Pathway Provides Opportunity for a Brighter Future

  By Howard M. Collett, LDS Philanthropies

  • 6 May 2013

Students in the BYU-Idaho distance-learning program meet weekly in a local meetinghouse for an academic review and to take an institute class. Most teaching is done online, but students more fully embrace the gospel through fellowship with other LDS students in a gospel-based learning environment.   Photo by Howard M. Collett.

Article Highlights

  • The BYU-Idaho Pathway distance-learning program takes Church-sponsored higher education to thousands of students around the world.
  • Since 2009, Pathway has grown from three locations to more than 85 from Alaska to South Africa.
  • More than 6,000 students have been touched by the Pathway experience.

“The culture of Pathway is definitely unique. … We work in a student-led environment with gospel-based principles taught with life skills.”Jordan Wilde

Imagine yourself as a high school senior nearing graduation. Life is full of promise as you map your way to a bright future, with college a core part of your plan. Unfortunately, all too often the path becomes difficult to navigate due to work, family, and economic conflicts.

“I put off college because I was working full-time and had small girls to raise,” said Elizabeth Gloria of Denton, Texas. “And college was so expensive. I thought I had missed my chance to attend until I heard about a new opportunity called Pathway.”

Joe Hedrick of Lake Matthews, Calif., was quick to agree. “I was the worst high school student,” he admitted. “Much to my regret, college wasn’t even an option for me. But Pathway changed my life.” Pathway is a distance-learning program from BYU-Idaho. Its purpose is to extend a flexible, low-cost opportunity for Church-sponsored higher education to thousands of students in a growing number of locations around the world. Pathway has soared from three pilot locations in 2009 to more than 85 today from Alaska to South Africa. More than 6,000 students have been touched by a Pathway experience.

“Pathway opens doors that weren’t open before,” said Logan Gaston, a 24-year-old field technician for a chemical company in Fort Worth, Texas. “I’ve always wanted to work in physical therapy or sports medicine, and Pathway has helped me realize that my goal is achievable.”

In keeping with BYU-Idaho’s “rethinking education” slogan, Pathway was developed around an ingenious yet simple solution: provide online classes with dedicated faculty, and hold a weekly gathering wherein students share academic progress and attend an institute class. Local Church-service missionaries are called to provide encouragement and support.

Online Courses Provide Access to Education

“The culture of Pathway is definitely unique,” said Jordan Wilde, a 32-year-old Pathway student and father of five in Denton, Texas. “We work in a student-led environment with gospel-based principles taught with life skills.”

For each of the three semesters during the first year, students like Jordan take just five credit hours of classes, including institute. This allows them to continue working and nurturing their families. Most teaching is done online, and the weekly gatherings are held nearby in a local Church facility. From the very first class in life skills, students experience an unexpected energy and an improved capacity to learn at the collegiate level. They even take an active role in teaching other students.

“When I took life skills, I got so many answers for just being a mom,” said Amber Wild of Cumberland, R.I. “I’ve learned to manage my time better, and there’s such an increase of the Spirit in my life.”

The first year of Pathway is a preparatory year. It opens the doors of eligibility to certificate, two-year degree, and four-year degree programs. “We can take the BYU-Idaho experience to thousands of younger and even older adults who may have given up on the idea of getting an education,” said Bryan Justesen, director of Pathway in the United States. “They can have the kind of experience that many others have had at a Church school. But they don’t have to come to Rexburg—we take school to them.”

Weekly Gathering Provides Spiritual Boost

In addition to online instruction, students meet every Thursday evening for an academic review and to take an institute class. Students more fully embrace the gospel and keep it in their hearts through fellowship with other LDS students in a gospel-based learning environment. Following BYU-Idaho’s learning model, students control their own learning through preparing, teaching others, and evaluating their progress.

“If I hadn’t attended Pathway, my standing with Heavenly Father wouldn’t be where it is today,” said Logan Gaston. “It saved me from that slippery slope we sometimes find ourselves on. It helps students achieve goals despite economic, family, and personal situations. It’s a way to become a better person.”

“It’s been interesting to watch Logan’s progress in class,” said Elder David Ashton, a local Pathway service missionary in Denton, Texas. “He has become a leader, a ‘go-to’ person for other students.” His wife was quick to agree. “English is a second language for two of the students in our cohort,” said Sister Karen Ashton. “Logan stepped right up and provided them with extra help as needed.”

Local Shepherding Adds Confidence

Pathway missionaries like the Ashtons are not called to teach but to support. Pathway currently has more than 450 service missionary couples around the world.

