The INTO center at U. of South Florida
Elizabeth Redden

Bridge or Back Door?

The continuing growth of pathway programs for international students reflects trends toward for-profit/nonprofit partnerships and raises questions about readiness and rigor.

April 30, 2014

TAMPA, Fla. – The course: AMS 2270, 20th Century American Culture. The day’s lecture: the Civil Rights movement. The composition of the class: one-third American students, two-thirds international.

The international students are enrolled in a pathway program here at the University of South Florida, one of a growing number of such programs that permit international students to take a mix of credit-bearing academic and English as a second language courses despite lacking the English language test scores required for direct admission.

Over and over again in interviews, international students say this is their hardest course. The instructor, Audrey Grounds, is not surprised.  “The material is completely new, completely foreign.”

It is also a lecture-based course. On a Wednesday in March, Grounds lectured on many of the milestone events of the Civil Rights movement, events that would likely be familiar to the American high school graduates in the room: the murder of Emmett Till, the Montgomery bus boycott, the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School by the Little Rock Nine. She wrote key terms like “boycotts” and “freedom rides” on the board.

The Civil Rights movement exploded two misconceptions, she told the class: (1) that African Americans were satisfied or content with segregation (she promptly offered a reminder of what segregation looks like, harking back to videos they’d watched showing separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites), and (2) that black Americans had “assimilated into white monoculture.” She wrote monoculture on the board, “ 'mono' being 'one,' ” she said, then asked the class, “What does ‘assimilated’ mean?”

Grounds said that in teaching the class, she is more careful of her choice of words and purposely employs such ESL-friendly teaching strategies as repeating words and writing key phrases on the board. The students come in with a wide range of language skills. “I have one student, I’ve literally never seen him take a note, I think it’s because he doesn’t have the language skills to do it, whereas other students speak as well as American students,” she said.

She provides the students with myriad resources, “cheat sheets,” she called them, far beyond what she would make available to a regular (that is, a non-pathway) section of the class: an outline of main topics to be covered in the subsequent class lecture, guiding questions for the readings, and further questions to consider. (“How did sit-ins exemplify Martin Luther King’s nonviolent protest policy?” “At its inception, why did the Black Panther Party form?”) It's up to them to make use of all those extra resources: Grounds said that apart from being more attuned to the vocabulary she uses, the test questions are the same as those she would write for a regular class.

Pathway Programs Pop Up

The number of pathway programs run in conjunction with corporate entities – in USF’s case, in partnership with a U.K.-based company, INTO University Partnerships – continues to increase. 

The continuing expansion of these programs -- which provide, depending on your perspective, a bridge or a back door into American universities -- reflects some of the most vexing issues in American higher education today, among them issues of readiness and rigor and commercialization and commodification.

In the growth of privatized pathway programs one can observe the trend toward joint ventures and other forms of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in higher education and the normalization of commission-based recruitment of international students (a practice banned by law when it comes to domestic students precisely because of historical abuses in the for-profit college sector). Above all one can observe the increasing drive of universities to internationalize, to bring more full fee-paying foreign students to their campuses, for reasons both noble and financial.

The oldest for-profit pathway programs in the U.S. are barely more than five years old: it's a model that's been adapted from Australia and the United Kingdom, where pathway or "foundation year" programs are much more prevalent.

Unlike in the case of outsourced food services or campus bookstores, pathway programs intersect with core academic functions -- recruitment and admissions and teaching -- leading critics to question why universities can't simply develop these programs in-house. But as in the case of universities that partner with technology companies to take their academic programs online, university administrators typically say that they lack the expertise and capacity -- the recruiting capacity in particular -- to go it alone. 

"The U.S. third-party/outsourced pathway market is less than half the size of the Australian market despite having a higher education system that is 10 times the size," said Karan Khemka, a partner with the Parthenon Group, a strategic consulting firm. "We anticipate that growth will be constrained only by the pace at which private providers can develop the market."

New programs keep popping up. INTO, which already runs programs in partnership with USF, Colorado State, Oregon State and Marshall Universities, is launching new programs at George Mason and Drew Universities this fall. A new player in the market, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Shorelight Education, is set to initiate programs with its first two U.S. university partners, the Universities of Central Florida and Kansas, in the coming months. The programs affiliated with the company Study Group at the Universities of Maine and Vermont and at Chicago’s Roosevelt University are less than a year old; a new program will start this fall at the University of Southern Maine.

