Privatized Pathways for Foreign Students

U.S. colleges have increasingly turned to for-profit companies for help in recruiting international students. Now, with the growing popularity of “pathway” programs -- which feature a hybrid of credit-bearing coursework and instruction in English language and academic skills -- some institutions are also outsourcing the responsibility for teaching and supporting international students their first year on campus.

August 4, 2010

U.S. colleges have increasingly turned to for-profit companies for help in recruiting international students. Now, with the growing popularity of “pathway” programs -- which feature a hybrid of credit-bearing coursework and instruction in English language and academic skills -- some institutions are also outsourcing the responsibility for teaching and supporting international students their first year on campus.

“We do everything from pick them up at the airport and make sure they’re safe and sound and taken care of the very first day, to provide them with enhanced learning opportunities so we can increase their chances to be successful academically and socially on campus,” said Dean Kahler, executive director of Navitas at WKU (Western Kentucky University).

In his former role as associate vice president for enrollment management at Western Kentucky, Kahler helped broker WKU’s contract with Navitas, a publicly-traded Australian education company, to recruit for and manage a pathway program for international students. The 10-year contract, signed in January, was Navitas’s first such contract with an American university. But the company has since signed three more – with the Universities of Massachusetts at Boston, Dartmouth and Lowell. All four pathway programs are enrolling their first students this fall.

The students enrolling in these pathway programs generally lack the English ability needed for direct admission into the university. The premise of a pathway program is that it offers a soft landing spot for these students, a sheltered environment where they can start making progress toward their degrees at the same time they address weaknesses in their English language skills and adjust to a new culture, academic and otherwise.

Every pathway program has a slightly different model, but here’s how it will work at Navitas at WKU: Students recruited into the undergraduate pathway program must satisfy entrance requirements set by WKU and are granted conditional admission to the university. They will have some English but generally not enough to qualify them to get into Western Kentucky directly. For instance, to qualify for "mixed entry" into the pathway program, in which students take an English course alongside their academic coursework, students would need Test of English as a Foreign Language scores of 173, 500 or 61 (on the computer-, paper- and Internet-based versions of the test, respectively), or an International English Language Testing System score of 5.0. By way of comparison, to be admitted directly into undergraduate programs at Western Kentucky, students would need scores of 197, 525 or 71 on the various TOEFL tests, or 6.0 on the IELTS.

Navitas hires the instructors for the pathway program, who must meet WKU’s minimum standards for faculty credentialing and who, it is anticipated, will generally be selected from the university’s existing pool of full-time or adjunct faculty. The Navitas instructors will teach credit-bearing courses approved by WKU. Different oversight procedures – including course equivalency audits and the assignment of a WKU faculty course coordinator for each subject area taught in the Navitas program -- are under development.

The students, meanwhile, will take freshman-level academic courses in one of two streams – one for potential business, humanities and social science majors, the other for engineering, natural science and math majors – in addition to coursework in English and academic skills. When they complete 30 university credits, if they meet the GPA requirement for continued enrollment, students will matriculate into their chosen WKU degree program as sophomores.

Per the university’s contract with Navitas, obtained by Inside Higher Ed via an open records act request, Navitas collects tuition for students in the pathway program (the fee schedule can be found here) and shares varying percentages of revenue with Western Kentucky (for example, Navitas pays WKU 30 percent of gross revenue from tuition for any pathway courses eligible for university credit). The expectation is that once these students complete the pathway program and matriculate into the university at large, Western Kentucky will benefit financially from a substantially increased pool of full fee-paying international students.

“The primary purpose of the Navitas partnership is to bring more international students to campus and to give them the best opportunity that we can, and Navitas can, to retain and persist,” said Doug McElroy, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Western Kentucky.

But the suggestion that a university can best serve – and retain – its international students by outsourcing their recruitment, support services and even academic instruction to a company with a profit motive is a controversial one. The expansion of pathway programs has proven contentious in Britain and, more recently, Canada, where faculty unions have waged campaigns against the outsourcing of teaching functions and have argued against providing a “back door” for students whose preparation or English language test scores wouldn’t otherwise qualify them for admission.

As pathway programs grow increasingly popular in the United States – at least seven such programs are slated to start classes this fall, and several others have opened in the past several years – a debate arises about whether U.S. colleges could best serve their students by taking advantage of private-sector expertise or if they instead should focus on building their capacity for better recruiting and supporting international students on their own.

