Uncovering the groundbreaking secrets of BYU-Pathway Worldwide
Inside the program whose graduation rate outperforms the national average even as it serves students traditionally considered the highest risks by most universities
The growth spurt alone is noteworthy. In a dozen years, BYU-Pathway Worldwide has mushroomed from 50 students its first semester to 51,583 today.
The international nature of that expansion is also significant. In Africa alone, BYU-PW last year added more than 7,400 students, the equivalent of a mid-sized American community college.
But educators say what is most unique about Pathway are the ideas and innovations behind a program whose graduation rate outperforms the national average even as it serves students traditionally considered the highest risk by most universities.
“We’re serving people who higher education has historically just not served,” BYU-PW President Clark Gilbert said. “I mean they’re just not on their radar. We serve adult learners, we serve first-generation learners and we serve lower-income learners. Our metrics show that’s 70% of who we serve, and maybe you get community colleges almost that high, but it’s just not been a population who traditional higher education served. They’ve either been ignored or served very poorly.”
The six-year graduation rates for community colleges are about 15%. BYU-PW’s graduation rate is three times better, 45% to 48%, Gilbert said, for half the tuition price.
“We’re serving a nontraditional population, and we’re serving them very effectively,” he said.
The national average for six-year graduation rate at all colleges and universities is about 42%.
“BYU-Pathway is one of the best models for how to support an adult, nontraditional learner who is going to take that nonstandard path on the way to graduation,” said Sarah Horn, CEO and co-founder of ReUp Education.
Serving the underserved is the most obvious reason for BYU-PW’s rapid buildout, Gilbert said.
“The first reason we’ve been able to grow so fast is 55% of America doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree,” Gilbert said. “Rather than say, ‘We’ll take a few of those nontraditional students,’ we’ve said, ‘That’s our primary focus.’
Looking for a key to success? Consider how BYU Pathway treats students:
“If you look at a distribution curve, lots of universities have the students we serve on the left-hand side of their distribution curve, but for us they’re not a population we accommodate, they’re our center-cut focus. That’s our main student profile. We built the program for them to be successful. We don’t view them as remediating students, and we don’t leave them out on an island. Too often in higher education, you’re either treated like a remediation student or you’re left to sink or swim.
“BYU-Pathway pulled in nontraditional students and created hope, and I think that’s the first reason we’re growing so fast.”
Other reasons include the low price — a four-year degree costs less than $10,000 — and a computer model that identifies students who most need help. It’s about providing resources, not about labeling individuals.
Gilbert doesn’t share details of the school’s projections for its future growth, but he does expect it.
“All I can tell you is, we’re not even close to the end of the growth of BYU-Pathway Worldwide,” he said.
The idea behind BYU-Pathway Worldwide germinated at BYU-Idaho. The goal was to provide college education opportunities to more members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About 45% of the church’s American members have college degrees. Internationally, about 10%-15% do.
BYU-PW has two main functions. The first is PathwayConnect. In three semesters, a student takes six online classes and earns 15 college credits. He or she also attends a weekly gathering where students support each other and have mentors. PathwayConnect students who graduate with a B average then can enroll in the program’s second feature, access to 44 BYU-Idaho online certificates and degree programs for $75 per credit hour.
“The price point that they’re able to offer is, I mean, it’s incredible,” Horn said. “It’s very, very low in comparison to what many institutions are able to do.”
PathwayConnect’s life skills, professional skills and university skills courses are designed to build capacity, confidence and momentum.
“We’re teaching you the skills that are going to make you successful,” Gilbert said. “So those first three courses we teach, they’re going to make your other 40 classes you take in college way more successful. It’s not remediation, it’s skill-building, confidence-building scaffolding.”
BYU-PW offers courses in English only, so it also offers EnglishConnect to help students both domestically and around the world learn the language well enough to pursue an online degree.
“For low-income students, we say, ‘Hey, come study with us, we’re half the price of a community college,’” Gilbert said. “For first generation and college dropouts, we say, ‘Hey, come study with us, we’ll build the skills you need to be successful and give you the support you need to be successful so you have the confidence to succeed.’
