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How a BYU Campus is Reshaping Online Education - And the Mormon Faith

On a summer Thursday night, more than a dozen students, ages 22 to 71, are settling in to two classrooms here in a small brick building on the outskirts of the University of Maryland’s main campus. They’re here for their weekly in-person class .

Around the world, at 436 other Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints congregational and educational facilities, nearly 11,000 other online students are doing the same thing.

students in class
Students in a class for those 31 and older meet at a Mormon Church site in College Park, Md. They commit to a year of weekly meetings and online study that can then be applied to their degrees through Brigham Young University-Idaho. (Photo credit: André Chung for The Chronicle)

The students here — stay-at-home moms pondering their next step and young adults recently returned from missionary service, among others — are in their final month of PathwayConnect , a yearlong, 15-credit program created by Brigham Young University-Idaho. It’s an ambitious endeavor with a simple goal: to prepare them to go, or return, to college.

PathwayConnect began in 2009 and has quickly developed into one of online education’s striking success stories. It has graduated nearly 24,000 students, more than 14,000 of whom have continued on for an online certificate or degree from BYU-Idaho. (BYU-Idaho’s online degree programs have been growing so fast — enrollment has increased tenfold, to more than 13,000, over the past five years — that the church recently established the online operation as a separate entity called BYU-Pathway Worldwide .)

As with the rest of BYU, a Mormon character is inseparably woven into PathwayConnect. Required religious offerings , like a two-course sequence on the Book of Mormon, mix with secular courses in writing , mathematics , and life skills , in which students learn about goal-setting and “provident living.” Students can use the program as an entry point to college, says Clark G. Gilbert, president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, “and a path back to the faith.”

But at a time when colleges of all stripes are expanding online to meet the needs of a diversifying student population, PathwayConnect is a model worth paying attention to. Several features of the program could make it relevant — and, in some form, adaptable — to other institutions, religious or not.

‘No Credit Left Behind’

Most obvious of these is the price . Students in the United states pay $69 per credit — and even less if they’re overseas. If they later enroll in BYU-Idaho online, they can continue to take the rest of their courses at the same price they paid for PathwayConnect. In the United States, that adds up to just over $8,200 for the 120 credits needed for a bachelor’s degree, half the price of traditional BYU-Idaho. That’s a striking bargain in a world where many political figures still openly dream of creating a $10,000 degree .

How can the program promise such a low price? One reason is BYU-Idaho’s heavy reliance on adjunct instructors. But another key is that most of the student recruiting comes through word of mouth and the 16-million-member church, so Pathway’s marketing and recruiting costs are low. Until recently, its marketing involved primarily some Facebook promotions and asking its missionaries around the world to hand out small promotional cards to prospects.

Pathway promotion
Until recently, Pathway’s marketing involved primarily some Facebook promotions and asking its missionaries around the world to hand out small promotional cards to prospects.

Some big online colleges spend as much as 20 percent of their budgets on marketing and recruiting. By contrast, marketing costs for PathwayConnect amount to 0.14 percent of the BYU-Pathway Worldwide budget, officials there say, although that parent operation spends more than that marketing the rest of its online courses.

For most students, Pathway also serves as the first stop in BYU-Idaho’s online academic program , which is deliberately designed as a series of “ stackable credentials ” — bite-size certifications that have gained popularity nationwide as a way to give people marketable credentials in the short run that could eventually lead them to to full degrees. After Pathway, every certificate a student earns can count toward an associate degree, and every associate degree can count toward a bachelor’s. The 14-credit professional sales certificate , for example, counts toward the 60-credit applied associate degree , which counts toward a full 120-credit bachelor’s in business management .

“We have a phrase: ‘no credit left behind,’” says Mr. Gilbert, who was president of BYU-Idaho before taking on the new BYU-Pathway Worldwide post in February. Certificates and degrees are developed in consultation with an arm of the church called Self-Reliance Services, which assists in deciding which degrees to develop and where they should be offered, based on research it does on local-market employment needs.

The pedagogy is also based on proven ideas, including a hybrid model that combines online education with real-world encounters: The mandatory weekly in-person session, which is called Gathering , divided into one section for students 30 and under and another for those who are older, provides students a live support network of peers, separate from the group of students they interact with online through their formal online classes.

teacher and student
Becky Michela, of Waldorf, Md., and Ting Lee, of Bethesda, take part in the PathwayConnect program in College Park. Md. Michela served as teacher, something all students do. “As Latter-Day Saints, we say there’s truth everywhere,” she says. (Photo Credit: André Chung for The Chronicle)

PathwayConnect requires every student to take a turn as “lead student” during Gathering , directing the group in a review of the week’s work. Learning by teaching is a time-honored educational technique. Sharing this responsibility also fits with the teachings of Mormonism, explains Becky Michela, 66, the lead student for the older students’ religion course, “The Eternal Family,” this particular evening explains. “As Latter-Day Saints, we say there’s truth everywhere,” she says.

Like the church itself, PathwayConnect relies heavily on volunteers, often older couples like Paul and Connie Nielsen, service missionaries here at the College Park program. They accepted a two-year commitment and now come each week to help out with tutoring and advising during the weekly Gathering. Both hold college degrees (his from BYU, hers from Ricks College, the two-year college that is now BYU-Idaho), but neither has formal academic training in education. “We’re just brought up in the church, and you just learn how to teach and say yes,” says Ms. Nielsen.