A Pathway 'INTO' University

Pathway programs are appealing to college administrators primarily because they offer the prospect of vastly increased international student enrollments over a short time span, with much of the upfront capital – including, perhaps most significantly, recruitment costs – provided by the private sector partner and the resulting profits shared. U.S. universities are more eager than ever to attract international students for academic reasons – virtually every college is seeking to create more globally-aware and interculturally-competent citizens – and for financial ones. Virtually every college would also like to increase this population of students who, by and large, pay full freight.

An import from Australia and the United Kingdom, pathway programs are just beginning to appear in North America. In addition to Navitas’ four new American programs, Study Group -- an Australian education company recently purchased by a U.S.-based private equity group, Providence Equity Partners, for $570 million – is starting pathway programs at three of its U.S. partner institutions this fall: Dean and Fisher Colleges, both in Massachusetts, and James Madison University, in Virginia. Kaplan, Inc. started a “Global Pathways Program” at Northeastern University in 2007 and opened a second such program at the University of Utah in January (per the brochure: “Your guaranteed route to a Bachelor’s degree from a top U.S. University.”)

“The idea is that we each play to our strengths,” said Larry Green, senior vice president of Kaplan International Colleges. Northeastern and Utah faculty design and teach the Global Pathways courses and Kaplan markets, recruits, and provides a range of student services for the programs. “This is about using faculty and teaching methods and curriculum that you’re very, very comfortable with already,” Green said. “It’s about obviously increasing international student enrollment on campus. It’s about making sure those students are extremely well-prepared when they matriculate, academically, socially and culturally.”

The company that has made the biggest splash in the U.S. market is the Britain-based INTO University Partnerships, which has study centers at nine universities in the United Kingdom and has forged long-term contracts with Oregon State University and, more recently, the University of South Florida. The INTO model differs from that of its competitors: David Stremba, INTO’s managing director for North America, describes the INTO model as “in-sourcing” as opposed to outsourcing, as the company enters into joint ventures with its partner universities and shares costs, profits, and management responsibilities, 50-50. Under this model, instructors remain employees of the university, which retains all control over academics.

But INTO’s expansion has been a source of concern among many instructors at university-based intensive English programs, who watched as OSU and USF’s long-standing English language institutes were swept into the INTO OSU or INTO USF suite of programs. And the company attracted headlines when the Commission on English Language Accreditation subsequently revoked accreditation of both OSU and USF’s English language programs. (CEA has since restored the accreditation for the English language institute at USF, pending the commission’s consideration of additional documentation. As Teresa O’Donnell, the CEA’s executive director explained, “They were given an opportunity to show us that there was still a program there that will meet our standards.”) Yet, the continuing acrimony over accreditation aside, these two INTO partnerships are taking root.

INTO USF, announced in January, will enroll its first students this fall. Oregon State, which in 2008 entered into a 35-year agreement with INTO, just wrapped up its first year of operation, having enrolled a peak of 416 students across its intensive English (general and academic) and pathway programs. With an increase of about 100 students over the enrollment in its English Language Institute the year prior, INTO OSU is right on track for its goal of increasing enrollment by 100 students a year to 800 over five years.

Students in the undergraduate pathway programs face a lower barrier to entry – they must have the equivalent of a 2.5 grade point average for admittance, compared to 3.0 for the university at large – but, with support, so far these pathway students are succeeding. Numbers are preliminary until the summer term ends, but the university projects that between 75 and 80 percent of students will progress out of the various undergraduate pathway programs and into the university at large. “We have three goals: There’s the academic preparation, the English preparation and also helping them transition from their own country to the U.S.,” said Chris Bell, the interim director of academic programs for INTO OSU and a professor of civil engineering. “They go from being very nervous freshmen, not being able to communicate well because of their lack of English skills, their confidence grows, their English improves, and they become like a regular student, fully integrated and ready to move on.”

In addition to its undergraduate pathway programs, INTO OSU has a graduate pathway program for M.B.A. students and is adding a second pathway for master’s of engineering students this fall. Construction has begun on a new, $52 million INTO OSU Living Learning Center with 25 classrooms, an auditorium, computer labs, office space to accommodate approximately 100 people (including 60 instructors) and about 350 beds.

Strategic or Short-Sighted?

Oregon State entered into the partnership with INTO with the goal of doubling its international student enrollment, which had declined after September 11. As other institutions look to raise their international student enrollment, an increasing number are saying they can’t do it on their own.

Particularly when it comes to international recruiting, many U.S. universities are simply deciding that they don’t have the resources to maintain a global presence of sufficient size and scope. As such, the controversial practice of hiring outside agents, paid in part with per-student commissions, is growing rapidly and privatized pathway programs – in which companies provide both recruitment and education services – are in many ways a natural extension of this trend.