“For Hispanic speakers, we say, ‘Hey, come study with us and we have a language program that by the end of the first year will have you speaking college-ready English.’”
Hurdles and solutions
It quickly became clear that adults without degrees had different needs than traditional degree-seeking college students. Getting those who don’t finish the first time to come back and try again is even more difficult, Horn said.
She helped launch ReUp Education five years ago with its own innovative idea. It partners with universities to contact their former students who left without finishing and provide them with coaches who help them return to school and earn their degrees. ReUp only gets paid when a former student re-enrolls.
“There are 36 million Americans with some college credit and no degree, meaning they started college at one point or another and they never finished,” Horn said. “The higher education landscape has been focused on improving student outcomes and graduation rates for about two decades now and has not seen the needle move that much on completion rates despite many, many different ways of trying to focus on success rate and to innovate around improvement.”
Horn said BYU-PW moves the needle. One way it does so, and another factor Gilbert credits for its growth, is that credits are stacked so students naturally and swiftly earn a job-enhancing certificate on the path toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
“Their stackable credential model and their certificate model is top flight,” Horn said. “There are more people going in that direction, but they’re the first to really do it, do it well and do it at scale, and prove how stacking their credentials on the pathway to earn a four-year degree really concretely drove success rates and graduation outcomes.”
Gilbert calls it a certificate-first program and says that makes BYU-PW fundamentally different.
“This lets students have an early win, get a better job and still earn their bachelor’s degree,” he said. “It pulls people in who think, ‘Four or five years on a bachelor’s degree? I can’t do it’ by saying, ‘Hey, within a year, you can get a certificate, job skills and a better job. That pulls them in, and then they keep going.”
One of BYU-PW’s initial growing pains was losing students when they graduated from PathwayConnect. Too few were moving on to the online degree programs. So as BYU-PW developed its stackable credits, it found a way to manage one of its biggest growing pains.
“We knew there was a gap between finishing the first three courses in PathwayConnect and matriculating on into the online certificate and degree program,” Gilbert said. “We’ve been studying that.”
Students told the school that they loved meeting weekly with fellow students and the volunteers — Latter-day Saint missionary couples — who act as mentors. They said that just as school became more difficult in the online program, those resources dropped away.
“We worked with BYU-Idaho, and now Ensign College, to get them to agree to put the first course in their certificates through the pre-matriculation PathwayConnect program,” Gilbert said. “By overlapping those, our matriculation rate jumped from 47% to 82%.”
That made 2020 a bigger year of growth than BYU-PW had seen in several years.
“Our starts grew at 3.2%, but we grew 20% overall,” Gilbert said, “because matriculation almost doubled and retention, both cohort and re-up, each added five points of retention.”
ReUp does not partner with BYU-PW because of its unique profile, but the two organizations and their leaders openly and frequently share ideas, including innovations and lessons learned.
ReUp’s Sarah Horn credited the BYU-PW team’s success to its clear mission, which she said has allowed it to remain focused while growing on a large scale.
“They’re equally mission-driven and execution-oriented, and that has set them up well to both scale and succeed while they’re scaling,” she said. “They have a very aligned product. They are very clear on what their intention is and they have an amazing team.”
That team includes Brian Ashton, a Harvard MBA who is a former business executive and former member of the General Sunday School Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The vice president of curriculum is Milton Camargo, the former president of AOL Brazil and former CEO of a large Mexican university of technology. He currently serves in the church’s General Sunday School Presidency.
Gilbert, who serves as an Area Seventy for the church, attributes the BYU-PW growth to two other drivers.
One is its retention efforts.
BYU-PW added 5 percentage points of retention by focusing on helping current students re-enroll in the next semester. Then it began to focus on its own re-up outreach. It added mentors, and principles of persistence and grit are part of the curriculum.
“We have a whole separate effort going back to, ‘Hey, we saw you took a semester off. We’d love to help you get back.’ We make it as easy as possible to restart,” Gilbert said. “And that adds another five points or retention on to our retention rates. So you know, we had historically been at about a 75% semester-to-semester retention level. Now we’re almost to 85%, even with our highly risky student profile.”
