Much research on undergraduate education speaks of pipelines, but that metaphor is suboptimal for exploiting scaled data and elides the complexity of academic progress. We integrate insights from multiple scientific domains to specify a heuristic of pathways that better fits both the phenomenon and available empirical material.

This paper defines academic pathways as joint outcomes of curricular programs that variably provide course options, and sequences of considered and selected academic opportunities. Pathways can be enabled, inhibited, or prevented by institutions; and taken, avoided, and forged by students. With investments in data infrastructure, a coherent science of academic pathways promises new inquiries and strategies to improve student persistence, timely degree completion, equity and inclusion in higher education.