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Creating Space in the Global Market: Competing with Pathway Providers

The EvoLLLution | Creating Space in the Global Market: Competing with Pathway Providers
The business-like and focused approach of pathway program providers tends to create a more engaging and responsive experience for international students looking to matriculate into American degree programs.

As the domestic higher education marketplace becomes more challenging for colleges and universities, many postsecondary leaders have started looking to the international marketplace. After all, more and more students from around the globe are looking for high-quality degree pathways. The biggest challenge facing leaders is how to make their institution a destination for these students. In this two-part interview (click here for Part 1), Mitch Leventhal discusses the differences between pathway programs and Intensive English Language Programs (IELPs), also called Intensive English Programs (IEPs) and reflects on each approach’s relative benefits and drawbacks.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How must university-run IELPs evolve to compete with pathway program providers when it comes to attracting and enrolling students?

Mitch Leventhal (ML): This question makes the assumption that university-run IELPs are not competing and I’m not sure I fully agree with that assumption.

For any program aimed at recruiting international students—whether it’s an IELP or a foundation-style pathway program like those offered by Navitas, Shorelight or INTO—there are issues related to academic success and curriculum development that have to be managed, and institutions are successful at doing this.

The hardest piece that people really struggle over is the student pipeline. Administrators frequently underestimate how hard it is to successfully recruit enough students year after year to have a sufficient number of students for the program to break even or generate revenue. Where the really successful private IEPs and pathway programs have proven themselves is their very robust channels to students around the world. They have staff in the field overseas managing their pipeline and they can more or less ensure sufficient cohorts year upon year.

For smaller institutions, establishing this kind of pipeline is very difficult to do. It requires a lot of work in the field and it requires a lot of relationship building overseas. What’s more, just because you have it doesn’t guarantee that students are going to come. When you look at the really successful institution-run IELP’s, they’re generally at colleges and universities that already enjoy substantial global brand recognition. Marketing is easier when an institution has some other asset that keeps those programs filled, such as being located in a very large metropolitan area with a large immigrant population that needs access to high-quality English offerings, or having a brand name that is immediately recognizable. For institutions that aren’t at the top of the ranking lists, aren’t well known outside the US, and perhaps in a non-metropolitan or rural setting, it’s very difficult to get heard above the noise. In addition, to run an IELP, you’re running 24 to 26 hours of classes every week across several levels, meaning you need space and you need personnel. These are just a few of the substantial upfront costs to running such a program, which means institutions have got to achieve their minimum enrollment targets in order to be viable. That’s the big risk facing institutions that simply aren’t known abroad. A viable IELP program requires more than just sending somebody to a fair a couple of times a year.

Evo: Institutional IELPs are typically small divisions serving international, non-credit students housed within larger, relatively traditional departments. Comparatively, pathway programs are 100 percent focused on serving international English language students. How does that focus help pathway programs to succeed?

ML: It boils down to the fact that the vast majority of private providers are not non-profit organizations. They’re for-profit providers. They’re highly motivated to be successful in a short period of time because they don’t have the luxury of being able to sustain a losing operation for long. That motivation contributes to their ability to be nimble and responsive to the market.

Traditional institutions, unfortunately, tend to take a lot more time to respond to market shifts. They’re not as nimble, they need a lot more time to adapt and they are not as responsive or even sensitive to knowing what the market really is demanding, which is at least a little bit of the problem.

Some of these programs that are established by academic units tend to be more academically orientated than practical. The reason the student is taking the course is very practical, they want to become fluent in the language because they have a utilitarian need for English competency. They either want to enter a workforce and be able to function or they want to go directly into an academic program and be able to succeed. I have heard of intensive English programs that have been designed by academic units that are, frankly, too academic, which is a major issue.

Evo: What’s stopping university-run IELPs from making these changes?

ML: I’ve not seen a study comparing the growth or the demand of institutional IELP’s to that of pathway programs. I don’t see very much deep analysis of demand, of the size of the market or what people want. It’s rather unsophisticated—some unit of the university or some individual at the university concludes, “We need an IELP” or, “We need to expand our IELP” because they believe there are lots of people out there who want intensive English programs. The discussion tends not to be about trends in the market, varying demands of students around the world, whether there are variations in the type of English training that students are looking for and so forth. There are some institutions that have developed IELPs focused on a particular industry, but I don’t think there’s been much of that.

If you look at the pathway programs, they spend a lot of time developing courses related to the academic culture of American higher education and the culture of the classroom. They help students understand everything from plagiarism to the proper way of developing a research paper. These aspects are built into the better pathway programs and you typically would never see them in traditional IELPs. The assumption is that students who go through these pathway programs are better prepared to integrate into an American classroom setting.

There tends to be a narrow view in the IELP universe about what constitutes intensive English programming. The focus is strictly on language even though there are cultural issues that relate very directly to students’ success. There are complex issues that many students who come out of an IELP directly into the academic world often don’t understand.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the impact that pathway program providers have had on the IELP space in the U.S.?

ML: There has been tremendous growth in these pathway options. There are a number of significant private providers now and they continue to establish more operations on more campuses. It’s interesting to consider whether this growth has taken business away from institutional IELPs or whether they’re both thriving because it’s a big and growing market. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, pathway programs and IELPs are really appealing to different segments of the market.

Now, some of the pathways are focusing very much on retention and success of students. After all, their compensation from the institution is not only dependent upon whether the student matriculates into a regular academic class after completing the program, but on whether they persist year over year toward a degree. This retention-based program orientation—pioneered by Shorelight—is very appealing to institutions because they don’t want students who are going to arrive and then disappear. They want students who are genuinely prepared and will succeed in their degree programs. I’ve seen this on the pathway side of the space, but I am unaware of any IELPs that are really focused on student success once learners matriculate into a degree program. I think that’s an important innovation that will probably influence both sides in the coming years as sophistication grows.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is the conclusion of a two-part interview with Mitch Leventhal. Please click here to see the first installment.

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