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Creating Space in the Global Market: The Role and Impact of Pathway Partners

The EvoLLLution | Creating Space in the Global Market: The Role and Impact of Pathway Partners
Pathway program partnerships are creating a new access point for universities that want to compete in the global higher education marketplace but lack the resources to do so.

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, 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): What are the most significant differences between private pathway program offerings—launched in partnership with universities—and the more traditional intensive English language programs that universities develop in-house?

Mitch Leventhal (ML): There are many different types of pathway programs. The term “pathway” doesn’t refer specifically to intensive English programs; Pathways are stepping-stone programs that facilitate student transitions. Intensive English programs, of course, are a type of pathway program that focuses specifically on the acquisition of language skills for college-bound students to allow them to perform at the college or university level. Pathway programs, as they’re becoming conventionally discussed now, are sometimes also called foundation programs. These are programs that originally emerged in Australia and the UK that provide some higher-level English language training but focus also on some of the first-year coursework and other success-oriented programs that students otherwise wouldn’t obtain in an intensive English program.

Pathway programs and university-run IELPs are really targeting a different audience. IELPs are focused almost exclusively on English and, as such, often enroll students who need much more English proficiency in order to succeed. Pathway programs, on the other hand, are for students whose English is reasonably good but not quite good enough to enroll and succeed directly in an undergraduate or graduate program. These latter students don’t necessarily want to lose an entire year—or six months—studying exclusively English for no academic credit. Pathway programs emerged to allow a transitional program, where students could take some first-year courses—taught with a little more contact time—while boning up on higher-level language skills such as academic writing and listening, as well as study skills, understanding plagiarism, and other aspects of American academic culture. The idea is that a student could enroll in a pathway program and, within a year, be able to enroll in a mainstream program as an acclimatized second-year student. When we talk about pathway programs now, we’re distinguishing them from strictly intensive English programs, which are pathways but don’t include general education courses or preparatory courses focused on the culture of higher education and academic success.

Another aspect worth exploring here is the distinction between the relative advantages of developing these programs in-house versus working with a third party. Theoretically, any institution is capable of developing academic programs and it wouldn’t be that complicated to develop an intensive English program curriculum that targets students with different levels of English language performance with the academic piece rolled in. The real advantage to working with a third-party company is on the recruitment and the marketing side. These companies tend to have very deep and extensive recruitment networks overseas, they will often invest the funds to set up the program and they’ll invest the funds to market to and recruit students. By working with a third-party company, institutions hope that when the switch turns on day one, their seats will be filled and they won’t need to rely upon their own efforts to recruit students, which is a big challenge for a lot of institutions. It’s one thing having an intensive English program that draws students from the immigrant community and a few others from overseas, but it’s another thing to throw the switch and have 150 seats filled with students who are academically qualified—but are not quite linguistically ready—for college-level work. The risk involved with setting up such a program, the cost associated with recruiting on your own, and the risk associated with not hitting your targets is something that such a partnership can help mitigate.

Evo: How have pathway program providers changed the nature of the postsecondary international ESL market in the US?

ML: In the postsecondary ESL market, there are several different audiences. One is the immigrant population that simply needs to be able to speak English in order to assimilate into the community, get jobs and have productive lives. Another market is people who want to come to the United States and learn English but who don’t have the ambition to combine that with a higher education degree. They may simply want to come to the US for six months and become fluent in English before returning to their home country. The third category, which is a more recent development, are students who see ESL as a pathway to enrolling in a full academic program leading to a degree.

There are a number of companies and higher education institutions that have well-developed intensive English programs and have started to very deliberately use such programs as enrollment pathways. That is to say, if a student has applied to an institution and their academic record is good but their English proficiency is lacking, those students will receive conditional offers of admission that depend on their successfully completing an intensive English program. Institutions have gotten better at directing those conditionally accepted students into programs that they run in-house so students know that they will have an assured place in the institution if they enroll in the institution’s own English program and succeed. This approach has really accelerated over the last 10 or 15 years.

There are some private players in the American marketplace—the most prominent would be ELS Language Centers—that have created partnerships with institutions for several decades now. In these partnerships, they embed an intensive English program on an institutional campus and leverage their own very extensive network of agents in the field. The company will work with their partner institution to package the college or university as “pathway institutions” for international students who want to enroll in a degree program after becoming competent in English. They’ve also leveraged their own network of institutional partners so that students coming into an ELS program know that they can traverse to one of the other institutions under the ELS banner. This innovation—which has been emulated by other private providers as well—lets students know that they’re not limited to the institution where the program is, but they have a pathway through this network to numerous institutions that are willing to accept students who have achieved a certain level of proficiency, as determined by ELS.

We live in a culture today where people want choices, and students are no different. If a student is offered a conditional admission to a particular institution but they determine that the institution isn’t for them after completing their IELP, what are they supposed to do? For some students this can be frustrating, but if they go through a program such as the one run by ELS they know they have an array of options that will accept the work that they’ve done, providing them with choices. In that sense, some of these large private program provider networks are very innovative and appealing to student consumers.

Evo: Reflecting back on your own experience, how have you and your colleagues approached the development and delivery of Intensive English Programs?

When I served as vice provost at the University of Cincinnati, from 2005 to 2009, the staff and faculty had been engaged in a decade-long internal debate about establishing an intensive English program. They had an ESL program, but it didn’t offer enough contact hours to be designated “intensive” and it couldn’t be used in conjunction with international recruitment efforts.

There have been several internal studies that estimated significant costs for establishing a program from scratch. Once you add in the faculty, the equipment and the rooms, you’re talking about a cost of establishment in the neighborhood of $1 million to $2 million. In most cases, virtually no budget is allotted for marketing and no networks are in place to sufficiently recruit students in order to fill such programs once they’re launched.

We made the decision at the University of Cincinnati to go with the third-party provider because all the upfront investment would be made by the partner organization. While the partner organization earned the vast amount of revenue for the intensive English program that they delivered, we enrolled most of the students who wanted to continue through to earn a full degree for subsequent years enrolled at the university. As such, it turned out to be a good partnership. We could not have stood up our own program successfully with near full enrollment on day one.

I was associated with this partnership program for about two years before I left for my new position. It’s been running now for many more years and I can’t speak to its performance from personal experience but, having spoken with the people most closely associated with running it, there is a very high level of satisfaction with it. The pathway partnership is bringing several hundred new students to the university per year and a fair percentage of those students persist for a degree at the University of Cincinnati. It’s possible that they may want greater student persistence, but everyone always wants more. In general, it appears that there is a very high level of satisfaction with this program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is the first installment of a two-part interview with Mitch Leventhal. Please come back next week for the conclusion.

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