By education standards, this happened even as BYU-PW’s “risk profile” worsened for the second straight year in 2020.
“We’ve become more risky, meaning more males, more single students, more younger students, more first-generation students, more low-income students,” Gilbert said. “So our retention and matriculation should be going down based on our risk-prediction models, but they’re all going up because of two main things we’ve done.”
First, with the help of Stanford’s Eric Bettinger and InsideTrack, BYU-PW built a computer analytics program to identify students who need support, which is called impactability. Then it built out a mentoring team to provide it.
“We view our mentor team as three parts — professional mentors, missionary couples and instructors. We’ve integrated our soft-skill mentoring people with the quantitative prediction of our analytics team,” Gilbert said.
“Good universities identify risk, better universities use the risk to guide their mentoring and really successful universities are using impactability to sharpen where that mentoring goes,” he added. “We’ve really pioneered this impactability. We don’t just calculate risk, we calculate impactability times risk to decide where to send our mentors,” he said.
“The mentors filter and either the mentor contacts the students or they route them to the missionary or they route them to the instructor based on the feedback of the analytics. So rather than 100 mentors, I’ve got 100 gatekeepers who can do the mentoring for certain profiles, or they can route them to to 2,500 missionary couples or to 2,000 instructors. And we have predictive analytics to say when each form of intervention is most effective.”
The final driver of growth is BYU-PW’s affordability. U.S. students pay $75 per credit. Four-year degrees require 120 credits for a total tuition cost of $9,000. Add textbooks and the total cost remains less than $10,000.
“There are some realities of what they are able to do and who they are able to serve that will position them to continue to grow,” Horn said. “Obviously they’re going to be the premier institution within their community and church.”
BYU-PW keeps costs low by partnering with BYU-Idaho, which provides the online courses and accreditation, and by leveraging church facilities and 2,500 missionary volunteers around the world for PathwayConnect courses. BYU-PW operates its weekly meetings for PathwayConnect students at more than 500 sites. In all, BYU-PW is active in 152 countries.
The largest concentration of students is in the Philippines (2,374 students), followed by Nigeria (1,946 students) and Mexico (1,787 students). In the United States, Utah has the most BYU-PW students (9,486), followed by California (2,792) and Arizona (2,317).
In Africa, more than 25% of those who serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are returning home and enrolling in BYU-PW programs while still in the traditional 19-to-24-year-old college age group.
Older students also enroll, many of whom never started a university education while younger. Many learn about BYU-PW and experience its effectiveness firsthand through their service in Latter-day Saint congregational leadership groups that skew younger in Africa than in other areas of the world.
“About 38% of our students in Africa are in a stake presidency, bishopric, Relief Society presidency or Elders’ Quorum presidency,” Gilbert said. “It is developing leaders in Africa. It is educating returned missionaries in Africa. And it is growing 50% per year.”
Affordability is relative, though. Gilbert said his team has successfully developed a pilot program that would make online courses more affordable for students outside the United States, even though BYU-PW already charges on a sliding scale so that those in developing economies pay a fraction of what Americans pay.
“One of the reasons so many students stopped out along the way is they run out of money,” Gilbert said. “We’re very affordable, and we’ve started what we call a bridge scholarship that helps people when they have short-term financial problems. We start out affordable, we keep them moving through the program and we’ve found a way through our mentors to administer this bridge scholarship, which also really helps with our persistence.”
Horn said BYU-PW is in a unique position because it doesn’t have a traditional student-body campus.
“They do have more flexibility to operate with an entrepreneurial spirit,” she said.
BYU-PW has bucked the typical higher-education model of forcing nontraditional students into the enrollment and matriculation cycle for traditional students. Horn said force-feeding nontraditional students into that cycle perpetuates the problems faced by adult learners.
“We’ve become experts at finding, engaging, re-enrolling and retaining and graduating students,” she said. “BYU is one of the strategic friends who has taken that and turned it into action. They heard it, saw it in their own data and used it to change the cadence of how they are supporting students and how they present their timeline for decision-making.”