Other players in the market include Navitas, a publicly traded Australian company, which manages pathway programs in partnership with the Universities of Massachusetts at Boston, Dartmouth and Lowell, the University of New Hampshire, and Western Kentucky University; and Kaplan, the giant U.S.-based for-profit college and testing company, which recruits students into pathway programs at Pace and Northeastern Universities and, until recently, the University of Utah. The U.K.-based Cambridge Education Group's “ONCAMPUS Boston” program, in which students spend a year taking classes at tiny Wheelock College and then apply to transfer to a partner institution, is in its second year.

Organizationally speaking, the corporate partnerships range from short-term, typically five- to 10-year contractual arrangements in which universities outsource certain recruitment and pathway program management and/or instructional responsibilities to an outside company -- this is generally the Kaplan, Navitas and Study Group approach -- to more elaborate joint ventures, in which the university and company form a separate for-profit entity and make mutual investments and share in returns. The latter is the model INTO has pursued with its university partners in the U.S., including South Florida.

Academically speaking, the various programs can be classified on a spectrum from isolation to integration, with some institutions opting for sheltered classes exclusively for pathway students while others mix students into mainstream university classrooms for at least some of their courses.

Mechanisms for academic oversight also vary. In some programs, the corporate partner hires the instructors who teach credit-bearing university courses in, say, math or music, subject to the approval of the corresponding university departments, which also may review or provide course syllabuses and assignments for the pathway sections of their classes. At other institutions there is one less degree of separation, with all pathway classes delivered by the university’s own faculty.

In short, in surveying the state of pathway programs in the U.S., one key point is that they are not created equal: even programs run in cooperation with the same corporate partner can look quite different from one another. Inside Higher Ed visited the INTO program at the University of South Florida and interviewed officials at universities with a variety of types of pathway programs to get a lay of the landscape. What follows is a close-up look at one program situated within the larger context of privatized pathway programs and the opportunities and concerns they present.

'A Big Leap’

At USF’s main campus in Tampa, international enrollment has about doubled in four years, from 1,325 students in fall 2009 to 2,657 in fall 2013. The university attributes 70 percent of that growth to the partnership with INTO, which started in 2010.



Also worth noting is that the population of students at USF is relatively diverse in terms of country of origin, certainly compared with some other pathway programs where more than 80 percent of students are from China. At INTO USF, students from China make up the biggest group, unsurprisingly – China sends more students to the U.S. than any other country – but they make up just 20 percent of undergraduate pathway students and 40 percent of students in graduate pathway programs.


"The INTO USF initiative, the joint venture, the partnership, call it what you will, really is an integral part of a much broader vision and strategy that’s under way to globalize the University of South Florida on a number of fronts,” said the provost, Ralph Wilcox, who made certain a visiting reporter had a copy of the university’s current strategic plan, which includes the word “global” 45 times and “international” 11. Wilcox doesn't deny the financial benefit to increasing the number of international students, particularly in a time of diminished public funding for higher education, but he's just as quick to add that financial benefits are not the driving force.

“Forty-one percent of our undergraduate students are Pell Grant recipients,” Wilcox said. “Now you might say to yourself, well, what does that have to do with INTO USF or the broader mission of globalization? It has everything to do with it because the fact of the matter is so many of our students aren’t going to have the means to avail themselves of education abroad activities. Recognizing that of our 30,000 undergraduate students or 40,000 total students on this campus, a large number of them will never have the opportunity to explore the world, what better than to bring the world to them?”

Yet thinking back to the inception of the partnership with INTO, Wilcox said that USF itself had “neither the time, nor the expertise, nor the resources” to achieve the increase in international students it sought on its own. Hence the appeal of an INTO USF joint venture, to which INTO could bring its recruiting and marketing muscle and USF its academic programs. It was important, Wilcox said, for the university to retain ownership of the curriculum, as it by all accounts has: all employees with academic responsibilities in the pathway program, be they English language instructors, credential evaluators, or academic advisers, are South Florida employees.

Still Wilcox said it was “not without some degree of trepidation” that the university entered into a 30-year agreement with INTO, becoming just the second U.S. institution, after Oregon State, to sign with the company. “Public universities weren’t familiar with public-private partnerships back in 2009-10,” he said. “This was more than dipping your toe in the water; this was a big leap.”

