project is designed to help the student begin his or her education with the end in mind, to borrow a phrase from the late Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The end goal serves as a beacon to the student’s destination. Once the destination is identified, the student’s adviser and campus mentors work to refine the path to help the student reach his or her goal.

Students can get on the Pathway that’s appropriate for their goal and grow into a specific focus as they move forward along their path, explained Director of Advising for Wallace State, Dr. Matthew McCrickard.

“Instead of looking through 60 different majors once a student hits campus, they can look first at one of these four paths,” said Dr. McCrickard. “It will make it much easier for a student to come here and say they’re interested in a broad area of the STEM category, yet they aren’t sure whether they want to be a mathematician, engineer or statistician. These individual pathways provide the opportunity to explore things before narrowing down to specific choices.”

A new course in career exploration, the GPS Freshman Seminar, gives students an opportunity to learn about fields they are interested in before they begin to narrow down their focus.

The Pathway is designed so that students don’t lose credit for their early coursework, regardless of the major they eventually choose. In the event a student decides to change Pathways, that’s possible, too.

“Think of the four paths as swim lanes,” Dean McMoy pointed out. “A student might head down one lane and decide it’s not for them. They can shift lanes and start over and avoid having to make so many choices.”

Students at Wallace State are responding favorably to Pathways

“The Pathways Project is good because it prevents students from feeling pressure to choose a major as soon as they arrive in college,” said Callie Allen, a Wallace State sophomore from Cullman. “It gives us the ability to explore and find out what we truly want to do for the rest of our lives, while still staying on track.”

Allen is on the General Studies Pathway. When she first arrived on campus she planned to study to be a doctor, but later changed her focus to music and theatre. Despite that big shift, Allen did not lose credit for any of the classes she had taken previously.

Allen said she likes the flexibility that comes from being on the General Studies path. She can apply for scholarships in both music and theatre and make any future choices based on the scholarships she receives.

Wallace State: Where Dreams Are Achieved

Wallace State is a national leader in degree completion rates and was recognized for innovative programs in the Achieving the Dream initiative that began in 2004 to boost the number of students earning college degrees.

Wallace State has been twice ranked among the top 120 community college in the United States by The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit that fosters leadership in innovation and ideas that lead to positive change.