Published on 2015/10/02

What Will It Take for the US To Be a Global Leader in Pathway Programs?

—With Francis Griffin | Director of Global Pathways, Kaplan International—

The EvoLLLution | What Will It Take for the US To Be a Global Leader in Pathway Programs?
Successful pathway programs create opportunities to drive international enrollments, but successfully developing these options require time, investment and patience from college and university leaders.

The recent focus on internationalization in higher education has not been without challenges. The increasing number of international students also brings together clashing cultures, diverging educational backgrounds as well as different learning styles and expectations. The answer to these challenges has been the development of the pathway and foundation programs, which the latest analysis estimates to have grown to a $825-million market globally. In this interview, the analyst responsible for the report—Carmen Neghina, Education Intelligence Specialist at StudyPortals—and Francis Griffin, the former assistant director of the Global Pathways program at Northeastern University and the current Director of Global Pathways for Kaplan, provide their perspective on the state of the pathway and foundation program environment and share their insights into what it will take for American colleges and universities to really stand out in this space.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is the current state of pathway programs in the US?

Carmen Neghina (CN): Globally, there are over 1000 English-taught pathway programs around the world, yet only a small percentage of these programs are in North America—15 percent, despite the fact that the US has the highest number of international students worldwide. The rest of the programs are predominantly located in the UK (70 percent), but also distributed between Australia and New Zealand, as well as continental Europe.

Francis Griffin (FG): In today’s global economy, universities recognize the importance of bringing an international presence to campus. Both international students and their domestic classmates benefit from a diverse classroom. Group projects that are conducted by students from a mix of backgrounds and nationalities help prepare students for today’s post-graduation work environment.

Northeastern University is one of America’s leading global, experiential and research universities. Their focus on engagement with the world attracted them to partner with Kaplan International Global Pathways to form the first significant pathway program in the United States. The Northeastern Global Pathways partnership began in 2007. Since then, the university has seen its international student population grow significantly—a 66-percent growth over three years (2010 to 2012). Currently, Global Pathways helps bring approximately 900 students per year to Northeastern University. With Northeastern ranked in the top 10 US Institutions Housing International Students, other universities are taking note. There is an increased awareness of pathway program providers and interest in forming partnerships to accomplish institutional goals.

Evo: How successful have US universities been at attracting international students with pathway programs compared to other universities across the world?

CN: US universities are still working out the best model for implementing pathway programs and using them to recruit students. A key challenge in attracting students to pathway programs is the need for a strong network of universities that students enrolling in a pathway program can have access to following their graduation. In the UK these networks are a bit stronger, and students attending a pathway program within a given university have access to a wider range of options after successfully completing the program, which makes the option slightly more appealing. In the US, these networks are still in the development and initial growth phase, which has been a challenge to attracting international students.

FG: Global Pathways is a market leader in international student recruitment. We have a track record of enrolling over 35,000 students in academic courses each year. However, only a small portion of these students is currently attending universities here in the United States. US universities—outside of Northeastern University, Michigan State, NYU and a handful of others—have been slow to enter the international education sector. International students make up less than five percent of student bodies at the majority of US universities.

Without a pathway program in place, it is difficult for a university to accept the majority of academically qualified international applicants. Unfortunately, most of these students do not have the English language or American classroom skills needed to succeed. Many universities recognize these barriers and are therefore hesitant to enter the international education arena. Two of the biggest benefits of pathway programs are that they recruit large numbers of students and they prepare the students with the English and American academic skills that they need to succeed.

Evo: What barriers do universities who want to introduce a pathway program in the US face?

CN: One of the main barriers to universities wanting to introduce pathway programs in the US is the management style: US universities want to have full control over the pathway program, and are wary of outsourcing the teaching or recruitment processes to pathway providers, although they may have a better expertise about the different modes of teaching that work for students from varying cultural backgrounds, or the personal attention they need to develop. In the end this just means a longer setup time and cost for universities, but it may pay off in the longer term as universities can also develop their in-house knowledge about how to better care for international students.

FG: Pathway programs are meant to be a long-term solution to preparing international students for success at a university. They are not a quick fix. Universities should be prepared to invest significant time and effort to develop standards and curricula and hire faculty and staff that meet their institutional goals. In the United States, universities provide the academic instruction. As any higher education administrator will tell you, establishing a new program is no easy task. However, universities should not be intimidated by the idea of incorporating a new demographic into their campus. Pathway program providers are able to provide program development guidance and the wrap around services necessary to ease the students onto campus and help them feel a part of the university’s community.