As might be expected the transition was not trouble-free. Perhaps most notably, USF had a preexisting English language institute, housed in USF’s World Languages Department, and when it was absorbed under the umbrella of the INTO USF joint venture, it lost its coveted Commission on English Language Program (CEA) accreditation. It subsequently regained its accreditation after the CEA altered its policies to allow for the accreditation of university ESL programs that are managed in conjunction with corporate partners.

Michelle Bell, the  director of the English language program at INTO USF and a veteran of the pre-INTO days, said she’s seen nothing but positive changes for the English language program. As the number of students has grown, so has the number of full-time faculty and administrative lines, from 4 to 17 -- six administrators and 11 instructors. They're advertising for another four full-time instructors now. “We can fund a TESOL [Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages] membership for every instructor, we can send them to conferences, and we can pay for it," she said.

In short, Bell has seen an influx of resources and nothing by way of restrictions. “We run like we have been running on the academic programs side. There's this myth that they tell you what you have to do and things dramatically change and that’s just not true.”

‘A Proving Ground’

The appeal of a pathway program to an international student is obvious: rather than spend time and money improving their English in an intensive ESL program, they can combine English and academic study and get started on accumulating credits toward a degree right off the bat. 

If you ask international students why they came to INTO USF they will tell you things like they didn’t have the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores to get into their programs of choice.

Maybe they hadn’t taken either of those exams and they took the INTO Password test at the agent’s office instead. Maybe they hadn’t taken the SAT or they didn’t want to because they didn’t think their English was good enough. They may say that they didn’t know much of anything about education in the United States or that they hadn't always planned on coming here. Many will tell you that their agent recommended the program (more on agents below).

Glen Besterfield, director of the INTO USF center and an associate professor of mechanical engineering, describes INTO USF as a “proving ground.” The admissions standards for the pathway program are lower: undergraduate applicants need a minimum of 60 on the TOEFL versus a 79 required for direct entry into South Florida -- IELTS, Pearson Test of English Academic and Password scores are also accepted as proof of English proficiency -- and a high school grade point average of a 2.5 instead of a 3.0. Unlike students seeking direct admission, applicants to pathway programs need not submit an SAT or ACT score.

Successful completion of an undergraduate pathway with a 2.5 G.P.A. guarantees admission into the second year of a USF undergraduate program, with no requirement for additional English language testing. For the graduate pathway programs, the minimum G.P.A. required for progression out of the pathway program is higher (3.25) and additional minimum test scores on the GMAT for business programs and the GRE in other fields apply. The university's self-reported progression rates – the proportion of students who matriculate into U.S.F proper after completing the program – are 75 percent for graduate students, and 86 percent for undergraduates.

Besterfield points out that the 2.5 G.P.A. required of undergraduate pathway students to progress is higher than the 2.0 that other USF undergraduates must maintain in order to stay off academic probation and remain enrolled. “The important thing is to set the bar high for these students," he said. "Set it high – don’t set it unrealistic, don’t tell an undergrad you have to have a 3.5 GPA. Don’t set it unrealistic but set the benchmark high so when they walk out of this program, you have a high degree of confidence that students will succeed at this university.”

Succeed they seem to, in large measure at least. INTO USF-provided data on average student G.P.A.s both during the pathway year and after matriculation into the university are displayed on the chart below. In general, former pathway students earn somewhat lower G.P.A.s than do their international student peers who were directly admitted into the university, with a bigger gap in performance at the undergraduate than the graduate level. But their average G.P.A.s are basically good: better than Bs.

Entering Cohort Average
Pathway GPA
Average Overall
(as of Dec. 2013)
Retention %
(Total Cohort
as of Dec. 2013) 
Undergraduate, Fall 2010      
Pathway 3.24 3.04 83.3%
Direct-Admit International N/A 3.29 81.6%
Undergraduate, Fall 2011      
Pathway 3.34 3.19 87.5%
Direct-Admit International  N/A 3.48 93.2%
Undergraduate, Fall 2012      
Pathway 3.12 3.11 97%
Direct-Admit International  N/A 3.44 90.6%
Graduate, Fall 2010      
Pathway 3.38 3.52 91.8%
Direct-Admit International N/A 3.59 84%
Graduate, Fall 2011      
Pathway 3.51 3.62 87.1%
Direct-Admit International N/A 3.69 90.1%
Graduate, Fall 2012      
Pathway 3.41 3.48 92.1%
Direct-Admit International N/A 3.52 90.6%

Inside Higher Ed asked multiple universities and pathway providers about data on progression rates and student G.P.A.s. Not all shared such data: at James Madison, the assistant vice provost, Catherine Crummett, said she was unable to share data about the percentage of pathway students who progress into the university because "Study Group feels like it's proprietary information to some degree, how many students matriculate."

