In implementing the Guided Pathways program, the school hopes to direct more students toward associate degrees, rather than certificates, so they’ll have a better chance of achieving a higher degree, and more career opportunities, down the road.

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Renton Technical College is one of five Washington community colleges awarded a total of $2.5 million to restructure the curriculum, improve advising and make it more likely that students complete a meaningful degree.

The program is called Guided Pathways, and it simplifies choices for students by grouping courses together to form clear paths through college. With Guided Pathways, students are less likely to get off-track by taking courses they don’t really need, wasting time, money and financial-aid dollars.

Guided Pathways is already being used in a number of other state community colleges, including Everett, which has created “meta-majors” that allow students to explore a range of careers within a broad subject area.

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Because Renton Tech is one of the state’s five technical colleges, it will use a slightly different emphasis for Guided Pathways, said Kevin McCarthy, the president of Renton Tech. The school already uses a set curriculum that guides students down a path, so it will use the grant money to shift away from emphasizing the completion of a certificate, and toward an approach that gets more students to complete an associate degree.

Why is that important? While earning a certificate can lead to a solid job, earning an associate degree is a surer path to long-term success in a career, McCarthy said. A student who already has an associate degree can more easily add to those skills by earning another degree later in life — for example, an applied bachelor’s degree, a kind of four-year degree increasingly offered by the state’s community colleges.

Study after study shows that over a lifetime, students with more advanced degrees earn more money, and have better opportunities to advance in their careers.

The college will get $100,000 a year, for five years, from the nonprofit College Spark Washington. That money will be matched with $100,000 each year from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The money will be used to free up faculty members, giving them time to rework the curriculum, as well as to beef up advising, McCarthy said.

McCarthy said most Renton Tech programs are currently structured so students take all of their technical courses upfront so they can earn a certificate. General-education courses — like college-level math and English, which lead to an associate degree — are offered at the end.

Under the current setup, a student could still earn an associate degree by taking all the general-education credits at the end, but “we’ve just found it very unlikely,” McCarthy said. “With the sequence changed, it will become highly likely.”

Here’s an example of how this works: Currently, students studying precision machining technology won’t find general-education courses listed as part of the sequence of courses needed to complete the curriculum; rather, they are only listed as additional necessary courses. As part of the Guided Pathways work, the faculty will reduce the tech credits needed for precision machining, while weaving general-education courses into the sequence. A student will be able to finish the program in the same amount of time, but he or she will earn an associate degree, rather than a certificate.

College Spark officials said one of the reasons Renton Tech was chosen for this second round of grant funding is that it has a history of effectively pulling off large-scale reforms, including starting a new mandatory advising class, College Success 101, which led to better retention rates for new students.

McCarthy said the college hopes Guided Pathways will help improve the achievement gaps for underrepresented groups. The technical college has a large number of students of color — only about 40 percent of students there are white.

Clover Park Technical College, Tacoma Community College, Lower Columbia College and Spokane Falls Community College were the other schools awarded in this round of grant-making. College Spark previously awarded grants to five other community colleges for Guided Pathways work.