$5 per credit: a powerful reason for BYU-Pathway Worldwide

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The Latter-day Saint education commissioner recently shared powerful personal motivations to help increase the international reach of BYU-Pathway Worldwide.

“I have a son at this time who is a missionary for our church in Zimbabwe,” Elder Clark G. Gilbert said at a conference of presidents of America’s top religious universities. “His teammates are incredible. Young African men serving side by side with him, equally united, equally capable. He is telling me that we are going to send one home with no opportunity, and my son can come home and go to BYU with all these privileges and opportunities?

Elder Gilbert was the founding president of BYU-PW, which provides a supportive, low-cost onramp to higher education for 60,000 students worldwide, and was president of BYU-Idaho. He is a General Authority Seventy and commissioner of education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He sat on a panel with the presidents of the flagship Catholic university, Notre Dame, and the flagship Jewish university, Yeshiva University, at the conference in Washington, DC, last week.

The conference was covered by journalists from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and the Higher Ed Dive.

Elder Gilbert’s comments were prompted by statements shared by various presidents about their religious motivations for innovating ways to provide greater access to an affordable college education.

“How can I, as a person who believes in what we said about community and believes in the dignity and potential of all of God’s children, just look at that kid going home and serving with my son and say : ‘Sorry, the church has nothing for you.’ So there is a purpose.”

Latter-day Saint missionaries have long noted the differences in their economic and educational opportunities. Many have tried to close gaps. The late President Gordon B. Hinckley led the church’s establishment of a Perpetual Education Fund in 2001.

For years, Elder Gilbert has credited the multicultural and diverse socioeconomic membership of Boston-area Latter-day Saint congregations as a motivating spark for the founding of BYU-Pathway Worldwide.

BYU-PW grew rapidly in the United States, where students pay $79 per credit.

Elder Gilbert said the church’s Board of Education, chaired by President Russell M. Nelson and comprised of other church leaders, has been instrumental in guiding the international growth of BYU-PW.

“When we started BYU-Pathway, there was a lot of concern in our governance structure,” Elder Gilbert said at the conference. “They asked us, ‘Are we going to recreate the cost structure of a major campus over and over again, everywhere in the world?’”

The church subsidizes tuition and provides other financial support at BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, Ensign College, and BYU-PW.

Elder Gilbert said the church cannot afford to build another BYU in Manila, Philippines, and then another in Accra, Ghana. But the board still wanted BYU-PW to help more students around the world.

That created what Elder Gilbert called an innovation imperative.

“My board members have told me, ‘Okay, great, I’m glad Pathway is growing, yeah, that’s great. But that will serve 70,000 this year. You need to plan how you will serve a million students. That is the need. And you’re going to have to do things differently.

“That sparked a path and a search for innovation and new models in which we felt an urgency,” he said. “We had to find a way, not just because we are innovative or smart or cutting edge, but because we care about our fellow human beings.”

The struggle was that the cost structure of the program would not change, but many international students could not afford what was a low cost for US students.

For example, BYU-PW currently charges $5 per credit for Zimbabwean students.

“For a while, the church said, ‘Okay, we’ll make up that difference,’” Elder Gilbert said. “The church came in with philanthropic contributions to fill that gap. But we saw more growth, and I had to go back to our board and say, ‘We want to open up in West Africa and we want to open up in the Philippines. We want to open up in Latin America’”.

Reducing tuition to $5 in Zimbabwe required further adjustment to the low-cost model. BYU-PW outsourced most of its online instruction to members of international churches, largely from members in the Philippines.

“It has reduced that cost,” Elder Gilbert said. “The church is still subsidizing that difference, but it has become much more sustainable. When we think about the affordability of higher education, you can say, ‘Well, I want to fund it with philanthropy.’ Or you can say, ‘No, I actually want the cost structure to be affordable.’”

During a panel discussion that included the need in religious universities for a shared vision between boards and faculty, Elder Gilbert acknowledged the overall leadership of the church’s Board of Education.

“We may not do a pathway at BYU (in Provo), which is more traditional, but our board allowed the creation of the pathway to happen, because they are gatekeepers to a further horizon,” he said.

“BYU-Pathway is an answer to my 50-year prayer that we might find an equitable way to serve the entire church with the blessings of education,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Board of Education, in a 2021 message to BYU-PW employees.

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