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.
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."
While the program was initially designed to instill hope in younger students, this semester, 54 percent of Pathway students are over the age of 30.
Like Dennis Nesbit, 69, and his son, Dennis Nesbit Jr., 39.
The father-and-son duo have similar stories, decades apart. Both went to college before their LDS missions, then returned and got married. As children joined their families, they veered into full-time work and formal education got pushed aside. Now, they're studying together to finish their degrees.
"When he wanted to do it, I couldn't not come with him," said the junior Nesbit, looking over at his dad. "It's definitely a sacrifice, but I think my kids know what I'm doing, and if nothing else, it teaches them how important it is to just get it done, because you'll benefit from it later."
Earl Bolton, 67, is already benefitting from his classes, and it's only been a few weeks. He's learned that his study habits need some massaging — like bigger chunks of time devoted to single subjects instead of a varied study hour.
Like many others, Bolton never finished his degree as a young student, opting to stay in a job that had just given him a pay raise and offered a comfortable career — not really possible today without a college degree or other training, he acknowledged.
"I thought it might be good for the grandkids if I finished," Bolton says, "give them an incentive to go to college."
As class in the high school seminary building finishes, the older students pack their bags and begin filtering out.
Cruz sits for a moment longer in her desk, almost hesitant to leave.
"It's still a challenge for me ... a struggle to communicate," she says, her eyes growing misty. "But I feel so blessed to be here."
Editor's Note: This article originally stated that in Mexico students were charged $40 per credit hour. The story has been changed to reflect the correct amount, which is $35.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company