Nor would Study Group's managing director for North American Higher Education, Larry Green, directly answer questions posed via email about progression rates, saying simply, "The vast majority of the students who are accepted into one of our pathway programs matriculate to the host institution, and meet or exceed the academic standards of the host." (For what it's worth, for all the apparent evasion in interviews, the Study Group website advertises a 95 percent progression rate into James Madison.)

At the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Provost Winston E. Langley said in an interview that the Navitas students have done quite well but declined a reporter's request to provide data to back up that point: "I will tell you that they're performing well, I'm not going to find statistics," said Langley.

When told that other universities have provided data on G.P.A.s, Langley responded, "let them do and say that we did not." Shortly thereafter he hung up the phone with a curt, "Good afternoon, madam."

Yet those universities and pathway providers that did share data all have positive figures to report. Data provided by Northeastern, which has a program in conjunction with Kaplan, show undergraduates who started the pathway program in fall 2012 have a mean G.P.A. of 3.02. Data provided by New Hampshire show that students earn an average 3.3 G.P.A. while in the Navitas pathway program and a 3.25 after they matriculate into the university.

“That to us is the test,” said Lisa MacFarlane, the provost at New Hampshire. “As we track the students through the university and their subsequent courses, if they’re doing well and they’re doing comparably to other students, then we feel reasonably confident that they’re being well-prepared.”

New Hampshire is an example of a program with a sheltered class model: in other words, pathway students have their own class sections. By contrast, USF has sought an integrated model: a pathway student in science will be thrown into any section of general chemistry, for example, or a business student into any section of calculus. There are exceptions: there is a separate public speaking class for undergraduates and, obviously, separate English courses specifically designed for international students. Some classes in the graduate business pathways have also moved from an integrated to a sheltered model. This was done at the request of the business school, Besterfield said: “The driving factor was integration in the classroom and engagement in the classroom.”

“We were dominating their sections. A professor has a classroom they’re teaching with 60 to 70 percent international students. It’s very difficult to get them to integrate. They ask a question of the class, only 13 people raise their hands to answer, the 13 domestic students. It just became a challenge for the College of Business.”

When they moved to a sheltered class model for graduate business pathway students, progression rates went up significantly, Besterfield said. Asked why he thought that was, “I think the professor is able to work with the students better,” he said. W. Robert Sullins, the dean of undergraduate studies, who had joined the conversation, added, “and they’re more apt to participate.”

'It Wasn't Just a Bump'

The decision to offer sheltered versus integrated instruction is one of the main ones a university makes in developing a pathway program. 

Linda Cabe Halpern, the vice provost for university programs at James Madison University, which has run a pathway program in conjunction with Study Group since 2010, is a big proponent of the sheltered instruction model for international students. “Sheltered instruction plus the language instruction is a tried and true thing in the K-12 system,” she said. “It gives the students more time to figure out American higher education, which is going to be different from anything they have ever known.”

Adrian K. Haugabrook, the vice president for student success and engagement at Wheelock College, where students enter the ONCAMPUS Boston program with a minimum TOEFL of 60 instead of the 79 required for direct entry, makes a related point: “It would be a disservice to the students who are participating in the program to fully integrate them into any Wheelock class because the whole point of the pathways program is to help them develop their academic skills and ability within a controlled environment.” Students in the program take Wheelock classes with Wheelock instructors, he said, but they take them together in a cohort fashion.

Yet Lee Thomas, a former senior international officer at the University of Nevada at Reno and now an assistant academic specialist at Northeastern University, where she works with international business students, including former pathway students, on linguistic and cultural issues, offered a different perspective.

“As a linguist I do not believe that it is a good model,” she said, speaking of pathway programs generally. “I do not think students who have not yet passed the university’s English language requirement should be taking credit courses in a sheltered setting. I think it’s beyond their language skills, so somewhere something has to give. Either the courses will be watered down and you will have grade inflation or the students will get bad grades. They don’t tend to get bad grades.” 

