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The commissioner of Latter-day Saint education recently shared powerful personal motivations for helping to grow the international reach of BYU-Pathway Worldwide.

“I have a son right now who is a missionary for our church in Zimbabwe,” Elder Clark G. Gilbert told a conference of presidents of major American religious universities. “His companions are amazing. Young African men serving with him side by side, equally yoked, equally capable. Are you telling me that we’re going to send one home with no opportunity, and my son gets to come home and go to BYU with all of this privilege and opportunity?”

Elder Gilbert was the founding president of BYU-PW, which provides a low-cost, supportive on-ramp to higher education for 60,000 students worldwide, and is a former president of BYU-Idaho. He is a General Authority Seventy and commissioner of education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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He sat on a panel with the presidents of the flagship Catholic university, Notre Dame, and the flagship Jewish university, Yeshiva University, at the conference in Washington, D.C., last week.

The conference was covered by journalists from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and Higher Ed Dive.

Elder Gilbert’s comments were prompted by statements shared by several presidents about their religious motivations for innovating ways to provide greater access to affordable college education.

“How can I as a person who believes what we said about community and believes in the dignity and potential of all God’s children just watch that boy go home who’s serving with my son and say, ‘I’m sorry, the church has nothing for you.’ So there’s a purpose.”

Latter-day Saint missionaries long have noted the differences in their economic and educational opportunities. Many have tried to close gaps. The late President Gordon B. Hinckley directed the establishment by the church of a Perpetual Education Fund in 2001.

For years, Elder Gilbert has credited the multicultural and diverse socio-economic membership of Boston-area Latter-day Saint congregations as a motivational sparks for the founding of BYU-Pathway Worldwide.

BYU-PW grew rapidly in the United States, where students pay $79 per credit.

Elder Gilbert said the church’s Board of Education, chaired by President Russell M. Nelson and made up of other church leaders, has been instrumental in shepherding BYU-PW’s international growth.

“When we were starting BYU-Pathway, there was a lot of concern in our governance structure,” Elder Gilbert said at the conference. “We were asked, ‘Are we going to recreate the cost structure of a major campus over and over and over again, everywhere in the world?’”

The church subsidizes tuition and provides other financial support at BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, Ensign College and BYU-PW.

Elder Gilbert said the church can’t afford to build another BYU in Manila, Philippines, and then another in Accra, Ghana. But the board still wanted BYU-PW to help more students around the world.

That created what Elder Gilbert called an innovation imperative.

“I’ve had members of my board say to me, ‘Well great, I’m glad Pathway’s growing, yeah, that’s great. But that will serve 70,000 this year. You need to plan for how will it serve a million students. That’s the need. And you’re gonna have to do things differently.’

“So that sparked a path and a quest for innovation and new models that we feel an urgency around,” he said. “We had to find a way, not just because we’re innovative or smart or cutting edge, because we are concerned about our fellow men.”

The struggle was that the program’s cost structure wouldn’t change, but many international students couldn’t afford what was low cost for American students.

For example, BYU-PW today charges $5 per credit to students from Zimbabwe.

“For a season, the church said, ‘OK, we will make up that difference,’” Elder Gilbert said. “The church came in with philanthropic contributions to subsidize that gap. But we saw more growth, and I had to go back to our board and say, ‘We want to open up in West Africa, and we want to open up in the Philippines. We want to open up in Latin America.’”

To reduce tuition to $5 in Zimbabwe required more tweaks to the low-cost model. BYU-PW outsourced more of its online instruction to international church members, much of it from members in the Philippines.

“It’s brought that cost down,” Elder Gilbert said. “The church is still subsidizing that difference, but it’s become much more sustainable. When we think about affordability in higher education, you can say, ‘Well, I want to subsidize it with philanthropy.’ Or you can say, ‘No, I actually want the cost structure to be affordable.’”

During a panel discussion that included the need at religious universities for shared vision between boards and faculty, Elder Gilbert credited the church Board of Education’s big picture leadership.

“We might not do a Pathway at BYU (in Provo), which is more traditional, but our board allowed the creation of Pathway to happen, because they are the guardians of a further-out horizon,” he said.

“BYU-Pathway is an answer to my 50-year prayer that we could find an equitable way to serve the entire church with the blessings of education,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Board of Education, in a 2021 message to BYU-PW employees.

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