Mapping international pathway programmes in the US

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new research project seeks to explore the growth of pathway programs in the US, particularly those offered in collaboration with private-sector pathway providers
  • It identifies and analyses 45 US pathways, for which institutions have partnered with eight private providers
  • The study is ongoing and a final study report is expected in fall 2016

Pathway programmes are gathering steam in English-speaking destination markets, and are often offered in collaboration with specialised pathway providers. For participating institutions, the pathway model represents a further international recruitment channel that combines the marketing expertise and networks of private-sector partners with the academic programming, facilities, and student services of the college or university.

There is a fair bit of variability in the pathway segment but such programmes often share a couple of basic characteristics:

  • They are targeted to students preparing for admission to English-medium undergraduate studies; and especially those requiring English training or other preparation for academic studies; and
  • They typically combine academic content with English language studies, study skills, and cultural adaptation courses.

Pathway programmes (also known as foundation programmes) do not result in an academic credential or other qualification but instead provide for an assured progression to undergraduate studies for students that successfully complete their foundation requirements.

From a university’s point of view, such programmes offer a number of distinct advantages. First and foremost, they allow the institution to access a ready pool of qualified candidates, and to do so with a fair degree of confidence in not only their academic qualifications but also their English ability and readiness to succeed in an academic programme abroad.

The private partner also allows the university a way to ramp up international operations relatively quickly by bringing additional investment and marketing and recruitment capacity to the table, along with the option to outsource some or all of the foundation programme and service delivery.

UK an early pathway adopter

Last year, the global value of the pathway market was estimated at US$825 million per year, based strictly on estimated tuition revenue; this valuation would be considerably higher if accommodation and other direct living and travel expenses were considered.

While the UK is far and away the leading destination for such programmes, more American institutions are now partnering with pathway programme providers as a way of drawing international students to their campuses. Because the trend is relatively new (pathway programmes have existed for only about 10 years in the US), however, there is little information available for institutions wanting to make sound decisions about how to arrange and conduct productive relationships with pathway programme providers – and to staff and allocate resources accordingly.

A new NAFSA study, The Landscape of Pathway Partnerships in the United States, aims to supply just that kind of information to American universities. Rahul Choudaha, principal researcher and CEO of DrEducation, the higher education consultancy conducting the research for NAFSA, notes:

“Given the reality of enrolment pressures on many institutions, the conversation about pathways [in the US] is definitely on the upswing. With this research we aimed at providing clarity on what does the landscape of pathway partnerships look like.”

The research is divided into two parts, with the first concerned with looking into the types of institutions currently working with pathway programme providers. This stage analysed the data of 45 higher education institutions partnering with eight pathway providers: BridgePathways, Cambridge Education Group, Global Pathways, INTO University Partnerships, Kings Education, Navitas, Shorelight Education, and Study Group.

For the purposes of the the research, pathways providers are defined as “private third-party entities partnering with institutions to recruit international students and offer English-language preparation with academic coursework applicable toward graduation requirements.”

“The overarching purpose of the research is to better understand the landscape of pathway partnerships in the US with an intention to bring clarity for our stakeholders from diverse higher education institutions,” says Joann Ng Hartmann, Senior Director, IEM-ISS Services, NAFSA, and manager of the research project. “This research does not make comparisons amongst providers. In essence, we want to help international educators make informed choices and enhance the impact of their international enrolment strategies.”

Most US institutions working with pathway providers are not nationally ranked

More than half (56%) of the American universities working with pathway providers are not nationally ranked. U.S. News defines nationally ranked universities as those that “offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programmes, that emphasise faculty research.” Of those that are ranked, most were ranked around 100 or lower. Of this finding, Dr Choudaha commented:

“Given that many international students consider rankings in their decision-making process, some of these institutions struggle to attract international students. It seems that by partnering with pathway providers, institutions aim to expand the applicant pool to international students who are not ranking-conscious and at the same time require additional English preparation to meet admissions requirements.”

The 45 universities enroll about 5.8% of all international students in the US. 44% of them are located in New York, Massachusetts, and Florida, and 53% are public institutions. Nearly three in four of their students are undergraduates, though roughly half of the institutions do offer doctoral degrees.

Two types of investment and staffing models

The NAFSA research identified two pathway models in play at American universities: the “reimbursement” model and the “joint venture” model. The reimbursement model operates so that the pathway provider provides the initial investment and the institution is reimbursed for expenses. As its name suggests, the joint venture model involves the pathway provider and the institution sharing the costs, risks, and rewards of the operation.

The implications of choosing one model over another are significant. With the reimbursement model, fewer institutional resources are required, and the academic delivery of pathway programming is shared between the institution and the pathway provider. There is less of a bond implied in the relationship according to this model, with a time commitment described as “medium term” and with a more modest revenue share returned to the institution.

By contrast, a joint venture pathway is a more multi-layered partnership. Start-up costs are shared between the institution and pathway provider, and the institution must hire staff to manage the relationship as well as the delivery of programming. The time commitment is long term in this case, and enrolment goals are more ambitious. In keeping with the institution’s greater commitment under a joint venture model, it also receives a more significant share of programme revenues.

The second stage of the research is underway

Research on the project continues and now a further phase will explore institutional decision-making around pathways. It will examine why US colleges enter into pathway partnerships and the factors behind those decisions by taking a “deeper dive into rationales, considerations and experiences of international educators.”

NAFSA anticipates the final study report will be released in Fall 2016.



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