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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

Pathway begins with Academic Start, a year-long hybrid course that includes life skills and pre-college math and pre-college English classes, as well as a religion class each trimester. Along with weekly readings, online assignments and discussion boards, students meet once a week for student-led and senior missionary couple-facilitated discussion groups.

After Academic Start, students with a B average can matriculate into BYU-I online or they can apply to local colleges or vocational schools. Since Pathway started, 1,836 students have matriculated into BYU-I's online degree program.

"So many kids come out of high school not prepared for higher education, and that's really what Pathway is," says said BYU-Idaho President Kim Clark. "It's a transition program, a bridge program, a pathway to find the way to a better life through education, and then giving (students) ... the abilities that will allow (them) to be successful in higher education."

In the US, Pathway is $65 per credit hour. At 120 hours for a bachelor's degree, the cost is just under $8,000 — compared with the average bill of $17,860 for an in-state bachelor's degree from a public university, or $39,518 for a bachelors from a private, non-profit university, according to CollegeBoard, a non-profit advocacy and policy center.

Pathway tuition, which varies by area, is set by local LDS authorities to make it an "affordable stretch," Griffith said.

In Mexico, students pay $35 per credit hour, while students in Ghana pay $20. The cost can be kept so low because Pathway is a branch of online education at BYU-I, which is self-sustaining, says Griffith. It's also because buildings used for Pathway are already owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, professors are already employed by BYU-I, senior mentor couples serve unpaid and no marketing is needed thanks to word-of-mouth and ecclesiastical leader referrals.

"Part of the blessing of this program is it's not about the church or BYU-Idaho making money … it's about providing an education," Griffith said.

And employing the "blended learning" approach to that education, as edX's Heinlein calls it, might be what sets Pathway apart from other educational programs.

"There are many universities who offer online learning degrees ... (but with) BYU (Idaho) it seems like there are many opportunities for learners worldwide to participate in that physical engagement, so that's unique," Heinlein said. "We're certainly really encouraged by seeing many other institutions looking at how they can make access to information more easily available."

In Taylorsville, a new Pathway site this fall and currently the largest, the 18-30-year-old students meet at the Institute building on the campus of Salt Lake Community College.

Emilie Fangalua, 22, was one of the 199 students who met there on a recent Thursday, having heard about Pathway from her sister, Ana Fonua, 30, who also attended.

"I like how it eases you into going back to school, with only one class at a time," Fangalua said. "It's my first time coming back since high school (four years ago). I didn't want to take too many classes and then quit."

Fangalua, who eventually wants to study psychology, said she appreciates the strong academic foundation as well as the spiritual boost through religion courses.

Faith and learning

BYU-I officials are not shy in proclaiming that while Pathway is an educational endeavor, it's also a reactivation tool to reach members of the LDS Church who may have wandered from the faith.

By eliminating the requirement of an ecclesiastical endorsement for Academic Start (students don't need a high school diploma or SAT/ACT score either), more students can pursue an education while they work out personal worthiness issues.

"Amazing things happen as people awake to God again because someone reached out to them," Clark said. "We kind of underestimated how much of the challenge that people faced had to do with hope."

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