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The DMV and Guided Pathways

The Department of Motor Vehicles (which goes by various names depending on the state) is symbolic to some commentators, representing an arbitrary government bureaucracy, dispensing arcane rules and weird stipulations upon hapless individuals trying to renew their driver’s licenses.

We’ve all been there, praying we possess the right documents to certify residency, citizenship, and insurance, pass the eye exam, and get out unscathed with the prize before closing time, or we must do it all again, like Sisyphus or the protagonist in “Groundhog Day.” (Don’t look at your DMV photo. Just a tip.) It is no literary accident that Marge Simpson’s sisters, Patty and Selma, work at the DMV between frequent smoke breaks.

There is another side to all this, of course. For one thing, DMV employees are just doing their jobs. For another, you can renew by mail or online now, at least in some instances. It’s complicated.

Many years ago, political scientist James Q. Wilson pointed out very good reasons why the DMV can’t—and shouldn’t—operate like McDonald’s. You can see a summary of his analysis here. The employees at the DMV must comply with state law, and legislators are fond of enacting “unfunded mandates,” which require more responsibilities without paying for additional staffing. Community college educators can relate.

When freshmen walk into our schools for the first time, we try to be different from the DMV, but some of the same problems are perhaps discernible. A recent piece by Goldie Blumenstyk, in the Chronicle of Higher Education is entitled, “Career Planning in College Should Not Feel Like Going to the DMV.” It includes a video clip, and is worth a look.

As we move forward with the Guided Pathways initiative—designed commendably to simplify and streamline student options—perhaps the DMV stereotype should be at the forefront of our thinking, as a warning about unintended consequences. It is one thing to draw flow charts and construct rubrics, matrices, and taxonomies to fit students, and quite another when these students don’t have any idea what they want.

Flexibility is allowed in Guided Pathways, with room for ambivalence and shifts in direction, but choices get harder for students when they have fewer chances to experiment in picking courses and professors. The new strategy is smart, and probably overdue. But let’s make sure the architects know about the raw material.

At the very least, those in the Guided Pathways movement should hang out with typical teenage community college students as often as they can.