Case Studies, Design Strategy, Design Thinking, Methods, Systems Thinking

Case Study: MapMyPath

Outfitting Transfer Students with the Tools They Need to Graduate: How Modernist Studio and Texas OnCourse Teamed up to Design MapMyPath

The cost of earning a higher-education degree has skyrocketed, and students are walking away from school with crippling debt. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that it costs approximately $17,237 annually for students to attend a public university and $44,551 to attend a private one. Over the 10-year period between 2008-2018, tuition increased 31% for undergraduate public institutions and 24% for private universities. According to Forbes, in 2019 there were 45 million borrowers across the nation who collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student debt.

In parallel, the landscape of student demographics is also changing, with 40% of the students pursuing higher education in the United States now beginning their college journey at a community college. Of these students, 42% of them are from low-income families, making the affordability of a community college an especially attractive option. Community college works because students can get an Associate Degree before enrolling at a four-year university or take classes that make it easier for them to earn their Bachelor’s degrees when they transfer.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work—but it isn’t quite this simple.

These students work hard to get the credits needed to transfer to four-year universities, but when they arrive, they discover that the credits no longer count towards their intended paths. Our research shows that if students don’t have support in making decisions about their coursework along the way, or lack important information about which degrees would make the most sense for them, they often lose credits and have to delay graduation, spend thousands more than they originally intended, or even drop out of school before they accumulate more debt.

To address these problems, Texas OnCourse, with support from Modernist Studio, designed a solution called MapMyPath, structured around these core system recommendations:

  • Public institutions of higher education should be required to develop recommended course sequences for each of their degree programsand to make those recommended sequences accessible.
    • Navigating course selection for on-time graduation is complex for students and advisers. Clearly communicating recommended course sequences for degree programs improves transparency and helps students select courses that both transfer and apply to their major, minimizing excess credit hours.
  • Institutions should be supported in the development of online tools and resources designed to create transparent pathways for students completing postsecondary degrees and certificates.
    • For students and advisers to select courses that count toward their degree or certificate pathway, the information must be readily available and accessible.
    • Higher education institutions need to invest in technology and tools that make complex degree information easily understandable, allowing students to make informed decisions about their path forward.

The Modernist Studio team set out to develop a design-led, student-centered solution that would make a real difference in the lives of students and their advisors.

Taking a Human-Centered Approach

When tackling large systemic issues, it’s essential to put people at the center of the work. We begin each project by learning from and building empathy with the people who ultimately use the products and services we conceptualize and create.

Working with Texas OnCourse, we put together a research sample of 24 high school and college students, and a mix of advisors, who could shed light on the culture around course credits, degree plans and academic advising. We wanted to know how and why students made selections and plans—and how we could better streamline their journeys.

Conversations were organic, guided by artifacts and behaviors, and we developed activities to obtain data about our participants’ latent wants, needs, and desires. The outcome: a better understanding of the challenges and successes in each participant’s journey. 

Uncovering a Student’s Journey

We found that for many, the path to college completion lacked guidance from a trusted advisor. Students were anxious and worried they were “doing college wrong.” Some of the main themes we uncovered are:

I’m going to school because I hear that it’s the only way to lead a successful and meaningful life. But I don’t really understand how.

“If I just got my bachelor’s, I’ll be working at a school, but if I wanted to do my own business, have my own practice, I would need a master’s. I Googled a lot of this information.”
– Candice, 21

“I wasn’t sure about how the college thing worked…I didn’t understand the whole concept of degrees, and the names. There are different degrees and each gets you a different job. I didn’t know which degree I needed.”
– Jose, 19​

We found that students have incomplete ideas about success and careers. They enroll in degree programs because they feel that, without a degree, their lives will be less valuable, and they will make less money. But they also don’t fully understand the correlation between the career they want and the experience or degree they need to get there. They’re unsure about course selections, plan sequencing, and course equivalencies. While some affluent students have the benefit of personalized pre-college advisement in high school, many students are entering the college system completely blind. 

People are telling me that I need to already have a plan, stick to it, and graduate as soon as possible.

“The first thing they did at orientation is, they showed a 40% graduation rate at 4 years. And then it dropped to 12%. And then 3%. They had one person graduate after 6 years. It becomes so increasingly difficult…you want to do it as quick as possible.”
– Ned, 19 ​

We learned that students are hearing over and over again that they need to graduate as quickly as possible. They feel that their financial aid requirements are tied to graduation timelines, and that they’ll run out of money if they take too long.

I’m overwhelmed, in debt, and I want to give up.

