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New study explores US educators’ views on pathway partnerships

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A survey of US educators finds a strong interest in building international enrolment and, for some, a growing openness to partnering with third-party providers
  • Educators reported that the main reasons for considering such a partnership were to boost international student numbers, access the recruitment network of the pathway partner, and leverage the expertise of the provider
  • Survey respondents also noted concerns around academic standards and contract terms as the leading factors that would discourage US institutions from pursuing such a partnership

In 2016, NAFSA released the initial findings of a two-phase research effort designed to map third-party pathway partnerships in the US. And now, with further findings presented this week at the annual NAFSA conference in Los Angeles, the final report for the study has also been released.

“This is not the end of the conversation around pathway partnerships in the US,” says principal investigator Dr Rahul Choudaha. “This is the beginning. The important thing is that we have established a baseline.”

The Landscape of Third-Party Pathway Partnerships in the United States looks in more detail at the 45 institutions highlighted in the initial phase of research in 2016.

Those 45 institutions are partnered with eight third-party pathway providers, and together they enrolled more than 56,500 international students (or about 6% of the foreign student enrolment base in the US) as of fall 2014. “The current number of third-party pathway partnerships remains rather small,” notes the report. “While the third-party pathway model has been in existence in the United States for nearly a decade, reports indicate that there were less than 50 partnerships as of [April 2016].”

In the second phase of the study, the researchers sent a survey to nearly 2,400 US educators. The survey drew nearly 350 responses through which the respondents were asked to expand on their views on third-party pathway partnerships, regardless of whether their institution was currently engaged in a pathway partnership or not.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents (64%) said they were not considering a third-party pathway, while 18% indicated they were currently partners and another 13% said they were considering such a partnership in the future. Of those not currently partnered, 10% said that they expected their institution would establish a third-party pathway programme within the next three years.

Current partnership status of survey respondents

“We can see the interest is there to expand enrolment,” adds Dr Choudaha, “especially at the bachelor’s level. The question is how?” Indeed, with funding to US colleges under pressure – and with the prevailing trends of expanding internationalisation and challenging domestic demographics in full force – US colleges are increasingly motivated to build their international enrolments.

And it appears that these overlapping trends create part of the context for a growing interest on the part of US educators in new models of recruitment and collaboration, including third-party pathways.

Reasons for and against

When asked why institutions would partner with a third-party pathway provider, the survey respondents, regardless of their current partnership status, said they thought the main reasons are to expand or diversify international enrolment, particularly at the bachelor’s level, and “to overcome the lack of in-house expertise by leveraging recruitment networks of third-party pathway providers.”

In fact, nearly six in ten cited access to the “recruitment network of pathway provider” as one of the main reasons for partnering, while 12% saw third-party providers as a means to overcome institutional restrictions on the use of agents. This echoes another research finding from last year which observed that, in addition to the 37% of US colleges that now work directly with agents, another 12% leverage international agent network indirectly.

“The great opportunity for growth is with respect to students who need language and other bridging programmes,” says Dr Choudaha. “Agents are often involved in supporting such students.”

“We want access to a network of reputable agents and don’t want to have to build the infrastructure for managing them,” said one of the US educators responding to the survey. “Our English language programme is struggling with recruitment, retention, and staffing. We hope the addition of a third-party provider would remedy some of these issues,” added another.

Conversely, the top reasons for not partnering, also as reported by respondents, have to do with concerns about academic standards and contract terms, as well a preference for building recruitment capacity within the institution.

When asked what factors were most important to consider when working with third-party pathway providers, respondents cited the need to define academic qualifications for pathway students, the importance of ensuring transparency in recruiting practices, and the need to align the pathway programme with institutional goals and culture.

The survey responses in this area also reflected a certain unease among educators in partnering with private-sector pathway partners. “Pathway provider discussions are complicated because of the public-private partnership stigmas,” said one respondent, while another commented: “There is a natural conflict between not for profit institutions and for-profit companies—this is often a huge cultural difference and redefines the institution.”

Even so, and as the report concludes, “Given the reality of the financial pressures that many higher education institutions are facing, there is an increasing interest in expanding international student enrolment…It is important to note that the diversity of US higher education institutions calls for equally diverse approaches to pursuing strategic goals of international enrollment. The result is a continuum of interest in engaging with third-party pathway providers. Not all institutions need, want, or can engage in third-party pathway partnerships, while for others it may be a mutually beneficial relationship.”

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