From wheat field to innovator: how BYU-Idaho is changing the landscape of higher education

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Professor Kent Davis at BYU-Idaho teaches student Myung Wha Park.

Michael Lewis

Editors Note: This is the second in a three part series on BYU-Idaho and the implications for higher education. Read part one of the series here. Read part three of the series here.

NEW YORK — J.D. Griffith walked off the subway and onto the bustling streets of midtown Manhattan. It was an April evening, cold and rainy, and he was a long way from home.

As he stepped into a church on Columbus Avenue, the din of the city — the honking cabs, the clattering of trains underground, the screech of brake lines on city buses — receded into silence.

Griffith had come to a special meeting at the LDS chapel with an unusual message. BYU-Idaho, the LDS Church's second largest university, was expanding its reach to students who had never considered college a real option.

As he walked into the chapel, Griffith was surprised at what he saw. He had expected maybe a dozen people to show up to the meeting, advertised largely by word of mouth, but instead, the place was packed with nearly two hundred potential students. As he made his way to the front, he shook hands with a young Japanese immigrant who spoke halting English, a group of Latin Americans from Guatemala, and five or six young adults of Chinese descent. People had come from as far away as Connecticut and New Jersey.

Griffith was excited so many people had shown up, but he also felt slightly intimidated. He had come to recruit more students, but this group had such diverse and pressing needs. Could BYU-Idaho help them all?

"These people were seeking education almost desperately," he said. "It seemed as if they were just pleading and begging for an opportunity to start an educational program, and I felt this overwhelming sense of urgency to help them."

Griffith had come at the request of Kim Clark, a Harvard educated academic who ran BYU-Idaho. Since taking over a few years before, Clark had defined three priorities for the school: raise the quality of education, lower costs and reach more students. This came at a time in which public universities across the country were dealing with declining state budgets, as well as competition from online schools like the University of Phoenix, which offered more flexible ways to college graduation. Standing at the front of the chapel, Griffith announced a new initiative at BYU-Idaho — called the Pathway program — that would allow a nontraditional student to attain a degree remotely, whether it was a certificate or a bachelor's degree. The program would allow the school to extend its reach, thus fulfilling one of Clark's three imperatives.

Just before the presentation, a fresh-out-of-high-school Jamaican girl approached Griffith. Dressed in a -jean skirt and sparkly Tee, she explained that her mother was sick, which required her to stay home to take care of her siblings. She couldn't leave home, she said, but she desperately wanted to study.

Griffith told her that through the Pathway program there was a place for her at BYU-I.

"So you mean I can stay at home in New York and get a degree from BYU-I?" she asked, beaming. "You mean, that's possible?"

"Yes," Griffith said. The school had created the program for people like her.

Back in Rexburg, Griffith related the experience to Clark, the school's president. Clark said he wasn't surprised about the response, he had expected it. This is what he and many presidents before him had hoped to one day accomplish.

"Historically, we've brought students from around the world to BYU-Idaho," said Rob Eaton, associate academic vice president for Academic Development. "Pathway, on the other hand, brings BYU-Idaho to the students — wherever they live. For those who can't come here or aren't ready to come, it can be a blessing."


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