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How one U.S. college is using a radical new program to reach students around the world

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26 2013 8:40 p.m. MDT

Angie Loyo listens during a Pathway class at Salt Lake Community College Friday, Sept. 20, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

TAYLORSVILLE — Heila Cruz sits at her desk on the back row, hands gently resting on her green and blue binder as she waits for class to start.

It's a recent Thursday night and the Taylorsville high school LDS seminary building is slowing filling with 163 students — all of them over the age of 30 — who are meeting for the first time tonight as part of Pathway, an online college-preparation program through BYU-Idaho that is reaching students of all ages and all demographics, all across the world.

"I stopped (studying accounting) because I got married, came to the U.S. and had the kids," the Brazilian native says with a smile. "I (want to) improve my skills for English and to be confident."

For Cruz, and more than 7,000 Latter-day Saint students, Pathway represents a ticket to an education they never thought they could get, finish or even qualify for.

But thanks to online BYU-I courses, access to LDS-owned buildings across the globe, and hundreds of volunteer senior missionaries who supervise weekly discussion groups, students from Alaska to Albania and Pennsylvania to Peru can get an education for a fraction of the cost, and without leaving their home country.

Pathway is only four years old, but interest is growing quickly. In 2009, there were three sites — like the one Cruz studies at — and this fall there are 129. Looking at completion rates, of the 2,756 students who started in Fall 2012, 64 percent finished the first year of Pathway and 45 percent continued on to higher education through BYU-I's online degree program.

"The hope for Pathway is that it will lead to a credential of some sort, whether it be a professional certificate, an associates or a bachelor's," said J.D. Griffith, managing director of Pathway. "Students enrolled in Pathway have a credential or a light at the end of the tunnel."

An innovative model

BYU-I isn't the only academic institution working to expand access to education through the Internet — which, thanks to growing technology, is becoming easier and often more integrated with traditional classroom learning.

Oft-cited examples include the non-profit Khan Academy, which provides hundreds of educational videos online for free, as well as the increasingly popular MOOCs — massive open online classes — provided through private companies and now colleges like Stanford, Harvard and MIT. Often, thousands will sign up for a free class, but because it's not for credit, there's a very low completion rate. (In some cases, students can pay to prove proficiency and receive a certificate.)

Johannes Heinlein, senior director of strategic partnership for edX, the joint MOOC venture between Harvard and MIT founded just over a year ago, said they exist to "provide access to quality content to learners worldwide for free and to improve educational learning outcomes," thanks to feedback from online students.

"It's not meant to provide an alternative path for a university degree," Heinlein said. "It's meant either in addition to, or in preparation for (college) or in continuing learning opportunities. It's really about reaching an audience that generally has not had access to high-quality content."

Other universities reach broad student audiences by creating international campuses, like the partnership between Duke and the National University of Singapore to create a medical school in Singapore. The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business has campuses in London, Singapore and an upcoming Hong Kong campus. In 2014 Carnegie Mellon University will celebrate 10 years of its University in Qatar.

A unique global program

But BYU-I's Pathway is neither a MOOC nor a university with a few dedicated international campuses. Instead, Pathway is a global program for anyone who wants to go to college — no matter where they live or how financially strapped they feel.

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