Informing Choice: Ensuring Student Success Through Meta Majors

This year, community colleges across California are beginning to implement Guided Pathways, guided by four main goals: 1. Create clear curricular pathways to employment and further education. 2. Help students choose and enter their pathway. 3. Help students stay on their path. 4. Ensure learning is happening with intentional outcomes. Collectively, these goals, called the Four Pillars of Guided Pathways, underpin the initiative’s commitment to dramatically increasing student success and reducing equity gaps.

According to Alyssa Nguyen and Tim Nguyen from the Research and Planning Group, the organization that authored the recent “Guided Pathways Work Plan Analysis Report,” these initial action plans “demonstrate that colleges understand that they are engaged in more than implementation of an isolated initiative; rather, they are building the foundation necessary for effective, student-centered institutional change, both culturally and structurally.”

One of the structures being used to help make this vision a reality is “meta majors.” As Cypress College President Joanna Schilling recently wrote on her “President’s Blog,” “The ‘majors’ are really Areas of Interest and students declare a meta major before declaring a specific major. An example of a meta major might be ‘Health and Wellness’—within that meta major might be all the health degrees and certificates, but also psychology, human services, and some kinesiology degrees.”

On a basic level, meta majors empower students to make more informed choices during their educational journeys. Why is this important? Because research suggests more informed educational choices lead to more successful community college students.

“We know that the completion statistics for low-income and underprepared students enrolled in certificate and degree programs at community colleges are dismal,” writes Alexandra Waugh, senior program manager with Jobs for the Future and author of “Meta-Majors: An Essential First Step on the Path to College Completion.” “A growing body of evidence reveals that a central factor in these low completion rates is the ‘cafeteria’ style approach to college, which provides entering students with a dizzying array of choices and little guidance on navigating those choices […] meta-majors are a programmatic response to these findings.”

Across the state, colleges have begun reaching out to their own faculty, staff and students for input on how to best implement meta majors on their own campuses. According to Laura Lara-Brady, GP Regional Coordinator for the Central Valley, one major challenge facing institutions is figuring out how to make sure students, who have been traditionally left out of such academic decision marking, are involved from the very beginning.

“At Reedley College, we did eight sorting sessions across the campus, where they simply put majors on index cards and asked participants to put them into a bucket,” said Lara-Brady. “We covered almost 80 percent of their faculty and staff. But there were no students. So, they started something called Pizza with the President where the president would bring boxes of pizza to the Quad and talk to students.” This simple but creative solution effectively drew students into the implementation process while opening a line of communication that hadn’t been there before.

Another obstacle facing colleges involves human resources. As the RP Group’s analysis reports, colleges are making a concerted effort to implement Guided Pathways through such activities as “gathering and collecting student equity and student perspectives data” and “employing new and existing metrics to drive student access, success, and completion.” The problem is, all of these activities require people to do the work.

To solve this problem, Merced College put technology to work instead.

“They’re using an app that allows students to sort the majors themselves from anywhere,” said Lara-Brady. “It allows students to participate but on their terms. And they’re collecting a ton of data.” Best of all, collecting that data doesn’t require having a staff person do it themselves.

Despite the effectiveness of these efforts, Lara-Brady knows that there many colleges still trying to figure out what works. With this in mind, Lara-Brady and the Career Ladders Project will be hosting a Learning Cluster on September 17, focused on meta major implementation.

This short webinar, which will be free to anyone that wants to attend and recorded for those that can’t, will be a chance for college stakeholders to discuss the challenges facing them as they implement meta majors and share their best practices for overcoming them. While details are still being finalized, Lara-Brady invites anyone who wishes to attend to contact her at

“This is an exciting time,” says Lara-Brady. “Not only are we keeping students at the center, we are being intentional about our work and our outcomes. It is important that we be asking ‘How can I better serve students’ because at the end of the day, they’re our future.”


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April 23, 2019

Regional coordinators throughout the state provide local support for colleges and districts in their Guided Pathways implementation. Eighteen regional coordinators, divided into seven regions, help foster regional collaboration and serve […]