“Our role in the Pathway program is to encourage, support, and care about each student and see them become successful,” said Elder Kim Wright, another Pathway service missionary in the Denton, Texas stake. Noted his wife, Sister Kelly Wright, “We kindly remind them when assignments are overdue and encourage them to help each other. But we usually just sit back and let them do it. We are resources to help.”

Pathway Surpasses Expectations

Pathway has fulfilled the three imperatives introduced during President Kim B. Clark’s inaugural address at BYU-Idaho in 2005. Pathway helps the university serve more students, lowers the relative cost, and improves the quality of education. 

Online courses are much more scalable than traditional, on-campus classes, as new classroom space is not required. This allows the university to serve many more students. At Pathway’s present rate of growth, it’s even possible that the number of online students could exceed the number of on-campus students in less than three years.

In the United States, the cost per credit hour for Pathway students is less than half that of a similar course taught on the BYU-Idaho campus in Rexburg. It’s even lower in most other countries. And for those who complete the first academic start year online, tuition stays at the same low level all the way through completion of a two- or four-year degree. This has a tremendous impact on faithful missionaries who return to their homes in developing nations only to face a hopeless situation on college prospects.

“I had been waiting for an opportunity since I got back from my mission,” said Sabik Sanchez in Puebla, Mexico. “Pathway was an answer to my prayers.”

Though harder to measure, it’s obvious in the eyes of the students that they are receiving a top-notch education. Missionary couples see this firsthand.

“Sometimes we deliver lecture-based education and say, ‘Here it is. Absorb it, and we’ll test you in a week or two,’ ” said Valerie Franks, a university professor and Pathway service missionary. “Pathway integrates all the important aspects of learning. First, you need to be prepared, and then you need to teach one another. Each student has an opportunity to stand up and lead the discussions of others in a way that is creative and brings about better outcomes for the testing or papers to be written the following week.”

Pathway Blesses Families

Pathway also prepares students to lead and support families by helping them obtain meaningful employment and become better parents.

“I’m the youngest of five,” said Summer Davis of Riverside, Calif. “No one in my family has a college degree, so I planned to just get through high school, get married, and start my family. Being the mother of four boys, I now feel a huge responsibility to raise righteous, educated men who can provide for their families. If I can’t say I did it myself, it’s not going to be as important to my children.”

“Our kids are total beneficiaries,” said Mike Davis, Sister Davis’ husband. “Our oldest has been taught about budgeting that we learned in our classes. I wish I had done a little more when I was younger, but that didn’t happen. Now is the time.”

The Davises are just one of many married couples involved in Pathway.

“The blessings of Pathway are felt in every aspect of my life,” said Arkadiusz Kolodzeij, a native of Poland now living in Brockton, Mass. “As a family we are stronger because of the spiritual effort it takes to learn. This also helps me in my responsibility as a branch president.”

Pathway Is Priesthood Led

While Pathway is an online program of BYU-Idaho, it is priesthood led at the local level. An Area Seventy or stake president must request a program in his area, provide access to existing facilities, coordinate with the institute program, and call local service missionaries. Bishops and branch presidents encourage participation by their members. Ward and branch councils provide encouragement and follow-up.

While the use of existing facilities and oversight by volunteer leaders keep costs down and ensure sustainability of the program, Pathway helps priesthood leaders in their stewardship efforts to bless lives.

“Pathway provides many members with the confidence to try things they otherwise wouldn’t,” said Steven Peterson, president of the Denton stake. “When we introduced the program, we thought we’d get maybe 15 or 20 applications. We received 118. Pathway has given Church members an educational opportunity they otherwise would not have had.”

The Future of Pathway

In 2009, pilot programs were started in Nampa, Idaho; Mesa, Ariz.; and New York City, N.Y. In 2010, 10 new locations were added. In 2011, 15 more programs were added, including one in Accra, Ghana, and one in Puebla, Mexico. In 2012, more than 30 programs were added, including six in other countries. Today there are more than 85 Pathway programs in 16 U.S. states and nine other countries.

The program is also expanding academically. Currently, there are seven bachelor’s degrees to choose from and just more than 130 courses online. The number of online courses will likely double by the end of 2015. Sixteen new courses are being developed for implementation in the fall 2013 semester. They include such diverse subjects as graphic design, human anatomy and physiology, the family and society, and electric circuit analysis.

How well is Pathway working? Elizabeth Gloria is on her way to becoming a medical assistant and eventually a registered nurse. Logan Gaston is pursuing a degree in sports medicine or physical therapy. Amber Wild is preparing to take over a family business when her parents retire.

In today’s challenging times, the need for knowledge, life, family, and work skills has never been greater. Couple that with a strong spiritual focus and ongoing encouragement, and Pathway provides a sure path to a better future.