In a recent book, Carter A. Winkle, an assistant professor of education at Barry University, identifies questions about the equivalence between pathway and non-pathway course sections and perceptions of student unpreparedness as being among the key concerns raised by faculty members and administrators involved with these programs. Winkle's interview subjects also raise concerns that some faculty who are teaching content courses in pathway programs are not adequately prepared to deal with the cultural and linguistic challenges.

“The question can and should be asked as to whether the institutionally approved curriculum for credit-bearing content courses taught in segregated or sheltered pathway sections of, for example, Introduction to Psychology, is equivalent in objectives and outcomes to what is happening in the ‘mainstream’ cohort classes of matriculated students,” Winkle writes in University Partnerships with the Corporate Sector: Faculty Experiences with For-Profit Matriculation Pathway Programs (Brill 2014), which is based on interviews with 12 administrators and faculty members. 

To this end, Winkle quotes one instructor of an Introduction to Management class at a pathway program at a pseudonymously named university, Candlewood: “It was relatively hard for me to sleep at night knowing that at the end of the semester, I was going to give these students Bs and Cs -- and that they were going to take these Bs and Cs forward – and they weren’t going to be the same as if they had gotten a B and a C in a regular non-pathway class at Candlewood. Look, it’s not just that I think they were getting a letter grade bump. It wasn’t just a bump. These students would have failed. They would have failed if they had been in a mainstream class.”

Nearly all the 12 participants in Winkle’s study shared stories revealing that high numbers of pathway students recruited by the corporate partner were not prepared for credit-bearing college-level work.

Others that Inside Higher Ed spoke to echoed this concern. “It’s the pool of applicants,” said Antonio Iaccarino, an ESL instructor in the Global Pathways program at Northeastern. “There are some that are awesome; there are some that all you have to do is do some serious work together and we’ll make this happen. There are others that you wonder why they the hell are they here? Who’s given them this false hope?”

A Changed Recruiting Landscape

The growth in pathway programs is very much tied to the increasing acceptance of agency-based recruitment, in which colleges pay agents a commission for every international student sent their way. Opponents of the commission-based recruitment model worry that an agent who has a financial stake in sending a student to College X versus College Y may well act with his own interests, and not that of the student’s, in mind, and – further – that the financial incentive may increase the risk of misrepresentation or outright fraud in the application process.

Ten years ago, if colleges did use agents in their international recruitment, they certainly didn't talk about it. Today, the practice, though still controversial in some quarters, has largely gained acceptance. In September the National Association for College Admission Counseling cleared the way for further agent-based recruiting, revising its rules to explicitly permit colleges to engage in commission-based recruiting overseas, provided they do so with accountability, integrity and transparency.

The major pathway companies rely on extensive networks of agents and in many cases they promise big increases in numbers. “It’s kind of like the agency-based recruitment model on steroids,” said Eddie West, the director of international initiatives for NACAC. “You can even make the case that it’s an agent, sub-agent model, the corporate parent being the uber-agent, and the network of recruiters being the sub-agents in the field.”

In other words, when universities work with pathway providers they outsource not only the recruitment itself but also the management of the recruitment, West said. "I don't think it takes a real leap of logic to expect that with more cooks in the kitchen, not to mention the sheer number of agencies that are activated by this network, you definitely have some risks involved."

However, at a university like U.S.F, it’s difficult to imagine how it would have grown its international population as substantially as it has, as quickly as it has, without the reach of INTO’s agent network. INTO’s chief operating officer for North America, Mary Jane Miller, said the company has a network of 31 regional offices, which in turn have relationships with 900 counselors.

In an interview, Miller described a series of safeguards. She said that before signing with a new agency, staff at the nearby regional office do basic due diligence research, perform a site visit and check at least two university references. In China, which tends to be ground zero when it comes to discussions of application fraud, the company has a fraud prevention unit that she said spot-checks selected student transcripts; INTO also requires its agents in China to sign a written statement for each application confirming that the student signatures are authentic, that the student has a full understanding of the terms and conditions, and that the recruiter has taken reasonable steps to confirm the authenticity of the application and ensure that the student’s full academic history is disclosed. 