A Diverse Student Body

Online education, of course, isn’t a new idea for religious colleges. The evangelical Liberty University is well-known for its extensive online program . Colleges with ties to Christian denominations are also active online, including Indiana Wesleyan University, where the online enrollment of about 9,000 is now three times the size of the residential student population, and most of the courses integrate some faith teachings as part of the coursework. (Students don’t need to adhere to Wesleyan beliefs to enroll; “they just need to understand we’re going to talk about it,” says Stacy Hammonds, the provost.) Among the 190 or so Roman Catholic colleges that offer online education, the level of faith teachings in the coursework varies from extensive, as at Saint Leo University, where all courses put a focus on at least one of six Benedictine values, to much less so. Many institutions “meet people where they are,” says Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

When PathwayConnect began, LDS leaders envisioned the program as a way to reconnect with young people who had strayed from the church’s teachings and church members who didn’t see education as affordable or connected to their faith. Mr. Gilbert notes that many church members are immigrants to the United States and working class. Church leaders learned that more than a third of their members said they couldn’t afford college or didn’t think they could.

A year after PathwayConnect began as a program for young people, it was adapted to serve older students too. Many of the students had tried college before but never finished; 11 percent of them have an associate degree and 10 percent hold a bachelor’s degree. Some students with degrees are taking PathwayConnect because it satisfies a requirement that BYU students have “a BYU experience” before taking classes online.

And just as the Mormon Church is becoming more international, so is PathwayConnect: Half the students and half the Gathering sites are located outside of the United States or Canada.

The College Park PathwayConnect students reflect some of that diversity. Several older students, including one from South Africa, already have college degrees. Another from China hopes the courses will help her with her English skills.

The class also includes the 71-year-old Heather Kearns, who says she signed up at her son’s urging. In her native England nearly 60 years ago, she took a test that could have let her attend college. “I didn’t make the cut,” she says. “It was a very great disappointment.” She’s a convert to the LDS church, lives with her disabled husband and 16-year-old grandson, and will probably enroll for a degree in marriage and family studies when she completes PathwayConnect.

The younger class includes Kevin Vargas, 22, the son of El Salvadoran immigrants who describes his parents as living paycheck to paycheck. In El Salvador, his mother, who has a master’s degree, was a pharmacist; now she works in child care. Carlos Chaico, also 22, immigrated with his parents when he was 9. His dad, who was a civil engineer in Peru, now works as a pizza chef at a trendy Washington, D.C., pizzeria. Mr. Vargas heard about the program from his mother; Mr. Chaico, from fellow missionaries in Baltimore. Now weeks from graduating from PathwayConnect, they plan to attend BYU-Idaho’s physical campus, in Rexburg, this fall, with scholarship support from the church. They’ll be roommates, in fact. Mr. Vargas hopes to study physics; Chaico, mechanical engineering.

One of their PathwayConnect classmates, Katie McCombs, 23, is less certain of her plans. After her mission in Indiana, she now works as a house cleaner and babysitter. She ended up in PathwayConnect only because her mother decided to go and signed up her up too. Now they attend together. A self-described introvert, Ms. McCombs said she had checked out some other online programs but thought they were “just trying to take your money.” Initially she dreaded the idea of the weekly Gathering, but she says she’s come to love it: “You learn about God and you get credit for it.”

Attrition and Self-Discovery

In each of three terms, students take one three-credit secular course and one two-credit religion course, though at times, even the secular courses can have a religious feel. On this night in College Park, for example, the lead student in the younger class has students pull up a map of biblical territory to illustrate a lesson about using coordinates. (To enroll, students must be members of the LDS church, be at least 17 years old with a high-school diploma or 19 without one, attend the weekly Gathering , and strive to follow the BYU-Idaho honor code. The church is also experimenting with PathwayConnect programs designed for people who are not church members, but have close connections to people who are. About 200 such students have enrolled now at 35 sites.)

Laura McCombs, Katie’s mother, never went to college. The family moved often because of her husband’s career in the military and because, as she puts it, “I was always having babies.” Now, though, the youngest of those five children is 13, and Ms. McCombs figures PathwayConnect might help her decide what’s next. Besides, she says, “the price is way right.”

For some students though, that price just isn’t enough. Nina Leake, 36, got through two of the three terms of PathwayConnect this year at College Park before deciding it wasn’t for her. “I liked that it had the same values that I teach my kids and I try to follow,” she says. But she found the Gathering frustrating.

“I didn’t want to be the teacher,” she says, nor did she enjoy being taught by some of her fellow students. She plans to continue her studies, but will probably enroll this fall in her local two-year college, the College of Southern Maryland.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a program that uses low cost as a way to get students in the door, PathwayConnect experiences plenty of attrition. Since its inception, more than 66,000 students have enrolled; based on the program’s statistics on graduates and current enrollment, about half didn’t stick with it.

This year alone at College Park, several students besides Ms. Leake didn’t complete. The Nielsens say health issues, family obligations, and in one case, discomfort with a curriculum that must be accessed via computer were too much for them. The program is not for everyone, they acknowledge. But for Christina Spoltore, 54, PathwayConnect has been a surprising source of self-discovery. A single parent of four, she signed up mostly because Ms. Michela, who heads up her local LDS Relief Society, a women’s organization, had encouraged her to. At first she didn’t realize what she was getting herself into. “I didn’t want to be a teacher or do public speaking,” she says. But as she worked her way through the curriculum — early in the mornings before getting her son off to LDS religion classes, and late into the night after work at her family’s health food store — she found she was becoming more organized.

“I feel capable. I feel confident, I feel confident for prospects for my future,” says Ms. Spoltore. Having her family, her bishop, and Ms. Michela’s support was important, as is the explicit religious component. “It is church,” she says of PathwayConnect. “I feel like God is personally aware of me.”

Used with permission of The Chronicle of Higher Education Copyright© 2017. All rights reserved.