Many colleges have embarked upon a process of clustering their programs into related groups, often called “metamajors.” While this term has gained traction as a general description of the clustering process, in practice colleges have chosen a wide range of descriptive terminology that suits their local cultures and curricula. Some colleges have called their clusters “areas of interest,” “career and academic pathways,” or “fields of study.” These efforts have often been related to guided pathways initiative, but metamajor organization is not simply an aspect of guided pathways; rather it is a curricular tool to help students navigate through important choices they must make about their future so that the paths they choose lead to the destinations to which they aspire.
Currently when students apply to colleges, they typically see a list of majors organized differently by each college, with an average of between 250 and 300 various majors or iterations of majors. In addition, the content colleges ask students to choose from is often laden with jargon such as IGETC or CSU GE breadth, certificates, or local associate degree. ASCCC’s experience with student panels from a variety of colleges makes clear that the vast majority of students do not leave high school knowing what they want to do, what skills they have, or how to connect their goals to a viable future. Even those students that have an idea about an area to pursue academically often report they have no idea how this interest relates to their choice of majors found online or in a college’s catalog. Simply put, metamajors are clusters of programs that enable students to look at a general and fairly broad opened door. The goal is to help the students dig deeper into their various educational options and understand transfer and employment opportunities.
Last year over half a million new students attended a California community college. About 50% of these students were from under-represented ethnic groups and were the first in their families to attend college (California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, 2013). Many, or even most, such students do not have people at home with the experience to guide them. Some students have the good luck to schedule a counseling appointment or are directed to a special program with proactive and clear guidance and high touch, such as athletics or EOPS. Students report that strong connections through this type of close contact provide specific information and time to explore where they want to go and support them through the path. However, college counseling services are overburdened and understaffed, and most students report that they do not have the social resources to decode the system. For this reason, the ASCCC has created a module in Canvas at the ASCCC website to help colleges reconsider the way students onboard, select majors, and identify the right courses to take.  Success and getting an education should not be a matter of luck. Once students find a general pathway through the metamajor clusters, program maps provide a semester-by-semester detailed list of coursework that must be accomplished to get a degree.
On average statewide in 2018-19, new students completed only 19 units after one year, and only 68% returned to take a second semester (CalPASS Plus, n.d.). Many reasons could explain why the students’ paths ended, but the reason should not be that they were not certain of how to achieve their educational goals or could not identify the right courses to take. Metamajors create information so that students can access choices for educational goals. Program maps provide a true picture of the requirements to complete a specific goal. Making the information accessible to all students, not just the lucky or socially resourced students, creates an instructional framework and guidance that promotes equity for all students.
The ASCCC has created a variety of tools to assist colleges with clarifying onboarding processes, examining priorities for clustering programs, and creating clear program maps. Colleges may have difficulty with some aspects of the development process or may assume that assigning names for clusters and sorting programs is the end of the process. To clarify the process, the ASCCC Guided Pathways Taskforce conducted a webinar titled “Keeping it Moving: We’ve Finished Sorting, Now What Do We Do?,” which is available as a resource online.  Additional resources created by the ASCCC include the following:
- Considerations for Guidelines or Principles for Meta-Majors: https://ccconlineed.instructure.com/courses/2634/pages/considerations-f…
- Guidelines or Principles for Developing Program Maps: https://ccconlineed.instructure.com/courses/ 2634/pages/guidelines-or-principles-for-developing- program-maps?module_item_id=187807
- ASCCC Guided Self Placement Resources: https://ccconlineed.instructure.com/courses/3436
Several colleges have found creative ways to overcome some common sticking points. One college could not decide how to name the clusters due to efforts to balance the importance of academic names common to transfer institutions but sometimes confusing to students with names that reflected more student friendly titles. The college’s solution was to include an academic title with a student friendly subtitle, thus resolving the issue without making it an either-or situation. Another college was having difficulty deciding which programs would fit into various clusters, with some individuals voicing very strong and opposing opinions. This college used its governance processes to align input, including student input, that created a strong structure with built-in evaluation and improvement going forward.
A critical question for colleges is how they will ground their metamajor communities in the practice of equity and center the needs of those students on their campuses who are most marginalized and disproportionately impacted to help ensure they do not inadvertently promulgate gaps in student outcomes that guided pathways are intended to close. Even a successful redesign includes no guarantee that it will ensure the closure of gaps if colleges do not foreground the practice of equity with zealous intentionality. Institutions must seek to help student groups with lower success rates reach the levels or rates of the highest performing groups. The demographics of these populations vary from college to college, but on many campuses students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and economically disadvantaged students—many with intersectional identities—are disproportionately impacted. Therefore, colleges must center these students and design solutions focused on their success in every single case. By centering the most marginalized yet most resilient students, colleges can create pathways that better serve all students.
Community colleges throughout California are creating very customized clusters based on their own student populations, missions, and values. Many colleges have moved forward over the last year, and these colleges are finding that organizing for clarity through metamajors is an equity tool that can help to guide all students in achieving their educational goals and is thus worth the deep discussions, governance efforts, and associated challenges.
California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. (2013). Management Information Systems Data Mart. State of California. Retrieved from https://datamart.cccco.edu/DataMart.aspx.
CalPASS Plus. (n.d.). California Community Colleges Student Success Metrics. Retrieved from CalPASS Plus website: www.calpassplus.org/LaunchBoard/Student-Success-Metrics.
1. The module is available at https://ccconlineed.instructure.com/courses/3436.
2. The webinar archive is available at https://ccconlineed.instructure.com/courses/2634/files/347151?module_it….