The company also invests in training its agents. If INTO suspects a specific agency of unethical or fraudulent behavior, it could take a number of steps, Miller said, including terminating the contract with the agent and alerting government authorities. 

"It's imperative to have a healthy and robust process for monitoring," she said. "Ultimately, we believe the best means of monitoring our recruiters' activity is the success of our students."

Conditional Admission

Also tied in with the growth in pathway programs has been the more general growth in conditional admission programs, through which universities aim to capture that subset of international students who lack the English language proficiency to grain direct admittance. Last May the Student Exchange Visitor Program, an entity within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, released new draft regulatory guidance on this topic that could have implications for the management of these programs. Officials at one university contacted for this article said they planned to make changes to the structure of the pathway program there in response to this guidance: James Madison's Halpern said the university is in discussions with Study Group to adjust the model so that the instructors would be classified as James Madison rather than Study Group employees to comply with their legal interpretation of the guidance.

Officials at SEVP declined an interview request to talk about the implications of the guidance, as it remains in draft form. A spokeswoman for SEVP, Carissa Cutrell, said that a second draft is scheduled to be released in late June and that the new draft is expected to differ from the previous draft “in some substantive ways” based on feedback the agency received.

Many in the field are eagerly awaiting the guidance. Yet amid the overall boom in conditional admissions, one institution, the University of Utah, is discontinuing its pathway program, run in partnership with Kaplan, precisely because it doesn’t wish to admit students conditionally anymore.

“Kaplan was the university’s first approach to recruiting,” said Sabine Klahr, the deputy chief global officer for Utah. “We were expecting Kaplan to recruit a wide diversity of students, which is part of the contract, and we found that the largest percentage, maybe 90 percent, 85 percent, of the students recruited by Kaplan were Chinese students. Which is great – we have a large Chinese student population, as most universities in the U.S. do now.”

“But when we looked at the international student population we were thinking, we are currently attracting top students from China with the English proficiency to be directly admitted to the university. In light of that, do we really need the Kaplan program to bring in students who are underprepared in a sense?”

In other words, Klahr said, “we realized that we have the ability and also the desire to attract a different type of student to the university and we didn’t really have a need for the conditional admission program.” At the same time it has dropped conditional admissions, Utah has raised the English language proficiency level required for admission into the university, from a minimum TOEFL score of 61 to an 80.

New Player, New Models?

In addition to the new INTO programs starting at Drew and George Mason Universities this fall, a startup in the market, Shorelight Education, has signed contracts to operate pathway programs at Central Florida and Kansas (it announced a similar partnership with Fordham University in September, but the contract was subsequently voided).

 “Shorelight offered us a true opportunity to increase our [international] enrollment, to increase it quickly, at very little cost to ourselves,” said Paul Lartonoix, UCF’s assistant vice provost.

Tom Dretler, the CEO and co-founder of Shorelight and formerly the head of Eduventures, a research and consulting firm, emphasized that Shorelight is not a pathway provider, per se, but it just so happens that its first two contracts with U.S. universities are to offer pathway programs (no doubt a sign of interest in the model). Shorelight, Dretler said, is about providing universities looking to internationalize with access to private capital so they can “go out and do that thing they might not have been able to do on their own because maybe they didn’t have the capital to do it or the bandwidth.” 

In its agreements, “not only does the university not contribute anything upfront to get the program off the ground,” Dretler said, “but Shorelight reimburses the university for any expenses as it’s getting off the ground.”

Under the Freedom of Information Act, Inside Higher Ed requested a copy of UCF’s contract with Shorelight, which says that UCF will fork over the tuition and fees collected for each incoming cohort of pathway students to Shorelight's subsidiary Stars, which in turn will bear the costs of operating and managing the pathway program under the academic auspices of the university (which, per the contract, will have responsibility for all academic matters, including the curriculum, academic qualifications of instructors, and admission and progression criteria). At such a point that the joint steering committee determines the program has sufficient funds on hand to sustain the ongoing operations of the program and anticipated capital needs, it can direct Stars to disburse any cash surplus to UCF and Shorelight on a 50-50 basis. 

After students matriculate into the university proper through the program, Shorelight continues to collect a fee equal to an undisclosed percentage of tuition revenue: UCF redacted the percentage of tuition owed to Shorelight, citing a “trade secrets” exception under FOIA. The university also redacted the term of the contract, but a spokesman subsequently provided the information upon request: 15 years, with the possibility of renewal for another 15.