“International recruiting is hard, it’s time-consuming, it’s very expensive,” said Green, of Kaplan International Colleges. “There’s a trade-off for a university. A university can retain total control and cover a small part of the world, or yield some control and cover a much larger piece of the world.”

Ceding control of the recruitment process continues to be one of the main arguments against employing outside agents in recruitment. And when it comes to offering credit-bearing, academic coursework, ceding control is precisely what opponents of pathway programs are most worried about.

“Navitas has such a capacity for recruitment that it is appealing to university administrators, but I think it’s just terribly short-sighted,” said Carrie Dawson, an associate professor of English and president of the Faculty Association at Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia; the union is opposing a proposed contract with Navitas. “We do need to attend to our enrollment; we just don’t think this is the way to do it. We want to do it with our own faculty, to our own standards.”

In an open letter, the association notes that administrators have emphasized that Dalhousie departments would “oversee” the Navitas classes. “But what that means is not entirely clear,” the letter states. “What is clear is that Dalhousie departments will lose a large measure of control over their courses where those courses are taught by Navitas’s staff and taught to Navitas’s standards. Those standards will likely be different than our own: because Navitas is primarily concerned with profit, it seeks to pass along as many students as possible while keeping its costs as low as possible. As such, a partnership with Navitas threatens to put a massive strain on the maintenance of academic standards at Dalhousie.”

At the University of Windsor, in Ontario, where the Faculty Association has similarly opposed a proposed contract with Study Group, “We felt that it would be much more useful to try to put more money into our existing international program rather than bring in a group from outside to administer a program to students who are unqualified for entry into first year,” said Brian E. Brown, a professor in the School of Visual Arts and president of Windsor’s Faculty Association.

Brad McKenzie, a professor of social work and immediate past president of the Faculty Association at the University of Manitoba -- home to a controversial Navitas program – pointed out that syllabuses and outlines for academic courses at public universities are created at taxpayers’ expense. “This is a way of building [private-sector] profits on the public investment in the University of Manitoba,” McKenzie said.

He added, too: “There’s the potential loss of full-time jobs -- not so much now because it’s a relatively small operation, but if it expands there would be an encroachment on existing faculty positions and the loss of protections including academic freedom.”

Making Their Own Path

In the U.S., the associations that have most closely watched the expansion of privatized pathway programs have been those representing English language instructors. There’s already an established tradition of colleges contracting with for-profit companies to provide intensive English (if not academic) instruction to international students. Many independent language schools have locations on U.S. campuses and often have conditional admission arrangements in place with their partner universities.

Generally speaking, university-based intensive English language institutes are particularly vulnerable to outsourcing, in that 1) they often are treated as appendages of the university and 2) they are increasingly viewed as vehicles for increasing international student enrollments and thereby increasing revenues.

Given this, “In evaluating alternatives for English language instruction, institutions of higher education need to be extremely cautious about proposals that foreground economic benefits over assurances of educational quality,” the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP), the Consortium of University and College Intensive English Programs (UCIEP) and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) said in a joint statement, released in January. “When in discussions with potential external partners, it is vital that administrators consult all stakeholders in the academic community in order to be aware of the potential impact on existing programs. All governance at institutions of higher education must be transparent, and it is crucial that academic standards be upheld and not undermined by financial interests. Otherwise, decisions can be made that impact the quality of curricula, faculty, and staff that can lead to a loss in academic integrity for programs. Moreover, these situations lead to a loss of overall professional status for IEP faculty that denigrates the field of English language education.”

Pathway programs in many ways represent an extension and formalization of what university-based intensive English programs have been doing for a long time in offering bridge courses or sheltered instruction, in which students receive English support while taking academic courses. Alan Juffs, president of UCIEP, and chair of linguistics and director of the English Language Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, argues that in-house English language centers are in fact better positioned to offer hybrid English language and academic programs. “The faculty members in the departments are going to be more willing and interested to work with you as compared to perhaps an outside organization that may rightly or wrongly be perceived as strictly for-profit.”

“I think if universities look into this very carefully they can probably do this with more financial benefit to themselves, rather than an external company, if they rely on the professionals that they already have,” Juffs said.

At least two universities have made the decision to do just that. After INTO approached Drexel University, in Philadelphia, Barbara Hoekje, director of the English Language Center and associate professor of culture and communication, said the provost approached her: “Our provost said, basically, 'We want to grow our international population and there are these companies out there that say they can do this for us. What can you do for us?' ” Hoekje accepted the challenge.

