BYU-Pathway Worldwide: 'Pioneer heart' drives Mormon online education initiative

President Clark Gilbert: “Hope and academic and spiritual confidence“ are goals of expanding endeavor<br>

In the lobby of the just-opened headquarters of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, Minerva Teichert’s painting “Handcart Pioneers” provides a confident, heroic counterpoint to the disarray.

It’s more than art. The 3-foot-by-4-foot print — capturing the moment when an 1850s Mormon pioneer woman, her husband and young son crest a mountain summit overlooking the Salt Lake Valley — is the first thing President Clark Gilbert wants visitors to see when they walk into the LDS Church online-education program’s fifth-floor suite in downtown Salt Lake City’s Triad 3 building.

“It’s the story of the pioneer’s heart ... sacrifice, a willingness to venture into the unknown,” says Gilbert, who brought the painting with him from his former presidential offices at Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg.

“They followed their legacy,” Gilbert adds, ”and today, in order to follow our [program’s] legacy, we, too, had to move.”

That move from bucolic Rexburg to Utah’s bustling capital city came this month even as BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s enrollment globally soars. September saw the LDS Church education program open 36 new locations in 14 countries, bringing the total to 570 locations in 43 states and more than 70 nations, says J.D. Griffith, the program’s managing director.

It is an outgrowth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ highly successful, nearly 9-year-old PathwayConnect organization — a low-cost, one-year curriculum of academic and religious courses aimed at giving students both career and leadership skills while preparing them for further higher education.

Announced just this past February, BYU-Pathway Worldwide extends learning to associate and bachelor’s degree-level, tapping online courses offered through BYU-Idaho.

The original PathwayConnect, now the first-year preparatory piece in the BYU-Pathway Worldwide endeavor, began in 2009 with 50 students in three pilot sites: Manhattan, N.Y., Nampa, Idaho, and Mesa, Ariz.

“You couldn’t have picked three more different places,” Griffith recalls, and he and other church education officials also got a surprise. Instead of the mostly 18-to-25 age group they expected, organizers discovered a much wider pool of interest, both in those older and in ethnicity.

“At our kickoff fireside in New York,” he recalls, ”we were surprised to see how many immigrants were there, an early indication of how it would be internationally.”

As of this summer, the program had nearly 11,000 students; 15,000 new learners have enrolled for this fall semester. By this time next year, Gilbert and Griffith expect BYU-Pathway Worldwide to top a 40,000-student annual head count.

Two-thirds of the students are from the U.S. and Canada, but enrollment overseas is exploding, with all but nine of the newly announced locations in foreign lands ranging from Central and South America to the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Samoan Islands.

Attempts to compare BYU-Pathway Worldwide to established public online institutions, such as the 19-state, 70,000-student Western Governors University, are inevitable — but ill-conceived.

BYU-Pathway Worldwide does not try to compete with WGU in the breadth of its course and degree offerings, instead choosing a more tightly focused emphasis on practical, career-oriented certificate and degree programs. Think computer programming, web design, accounting and business management, as well as automobile service technology and agribusiness.

“If you take a basic writing course with PathwayConnect, you’ll likely be taught how to write a cover letter, not [doing a paper] on ‘Beowulf,’” Gilbert quips.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clark Gilbert, director of BYU's PathwayConnect, a global web-based university program in the organization's new office in the Triad Center in Salt Lake City. I

Pathway planners have not forgotten their religious roots, of course. Faith is at the heart of the educational endeavor, and Mormons are the primary enrollment base.

That base is served not only through online curriculum and the myriad church and other locations where students meet weekly to share and discuss their educational odysseys, but also by a resolute commitment to keep costs affordable.

In the U.S., the per-credit-hour tab is about $70, less than half what a student would pay at a community college and substantially less than at traditional university campuses like the University of Utah, Utah State University or even LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo.

Brittany Nelson, 37, says the low cost was a big factor, along with the flexibility of online education. Attending a traditional campus was out of the question for the stay-at-home, West Bountiful mother of nine.

“No one [else] could beat the price,” she explains. “Even more appealing to me were the weekly gatherings [where] my classmates seemed to know exactly how to offer the support I needed to be a confident and successful lifelong learner.”

Nelson, who carries a 4.0 GPA, just started online courses through BYU-Idaho (the flagship among several LDS educational institutions within the BYU-Pathway Worldwide network) aimed at a public health degree.

Mason Halligan, 26, also credited the weekly face time with other students for making BYU-Pathway Worldwide “kind of a hybrid between traditional and online schooling [since] there is both online learning and in-class learning, with the weekly gathering.”

Once more, the lower cost was a big consideration, along with the flexibility of online classes and course work that Halligan hopes first will lead to a computer information systems associate degree, and eventually a bachelor’s in computer information technology.

“My wife and I have a little boy and another on the way any day now,” he explains. “[BYU-Pathway Worldwide] was nice because my family time didn’t take a hit. I was still able to spend a lot of time with them and perform my other duties while attending [classes].”

Tuition overseas also is intended to be a bargain for students, varying according to the economics of each region abroad. For example, Mexico Pathway students pay $21.50 per credit hour, while Haitian learners spend $7.

Tuition does not cover the entire cost; the difference is covered by the church, Gilbert says.

In addition to the skill- and career-oriented instruction, BYU-Pathway Worldwide — especially its first-year PathwayConnect elements — also offers a slew of LDS-related scriptural, doctrinal and church leadership courses.

“Hope and academic and spiritual confidence” are BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s foundation, Gilbert explains. “It’s about their worth, their divine potential . . . that you can do this.”

He adds: “The spiritual connection is always what’s at our core. We try to seek a prophetic direction and imprint on whatever we do.”

That “prophetic” oversight comes through the oversight of the Church Board of Education, which includes the faith’s governing First Presidency and a number of other general authorities.

Citing a recent Pew Research Center study, Gilbert notes that while roughly 6 in 10 Mormons have begun college, fewer than a third of those students graduate or advance to postgraduate learning.

“A lot of them are stuck with nothing [that translates into better jobs, higher income],” he laments. “[BYU-Pathway Worldwide] is built on certificate-first; if you don’t go on to degrees, you still are a certificate graduate.”

In developing countries, that certificate can mean a dramatic improvement in living standards.

“Internationally, if you can speak English and have one [distinct] job skill from an American university,” Gilbert adds, “we’re seeing a doubling of earning power for these students.”

At BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s new offices recently, stacks of boxes remained to be unpacked and office equipment, furniture and other items were in the process of being assembled and placed.

Temporary chaos, perhaps. But the vision is strong and steady.

And so, Gilbert’s musing about BYU-Pathway Worldwide turns back to “Handcart Pioneers,” and its moment, frozen in time, when the mother beckons other Mormon refugees to their frontier home — and new opportunities.

“We need to be a bridge for people,” he says, “[and] we’re taking a step forward, a year at a time.”

Toward an educational promised land.

ABOUT CLARK GILBERT<br>Before being named president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, Clark Gilbert had served as president of Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg since April 2015.<br>He has earned a reputation for starting new business ventures, and overhauling older ones, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.<br>In 2009, he was named the first CEO for Deseret Digital Media, which operated church-owned websites, including the Deseret News, Church News, KSL and Deseret Book.<br>A year later, he was named CEO of the Deseret News, a position he held until taking the BYU-Idaho post.<br>He was named BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s president in February of this year.<br>A graduate of BYU (bachelor of arts in international relations), Stanford (a master’s degree in East Asian studies) and Harvard Business School (a doctorate in business administration), Gilbert and his wife, Christine, have eight children.