Of a sampling of contracts requested under open records laws in reporting this story -- the University of New Hampshire’s with Navitas, James Madison’s with Study Group, and U.S.F’s with INTO -- only U.S.F released a version without any redactions. As the Lawrence Journal-World has reported, earlier this year Shorelight went to court to win an injunction preventing the release of its contract with the University of Kansas, requested by the newspaper under FOIA. The company argued that the contract contains proprietary information that would help other companies replicate its business model.  

Such is the sometimes murky world of public-private partnerships. Perhaps it is not surprising that organized opposition to the growth of for-profit pathway providers has been most visible in Canada and England, where faculty unions are stronger and there is arguably a more widely shared sense of higher education as being a public good.

In the U.K., the University College Union has led a campaign against INTO and other similar players as part of its broader campaign against the privatization of higher education. In an email, Matt Waddup, UCU’s national head of policy and campaigns for the union, outlined several of the union’s main concerns, including the potential relaxation of admissions standards when both the university and the corporate partner have a financial stake in students progressing from the pathway into the university, and the reputational risk to U.K. higher education. 

“U.K. higher education retains an excellent global rep[utation], and these companies who specialize in international students use that to recruit. They have in effect a parasitical relationship with the host university which is built upon profit,” Waddup wrote.

“We believe a much better way is to provide foundation or pathway courses in-house, as Essex University decided to do when it rejected INTO's overtures. In house provides a cohesive, joined-up learning process for the potential student and allows academics themselves to have greater control over quality issues such as whether students have reached a sufficiently high level to progress, etc.”


In his interviews with pathway program administrators and faculty, Winkle, the author of the book on for-profit pathway programs, kept hearing one refrain: “We could have done this ourselves!”

“The concept of universities developing [English for academic purposes] matriculation pathway programs for high-performing English language learner international students is a good one,” Winkle wrote. “And there is a strong likelihood that the trend toward the creation of such programs will continue, as they are often viewed as being in harmony with universities’ missions and goals related to the internationalization of their campuses. However, that private, for-profit corporate entities need to be involved in the development and governance of matriculation pathway programs is something which I remain highly skeptical about, as it conflicts with my personal views of higher education as a public-interest activity rather than a profit center.”

In his book Winkle profiles a number of universities that have developed in-house pathway programs – including one, George Mason, that is going it alone no longer, having announced a partnership with INTO in October. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed at the time, George Mason Provost Peter N. Stearns said the university had realized the limits of its recruiting capacity and simply didn’t have the capital to replicate the reach of a network like INTO’s. “Having built a successful transition program here, we also realize that we face some clear limitations in expanding it to the scale we would like in meeting the university’s goals for internationalization,” he said.

One university that is attempting a DIY pathway program at significant scale is the University of British Columbia, which plans to launch a new pathway-style program known as Vantage College this fall. James Ridge, the principal of the college, said that the core faculty will be tenure-track -- the first faculty were hired last summer to develop the curriculum -- and that the goal is to grow from 250-300 students this fall to 1,000 in 2016. The 11-month curriculum will integrate disciplinary content and language learning -- students can come to Vantage with a minimum TOEFL of 70 compared to a 90 required for direct admission to the university -- and successful completion qualifies students for their second year at UBC. Pending final Board of Governors approval, the university plans to break ground this July on a 1,048-bed living-learning facility, Orchard Commons, to house the college.

Ridge said the university seriously entertained proposals by INTO and Navitas but ultimately determined it didn't need a partner. It's helped by the fact that UBC has exceptional international recruiting capacity already, with, Ridge said, more than 30 recruiters on its staff.

“We absolutely acknowledge that for many universities that's exactly the right way to go and the private sector partner can bring expertise and recruiting and capital and a whole bunch of things to the relationship. We were in a fortunate position, quite frankly, where we didn’t need all of that and we decided to do it internally," he said.

The college hasn’t welcomed a single student yet, and already Ridge said he’s been “surprised to the point of overwhelmed” by expressions of interest from other Canadian and U.S. universities. “What’s happened certainly in Canada is I think the assumption for many years was that if you wanted to create one of these colleges you had to do it with a private partner,” he said.

“We’ve had a steady stream of visitors wanting to see how we’re doing it.”

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