handout photograph of Nick Strobel for column.

When I was on vacation recently I rented a car with the optional plug-in GPS unit. What a handy unit!

This is like what Bakersfield College is putting in place to get our students to complete their degrees faster than the usual, traditional way. BC is one of just 30 colleges nationwide selected to be part of the AACC Pathways Project and we're developing a version just for California.

In colleges across the nation, today's realities are making unsustainable the usual process of searching for a suitable degree and stumbling as students progress toward a degree or certificate. Federal financial aid has been greatly tightened, so that students burn through their financial aid in just the lower division classes. Also, most decent-paying jobs now require at least an associate degree, so more students are clamoring for classes than colleges have space for.

These national trends are seen at Bakersfield College as well. Students take an average of 85 units of college-level classes to attain an associate degree that actually requires at most 60 units. In the 2014-15 school year at BC, that additional expense for the state came to about $3.2 million. That extra year's worth of college units means one less year's worth of aid to complete a four-year degree at CSU Bakersfield. More likely, the students will just not complete their college education, so both BC and CSUB will benefit if we can set up a GPS for our students to navigate through the higher education system.

As I took an occasional wrong turn, even with the GPS system, because of human error (yes, I'll own up to that), the GPS unit would figure out the shortest path to get me back on track. The GPS unit even received construction and accident reports and it would redirect me around those slow-downs found in any metropolitan area.

As our students work their way to their degree or certificate, "life happens." A change in their job schedule, family member's health, living situation, or other life event might knock them off the college path, and most of our college students don't have a college GPS to get them back on track. The college GPS BC is developing will guide our students more effectively than we've done in the past.

My GPS unit only showed me a quarter mile or so of the road ahead of me as I drove along. With Google Maps you enter a destination and then it shows a few route options on a map overview. Can we make a degree road map, like Google Maps, for our students?

For my undergraduate degree, I had a list of classes by semester in proper chronological order to meet whatever prerequisites were needed to get the degree in four years. I hung on to that road map single sheet of paper and followed it religiously. My astronomy advisor taught some of the astronomy courses I needed to take, so he kept tabs on my progress.

Often, more typical students have only a vague idea of what their education goal is or don't have a clear idea of the overall route to find the one that can mesh with their other life commitments. A road map like I had for my degree, with periodic check-ins with a knowledgeable human being, is what our students need. As in any human endeavor, a human guide costs money. Education is a high-touch endeavor that requires a human guide even for the most prepared of us.

The data we've collected over the past few years show the extra cost of the guided degree road map system will actually save the taxpayers in the long run. We have already done a lot of work creating degree road maps called "associate degrees for transfer,” or ADTs, that will get students a degree in at most 60 units and guarantee students junior (i.e. third-year) standing when they transfer to any CSU. In fact, BC has led the way in the state with ADTs that BC received a CCO/CBR Excellence in Transfer Award. See the June 4 entry of President Christian's blog at for more on that.

Nick Strobel is a veteran faculty member at Bakersfield College. As the astronomy professor and director of the William M Thomas Planetarium, Strobel writes the twice-monthly Stargazing column.