Evo: How do pathway programs differ from a regular bachelor’s degree program? What do the students gain?

CN: For international students, pathway programs usually have lower English language or academic entry requirements than a regular bachelor’s program. For instance, the minimum IELTS score for a pathway program is on average 5.2 in the US, while for a bachelor’s program that score would be a minimum 6.5. Moreover, pathway courses do not just focus on academic development, but also include a focus on English language preparation, where students improve their language skills, and general study skills, which focus on processing critical information, interpreting scientific evidence, writing papers and presentation skills, and finally, they provide cultural adaptation where students can learn about American culture, the possible culture shock or learn how to deal with homesickness.

FG: Universities use pathway programs differently to suit their needs. The Global Pathways program at Northeastern recruits high achieving international students who need to improve their English language proficiency before matriculating into degree programs. However, other universities use pathway programs to prepare the students with academic skills needed to succeed. Regardless of entry criteria, the end goal for all pathway programs is to prepare students for success at the university. Therefore, even universities that wish to recruit academically qualified students should focus on more than ESL programs. The pathway program should transition students who study English to students who are capable of studying academic content in English and perform as successfully as their American classmates. Outside of the classroom, universities or pathway providers should provide the students with the tutoring and academic advising that the students need to succeed and the cultural and social interaction that they need to feel part of the campus community.

Evo: What are the benefits for universities introducing pathway programs?

CN: For universities, the main benefit of introducing pathway programs lies in the expanded pool of international talent they can access by including students who are not yet ready to enter a bachelor’s program, but want to make the most of their education and are driven to learn and expand their knowledge and integrate within the US. In the long-term, these students also benefit the environment at universities by providing a richer cultural classroom experience. There is also of course a financial benefit in terms of tuition fees and local investments for the additional students on campus.

FG: Partnerships with pathway program providers, such as Global Pathways, offer partner universities a dual advantage: sustainable growth and international diversity of their student body.

Evo: What is the growth potential in the USA of pathway programs?

CN: There are currently over 1.13 million international students in the US alone, yet only 150 pathway programs. The growth potential is rather high, especially with the recent interest of US universities to attract an increasing amount of global talent from Asia and the Middle East to fill in gaps in STEM.

FG: There is significant growth potential in the USA for pathway programs. US universities are focused on preparing students for success in the workplace and providing them with an increased level of student support throughout their educational journey. Therefore, pathway programs are an essential component of international education. These programs attract the international community that American students need to learn how to work with and prepare international students with the unique skill sets that they need to master in order to succeed in an American university.

To download the full report on the state of the market for international foundation programs, please click here.

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Key Takeaways

  • Enrolling international students into full degree programs is a problem for American universities because otherwise academically prepared students tend to have under-developed English language and cultural skills to succeed.
  • American universities run into problems attracting students to their pathway programs because their networks with other institutions into which students can matriculate upon completion are underdeveloped.
  • A successful pathway program is not a quick fix; they should be seen as a long-term solution to enrolling international students and require a great deal of investment and focus from higher education institutions.

Readers Comments

Jim Coleman 2015/10/02 at 9:47 am

I see this as an accessibility measure. If we want students to come study here we have to make sure we’re providing all the tools they need to do that successfully. We should also be prepping domestic students for a life in which they will need to learn new language and cultural skills, and if we’re doing that, we really are working toward more authentic exchange.

Sandra Williams 2015/10/02 at 10:14 am

Incorporating language skills training into our academic programs can I think be a really solid way of combatting some of the racism that comes from differing language levels, i.e. if you don’t speak my language fluently that must mean you’re not smart. But I do think we need to keep in mind that doing education the American way is just that, the American way, and we shouldn’t be pushing American “classroom culture” as some sort of global norm.

John Perry 2015/10/02 at 1:23 pm

I wonder how much cultural exchange is actually happening if we’re teaching all international students to speak our language and conform to our culture. I understand that students need to be equipped to handle the rigours of academia in the country in which they’ve chosen to study, but I don’t want us to lose sight of the perspective that drives (or at least used to drive) the desire to bring in more international students.

Carmen 2015/11/02 at 9:54 am

@John: I agree that teaching these skills to international students could also be complemented by some courses for American students in how to engage with different cultures. Sometimes these inter-cultural sensitivities develop with time just through mere exposure, but having a bit more guidance and contact between international students and American students cannot hurt.

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