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The main reason universities partner with outside companies to offer pathway programs for international students is to increase recruitment and enrollment of international undergraduates, while their main reasons for not partnering are concerns about academic standards and loss of control over the admissions process, according to a new report commissioned by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

The report, available free for NAFSA members and for purchase for nonmembers on the NAFSA website, examines the growth of third-party pathway partnerships, in which universities partner with corporate entities to recruit for and deliver first-year programs that combine credit-bearing academic course work and developmental English classes for nonnative speakers. Pathway programs allow universities to go deeper into the pool of potential international students by enrolling students who fall short of the English proficiency standards required for regular admission.

Third-party pathway partnerships are a relatively new phenomenon in U.S. higher education, and their growth over the last decade has been controversial, raising concerns about outsourcing as it relates to core functions like admissions and teaching as well as questions about college readiness and rigor. On the other hand, the robust recruiting resources and specialized expertise that pathway providers promise have been enticing to many university administrators who are increasingly under pressure to recruit more full-pay international undergraduate students, and the number of such partnerships has steadily increased. While prestigious American universities with global name recognition have no shortage of international applicants with strong English-language skills, that's not the case for many other institutions. And advocates for the pathway programs say there are many students with strong academic ability who simply need to improve their English.

The NAFSA report identifies 45 universities that offer third-party pathway programs in partnership with eight different corporate entities: BridgePathways, Cambridge Education Group, INTO University Partnerships, Kaplan International Pathways, Kings Education, Navitas, Shorelight Education and Study Group. The 45 universities are nearly evenly split between public (24) and private (21). Most of the public universities offering these programs are large, doctorate-granting institutions, with 17 of the 24 enrolling more than 10,000 students. Most of the private universities are classified as comprehensive master’s colleges and universities. Ten of the private universities in the analysis enroll between 1,000 and 9,999 students, and one has an enrollment of fewer than 1,000 students.

The NAFSA report is based on a survey of international educators on their views on pathway programs. A total of 347 international education administrators from 261 institutions responded to the survey, yielding a response rate of 14.7 percent. The report targeted professionals who work in international education offices -- one of the eligibility criteria for respondents for the survey was having attended a NAFSA conference in the previous five years -- and so does not capture a full range of viewpoints of administrators who might work in other academic units.

Respondents said the top reasons why institutions, in general, partner with third-party pathway providers are “to access recruitment network of pathway provider” (59 percent of respondents selected this answer), “to expand enrollment of international students at bachelor’s level” (57 percent), “to improve yield of international enrollment" (57 percent), “to make up for lack of in-house expertise” (44 percent) and “to enhance diversity of international enrollment” (32 percent).

In open-ended comments quoted in the report, respondents cited reasons related to expanding recruitment and international student enrollment, e.g.: “Our international student numbers will likely decline because of decreased Saudi applications, so we are looking for new sources for international student recruitment.” Other open-ended responses included: “It was determined to be the most cost-effective option of increasing international student enrollments.” Another respondent cited the allure of a pathway provider’s network of recruitment agents: “We want access to a network of reputable agents and don’t want to have to build the infrastructure for managing them.” (Pathway providers typically partner with in-country recruiting agents, who are paid on commission -- another controversial practice in itself that is also gaining ground in the U.S.)

On the other hand, the top reasons respondents selected for not partnering with third-party pathway programs had to do with concerns about loss of control -- specifically “fear of loss of academic standards” (65 percent) and “concern for loss of control of international admissions process” (56 percent). Other reasons respondents selected for why universities, in general, do not partner with pathway providers included the sense that an existing university-governed intensive English program is working well (51 percent), the specific terms of a contract, such as the length and cost (44 percent), and a preference to develop in-house expertise (35 percent).

“We have in-house programs and believe they better serve the academic success of our students. We also prefer to keep the profit and academic ownership of such programs,” one respondent said. “We want to ensure our program maintains quality and adheres strictly to our mission of service to our students. We also want to maintain all revenue and keep costs low,” said another.

The survey also asked international education professionals to identify the factors to consider when working with third-party pathway providers. The top responses were: “define academic qualifications and preparation of students” (52 percent), “ensure transparency of recruitment practices (50 percent), “align with institutional goals and culture” (43 percent), “involve campus stakeholders during decision making” (39 percent), and “understand key responsibilities of institution versus provider” (39 percent).

The report includes breakdowns of responses according to institution type, size and whether or not the university already has a pathway partnership in place. Eighteen percent of respondents to the survey said their universities currently partner with a pathway provider. Another 13 percent said they were considering a partnership, while 64 percent said they were not considering a partnership. (Five percent chose “other.”)

"The reality is international student recruitment is going to become more and more important, for public institutions because of budget cuts and for private institutions because of demographics and the cost," said Rahul Choudaha, the principal investigator for the report and co-founder of DrEducation, a research and consulting firm. "Anyone who can bring capital, investment to grow the enrollment, that's the trend where higher education is moving."

"Clearly, there is one side of the story where there is interest and there is a need," Choudaha said, "but on the other side there are stakeholders who feel concerned.”

The survey research reports on the perceptions of international education administrators at universities, not the views of officials at the pathway program providers. Bev Hudson, the president of Navitas North America, a pathway provider, said of the report that it is "a common myth that pathway programs somehow dilute control of the admissions and academic processes, but it is a fear often rooted in misinformation. In fact, pathway programs offer much richer and nuanced insight into international students’ ability to be successful in degree programs than the standard credentials and performance documentation required for direct-entry students."

"Students move out of the pathway when they have reached the admission level specified by the university and only matriculate into a university degree program upon successful completion of the program and demonstration that they have met the university’s own admission standards," Hudson said via email.

The report from NAFSA will be discussed Tuesday during a session at the association's annual conference, which meets this year in Los Angeles.

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