The path to and through higher education is peppered with points where learners have to “find their way,“ including completing admissions applications, choosing a program, applying for federal aid, and selecting courses. At each juncture, learners make choices that influence their educational and career journeys. At WGU Labs, we partner with leaders across higher education to design better wayfinding for these moments, especially for prospective learners from under-resourced communities.  

Why Wayfinding is Critical for Learners from Under-Resourced Communities

Currently, wayfinding is often most clear and well-defined for learners who enter two- or four-year degree programs straight from high school. Academic and career counseling, tuition models, scholarships, and even learning experiences are designed primarily for learners following those paths. While wayfinding needs to be improved for all learners, the current system is vastly undeserving those from under-resourced communities. 

The first step to developing new wayfinding supports is to understand the lives and challenges of learners from under-resourced communities. For example, these are learners who are more likely to:

  • Be working adults in low-resilience jobs with little job security
  • Have struggled in high school
  • Lack personal connections with the postsecondary system, including being the first in their family to go to college
  • Need to balance work, family, and school commitments 
  • Be uncertain about the return on investments of postsecondary education
  • Be unfamiliar with college resources, support, and processes

These learners need tailored guidance and systems of support. Without dedicated wayfinding, the barriers above will persist and hinder their educational journeys. We’ve been exploring three primary ways to enhance wayfinding and reimagine education for all learners in our work.

1. Hybrid College Organizations

With an enrollment cliff looming, many colleges and universities are making investments to attract learners who may have been previously excluded from the postsecondary system. One innovative solution to improve access and support is a hybrid approach to the college experience. Hybrid college organizations leverage accredited, competency-based, online institutions and add support including emergency funds and high-touch career coaches embedded in communities to help students navigate everything from their college search to their coursework. 

The first hybrid college organizations launched in 2014 with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and Brandman University providing place-based wrap-around support for students enrolled in online degree programs. Early evidence from these initiatives suggests that students feel more confident while earning their degree and achieve greater outcomes. SNHU reports its efforts have “achieved graduation rates more than twice the Massachusetts state average, cut the cost of college in half, and eliminated race-based college completion disparities.” It’s clear that access is just one part of the equation. Students also need to be able to easily find and use support resources throughout their education.

2. Equity Audits

As institutions welcome students with more varied lived experiences, it’s important to pause and examine the ingrained policies, structures, and practices that may unintentionally and unevenly impede learners’ navigation. Many of these systems weren’t designed with diverse student populations in mind, creating roadblocks for these students along their learning journeys. Auditing those aspects of the educational experience for equity can identify opportunities for institutional improvements. 

We worked with three primarily online institutions to conduct an equity audit to better understand their students, as well as the systems and processes that may contribute to inequity. In each engagement, we took an approach that let students' voices drive the research design and collection, enabling the institution to truly see students. Through the research, we were able to make recommendations to improve wayfinding for students including:

  • Opportunities to improve the mentorship of students of color
  • Support for time to completion for students who have a household income of less than $65,000 or are from communities of color, and 
  • Changes to tuition models, certain loan programs, and scholarships. 

3. Blended Self-Service Enrollment

In redefining the type of support offered to rising talent, institutions need to balance autonomous and guided wayfinding services. 

In our research on self-service enrollment, we examined the potentially diverse pathways students take to enrollment. Through analysis of institutional data, surveys, and interviews with current and prospective students, we found options that blend autonomous and hands-on approaches could be useful for a diverse prospective student pool. More specifically, we found that employing technology to provide strategic “off-ramps” for students to contact a person during enrollment was the best option. This approach blends two traditional processes — fully autonomous and fully guided — putting students in control of when and how they get help. A blended self-service enrollment approach enables students who do not have previous experience going through enrollment or a family member to guide them through the experience to opt in for more high-touch support when needed. 

These projects, and similar endeavors, represent significant strides in more clearly defining wayfinding for under-resourced learners. Applying these findings at your institution will first require listening to and understanding your unique student body and then making necessary adaptations to fit their needs. Similarly, you can find effective practices happening in individual departments or colleges and apply them at a macro level. However you approach it, maintaining a steadfast commitment to designing better wayfinding ensures students will get the support they need. We’ll continue to share our insights as we advance our work in this crucial area.