“Sometimes, they’ve been in college two years, and people are like, my family wants me to graduate, and I don’t know how to tell them that I don’t even have one math credit.”
– Gina, 31, Advisor​

If students need to take remedial courses to get on track with their peers, these courses don’t count for college credit. But they cost the same in tuition. Too often, this extends the length of time students take to graduate and increases their financial burden and feeling of helplessness.

We also talked to students who felt empowered to accomplish their goals and become more self-sufficient. Take a look at the similar themes with very different outcomes:

I’m going to school because it’s a way for me to pursue my interests.

“I’m certified in first aid and CPR. I’ve learned on a dummy arm how to insert a needle and take blood…I find that the human body is really interesting and complex, and it will be really cool to be able to work with it every day.”
– Allisa, 17​

With a strong sense of purpose, college becomes a journey, not a burden. Some students enter college with an idea of the subject matter they enjoy and a potential career path they want to explore. These students find the path to be more fulfilling and beneficial because they are experiencing college on their terms.

I know there are multiple ways for me to achieve my goals, and it’s okay for me to take my time. I feel confident because I have an advisor who is helping me develop a personal strategy.

“The thing my parents always told me is that there’s really no rush, as long as I do what I have to do. And not get overwhelmed. And meet the goal. There’s no rush.”
– Umberto, 21

“There’s a set schedule that they have you on. If you look at the flow chart…what classes you should be taking…I keep it at home and kind of go back every semester and scratch off what I need to do. It’s on the top of my laptop.”
– Ned, 19​

While there is a lot of pressure to finish college as fast as possible, some students are able to focus on being engaged and committed to their studies without feeling rushed to complete a degree. The support and mentorship of a trusted advisor or family member who understands the college process has a huge impact on overall success and well-being.

I’m self-confident and I’m making thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions.

“I don’t believe my plan is gonna go smooth. I know life doesn’t work that way. But I’m going to be accomplished when I get to where I want to be. I’m pretty proud of myself. When I get a bachelor’s, they’ll say, go get a master’s. But bachelor’s is the end of my plan. And with time, I’ll be an experienced nurse.”
– Allisa, 17​

With accomplishment, students mature. As students compete tasks within the academic system—like course registration, degree planning, and succeeding in their course work—they also gain confidence in themselves and their ability to be self-sufficient. This, in turn, helps them make more rational and thoughtful decisions.

A Promise to Better Support Students

It became clear that there was an opportunity to use technology to better support all students’ journeys and that the difference between students who were apprehensive about their degree paths and those who felt empowered was knowledge and support. For the solution to help, it needed to:

  • Show students viable traditional and alternative pathways to completion
  • Help students learn about university processes in order to be self-sufficient
  • Provide helpful resources about schools, majors, and courses
  • Alleviate the stresses and anxieties of academic life

And needed to fulfill this value promise:

We promise to help students visualize their progress towards completion while exploring the consequences of selecting alternative paths.​​

To answer the student needs identified in our research, and to fulfill our value promise, we created, MapMyPath, a tool that helps students:

  • Compare and contrast degree paths
  • Clearly identify the classes they need to take
  • Understand how to graduate as quickly as possible

The final design of MapMyPath features four primary functional views:

The Path Summary shows the various courses a student needs to complete, and where to complete them.

This view helps students plan out when and where they should take the courses they need to complete their degrees.

The Path Details screen displays course descriptions and advanced information about each course.

This view helps students to get more information about their required courses as well as alternative options for courses that can fulfill the same credit.

The Compare Path view displays a side-by-side comparison of various degree paths, showing course equivalencies.

This view helps students see how many of their completed courses will transfer to new degree plans and which course credits they would still need to acquire.

The Common Questions screen displays content students can use to become more informed about their transfer plans as well as actionable steps and contact information for the transfer process.

 This view answers some of the most common questions from transfer students including the paperwork required, due dates, financial aid impact, time until graduation, and who to contact at the institution to which they want to transfer.

Shifting Student Behaviors and Increasing Graduation Rates

Shifting the educational model is an ongoing and iterative process that requires both new tools and new mindsets. We see the MapMyPath tool as part of a larger cultural shift in higher education that focuses on student success through efficiency in coursework, coordinated course offerings, and transparency into the transfer process.

In the wake of COVID-19 and the larger systemic questions highlighted with the shift to remote education and alternative approaches to college, there is a growing movement to put students at the center of their college journeys. We are honored to be part of that journey through partnerships with forward-thinking organizations. Together, we can make work that matters.