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The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has announced the creation of a global higher-education organization, BYU-Pathway Worldwide (BYU-PW). The institution will have responsibility for all online certificate and degree programs offered by the Church Educational System (CES). Pictured from left to right are Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency; Clark Gilbert, current president of BYU-Idaho, will oversee this new organization. BYU-Pathway Worldwide and Elder Kim B. Clark of the Seventy and Church Commissioner of Education.

SALT LAKE CITY — BYU Pathway Worldwide instantly became larger than any Brigham Young University campus on Tuesday when LDS leaders announced the new, churchwide online higher education program.

The program will take 37,000 students in online programs at the church's colleges and universities and gather them under a single umbrella organization led by BYU-Idaho President Clark Gilbert, the father of the BYU-Idaho Pathway program.

The goal is to expand, making affordable higher education available to tens of thousands of Mormons around the world.

The announcement came in a major news conference held in an auditorium at the Church Office Building in downtown Salt Lake City. The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had not called a news conference since it reformed in 2008 with President Thomas S. Monson as the new church president and Henry B. Eyring and Dieter F. Uchtdorf as his counselors.

President Uchtdorf made Tuesday's announcement and characterized it as "a historic moment" in the church.

"This is a very special day for the Church Educational System," he said, "and a day of hope and joy for many of our young people worldwide who are seeking to educate themselves and to prepare for a successful livelihood."

Bridge to college

BYU Pathway Worldwide inherits BYU-Idaho's seven-year-old Pathway program, which had about 27,000 students at 500 locations in 50 countries. BYU-I's Pathway provided a one-year entrance program that then led to BYU-I's online degree program.

BYU Pathway Worldwide is larger than BYU, which had 33,363 students on the Provo campus in the fall. BYU-Idaho in Rexburg had approximately 18,000 students, BYU-Hawaii in Laie had 2,600 and LDS Business College in Salt Lake had 1,800.

BYU Pathway Worldwide also will coordinate all other online higher education certificate and degree programs in the church system, including English language certification, technical- and skills-based certificates and online degrees, said Elder Kim B. Clark, the Church Commissioner of Education.

The Pathway program has served 57,000 students since its launch at BYU-Idaho in 2009. President Uchtdorf called it a bridge into the world of online college education.

"Pathway was created," Elder Clark said, "to open up opportunities in higher education to people who did not have them either because of cost or fear they could not do the work, or because of other responsibility that made it impossible for them to access education on one of the campuses or even on campuses near their homes."

The one-year certificate program includes one academic class and one religious class per semester. The program has three semesters. Students take the courses online, but meet once a week with other students at an LDS meetinghouse or Institute building. In many places, local church members volunteer to lead discussions.

New access

"Pathway has been able to grow because of the huge and wonderful existing organization and resources of the church all over the world," President Uchtdorf said.

Meetings happen around the globe, from Mexico to West Africa, Gilbert said, but many Pathway students are Utahns who didn't think they could access higher education.

"BYU Pathway Worldwide opens doors to education," Gilbert said. "One of the ways it does that is by building confidence, teaching the students what they can do and showing them that there is a possibility to do more than many of them thought."

Pathway doesn't require the ecclesiastical endorsement necessary to attend other college programs in the church system, opening it up to anyone regardless of circumstance.

Costs are low. In the United States, tuition is $69 a credit hour, but tuition is tied to the income level of a country. In Ghana, Pathway costs about $10 a credit hour, Elder Clark said.

The program also removes another barrier to online college education. If a student maintains a B+ grade-point average during the first-year program, BYU-Idaho waives the ACT and GPA requirements for entrance into its online degree program, Elder Clark said. Students don't even need to have completed high school.

"For many people, the requirements — ACT, GPA — were daunting," he said. "The intent was to make that experience in the first year of Pathway a real test of someone's interest in, commitment to and capacity to do higher education. Period."

New leadership

Gilbert will continue as BYU-Idaho's president until April 10. Then he will assume full-time leadership of BYU Pathway Worldwide.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks introduced Henry J. Eyring as BYU-Idaho's next president during a Tuesday afternoon devotional on the Rexburg, Idaho, campus. Elder Oaks is the chairman of the executive committee of the Church Board of Education and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Eyring is the school's academic vice president and the son of President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency of the church.

Gilbert was joined at Tuesday's news conference by his wife, Christine, and six of their eight children. The BYU graduate is a former Harvard Business School professor who served as CEO of Deseret Digital Media and president of the Deseret News until he was named BYU-Idaho's president in April 2015.

"The BYU-Idaho institution, its campus and online program have been significantly strengthened under President Gilbert's leadership," President Uchtdorf said. "President Gilbert is perfectly prepared to take the responsibility for this important new position within the Church Educational System. In this new assignment he will be able to use three aspects of his many talents, including his lifelong commitment to strengthening young people, his steep engagement with technology and education, and his skill in creating new organizations as an innovative leader and entrepreneur."

BYU Pathway Worldwide will be affiliated with all the other CES institutions, including BYU in Provo, BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho, BYU-Hawaii in Laie, Hawaii and LDS Business College in Salt Lake City.

"This will bless the entire church who will not have to come to Rexburg or to Provo or to Laie or to Salt Lake to access an education," Gilbert said, "a spiritual education of the kind we can provide in the Church Educational System."

Gilbert will report directly to Elder Clark, the commissioner of education. The headquarters of BYU Pathway Worldwide will be in Salt Lake City.

"We love BYU-Idaho," Gilbert said. "Yes, it is an innovative and a growing and remarkable institution, but there is something much deeper there. There is a modesty, a consecration and a willingness to do more with less, a desire to seek prophetic direction that shapes that institution in an inspired and miraculous way. It is not by accident that BYU Pathway is coming out of the institution it came from."

Looking ahead

Expansion appeared inevitable. The church's 30,000 congregations in more than 180 countries provide natural opportunities.

"Pathway will grow and bloom worldwide," President Uchtdorf said.

Pathway's growth has outstripped expectation at every turn, Elder Clark said, so BYU Pathway Worldwide does not have a goal.

"I would never give you a number about what this will be," he said. "We just know it will grow."

The largest challenge is a decision made by Gilbert and other Pathway founders like Elder Clark, who was the president of BYU-Idaho in 2009.

"The biggest impediment to the growth of this worldwide is English," Elder Clark said. "We made a decision that all these programs would be done in English, because the capacity to read, write and speak English, understand English, has enormous value everywhere."

Elder Clark said hundreds of people show up when Pathway holds an informational meeting to launch a new Pathway site, but only about 20 percent have the English skills necessary. In response, Pathway launched a major effort in English language instruction to help people develop the English skills they need for the program.

If the program is successful, he said, "many, many more of them will be able to participate in these programs."

"This is a remarkable time and season in the church," Gilbert said. "It is a remarkable time and season in the Church Educational System."

BYU Pathway Worldwide programs will be accredited through existing CES institutions. The program will create and manage an online system for student services. It also will build on its close working relationship with the LDS Church's Self-Reliance Services, which includes what formerly was known as the Perpetual Education Fund.

"Pathway was kind of a hidden treasure within the CES system in past years," President Uchtdorf said. "Now is the right time to give increased focus and direction to Pathway and online higher education in the church."

The Church Board of Education includes the First Presidency, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, a member of the Twelve, a member of the presidency of the Seventy and the general presidents of the Relief Society and Young Women.