Drexel just completed the pilot year of its International Gateway Program, in which students take a mix of English language courses and up to 17 credits in math, science and communications, taught by faculty from Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences. (The program is advertised as Real faculty. Real support. Real success.”) The program also includes an “American Cultural Connections” component. Enrollments so far are modest – six students graduated from the pilot year this spring (Hoekje is tracking their academic progress as part of a research project), and an entering class of between 15 and 20 students is expected this fall.

Granted, it’s a far cry from the hundreds of new international students private companies have been known to promise. But even those privatized programs tend to start small. And, as Hoekje pointed out, “At a totally practical level, this is a growth environment for international education. I would never outsource in a growth environment. The reason these companies exist is there’s profit to be made.” At a philosophical level, Hoekje posed these guiding questions: “How are you bringing international students into your community? How are you knowing who really is a good fit for your campus community?”

George Mason University, in Virginia, also created a pathway program in-house after being approached by INTO, and is piloting its new Access program this fall with about 20 students. Students who have been conditionally admitted to the university can enter into academic courses at a lower English proficiency level than would normally be the case (students can enter the Access program with a score of 72 on the Internet-based TOEFL, for instance, whereas to enter a degree-granting program at George Mason, they’d need a TOEFL score of 88).

In their first semester of the year-long Access program, students would take a composition course for non-native speakers, a public speaking course with an extra one-credit academic support component, an introduction to world history class, also with supplemental support, and a freshman transition course. Students pay out-of-state tuition, plus an extra $1,000 per semester to cover extra services they will be receiving. “I think it’s going to work,” said Kathryn Trump, the associate dean for international education and programs (and the former director of George Mason’s English Language Institute).

“I can’t tell you how many students came to me when I was director and said, ‘I can’t waste any more time in the ELI.’ The Access program is going to allow them to earn credits, learn content and improve their English skills, and it’s very appealing to them.”

The Merits of a ‘Separate Toll Road’

The debate is not about the pathway program concept itself, but about who should run the programs. A related debate concerns whether the increased role of for-profit providers in this space represents a professionalization of international student recruitment and services, or merely the privatization of it.

Nick Rhodes, managing director for the higher education division for North America and China for Study Group, finds the debate about privatization tiresome. “It isn’t privatization of anything, it isn’t outsourcing of anything, it’s collaborative enterprise,” said Rhodes, adding that no education entity operates without paid services. “No academic values are threatened; to the contrary, this is appropriate provision. I think, erstwhile, international students haven’t been as well-served as they would be with the proper provision of programs of this kind.”

“I’ve been a champion for this model because I believe it’s better for the students,” said Linda Cabe Halpern, dean of university studies at James Madison University, in Virginia, which will start its pathway program, associated with Study Group, this fall. Similar to the Navitas model, Study Group will hire instructors who meet JMU’s faculty credentialing standards and teach first-year academic and English courses; the university awards credit at the point the students complete the pathway and matriculate into JMU at large. To be admitted to the undergraduate pathway, students must meet JMU’s admission requirements (including a 3.0 G.P.A.), save for their English-language test scores. No TOEFL or IELTS score is required, and the length of the pathway varies based on a student’s English level (from two to four semesters).

“Learning to function in American higher education is a major culture shock,” Halpern said, and why not contract with a company that specializes in helping students make this transition? She cited, for instance, disproportionately high rates of cheating or other forms of plagiarism among international students. “It’s not because of malice or ill will but because of lack of understanding.”

On the flip side, “The point institutions need to be very sensitive to is how much of a separate toll road they can tolerate for a subset of students,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “This kind of corporatization of a subset of our practices will not be containable. That’s my prediction.”

Much remains to be seen at this point. Back at Western Kentucky, the University Senate, while apprised of the Navitas contract, didn’t take a vote on it -- but it wasn't a controversial matter either, said Paul Markham, the Senate chair this past academic year and an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies. “It was a pretty smooth process in terms of it being embraced by the faculty. It really quite honestly is a great opportunity for us, for a number of reasons. One is we have such a strong focus on internationalization at our university. Second, it’s financially prudent. It’s providing some opportunities for us to do some things just purely based on revenue generated that we otherwise would not be able to do, particularly in a tight budget environment.”

That said, Markham said it would be worth checking back in a year, once Navitas at WKU gets underway. The university has stated its intention of doubling its number of international students -- currently 700 -- over 10 years.

“It is quite a large deal and there’s a lot of money involved, a lot of students,” Markham said. “So it’s really up to all of us to make sure it runs smoothly.”


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