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Growing numbers of American universities are contracting with corporate entities to recruit for and help manage first-year “pathway” programs for international students who don’t meet the criteria for direct admission. The number of such pathway programs in the U.S. has grown from a mere handful to more than 50 within the past decade. The programs proliferate even as the total number of new international students coming to the U.S. declines and competition for every full-pay international student intensifies.

Colleges have turned to the third-party pathway model for one main reason: to grow the population of full-pay international students, and in turn the revenue they bring.

The irony is that as the numbers of providers and the programs they operate grow, so too do the differences in the outcomes of the universities on those all-important enrollment and revenue metrics.

Inside Higher Ed contacted a wide range of colleges and universities that partner with corporate pathway providers and found that their experiences with the model are mixed.

Third-Party Pathways: A Series

Elsewhere today:

Coming tomorrow:

  • The Pathway Impact on Commissions and Incentives
  • Parting Ways: Programs That Have Ended

Some institutions report large increases in their international student population while others report falling far short of the grand enrollment gains that were expected -- a circumstance that can put pressure on academic standards. Some of the disappointing enrollment outcomes are partially attributable to a more difficult recruiting environment for U.S. universities generally, but in other cases they cannot be so easily explained away. A handful of corporate pathway partnerships have ended.

Meanwhile, pathway providers are eager to diversify their sources of revenue and are in many cases expanding into recruitment for direct admission into regular university programs.

In this multipart series of articles, Inside Higher Ed also explores the disruptive impact of the third-party pathway program phenomenon on the broader international student recruitment landscape. As the number of programs has grown and competition between the corporate pathway providers has increased, some professionals in the international education field have raised questions about the companies' recruitment practices and the commissions and bonuses they pay to overseas recruiting agents.

Mixed Results

The pathway programs, which are offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, typically consist of a mix of intensive English-language course work and credit-bearing first-year academic classes, supplemented by tutoring and other academic supports. They offer a full first-year academic program and an alternative “pathway” to entry for students whose standardized English test scores fall below the minimum thresholds required for direct admission to the university. In many cases students can also gain admission into pathway programs with lower grade point averages than they would need to obtain direct admission. The idea behind the lower bar to entry is that students have a year to prove themselves in a program that offers additional linguistic and academic support.

Although the programs vary in quite significant ways -- for much more on that, see this sidebar -- what unites the types of third-party or corporate pathway partnerships discussed in this series of articles is that they go beyond recruiting relationships to encompass the first-year undergraduate or graduate experience: the pathway company not only recruits for the first-year program but also helps to manage it. Students who successfully complete the pathway matriculate into the general student population for year two of their programs, generally with a year of academic credit already completed.

“All I keep saying is, ‘You guys contracted with us to recruit students, and so you need to be recruiting students.’ ”
--Matt Lee, Louisiana State University

Some U.S. universities -- including, but not only, some that were the earliest adopters of the corporate pathway model -- have grown their international enrollments dramatically with the help of their corporate partners.

Take the University of South Florida, which started a pathway program with INTO University Partnerships in 2010 and was the British company’s second university partner in the U.S. INTO's typical model is to enter into long-term contracts with universities to establish jointly managed joint-venture corporations to oversee pathway and intensive English programs for international students.

The INTO USF programs haven't been spared by the forces that are contributing to international enrollment declines at many other U.S. institutions, including reductions in the size of the Saudi government's scholarship program and reports of more frequent visa denials for intensive English or pathway students coming from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Glen Besterfield, dean of admissions and associate vice president for student success and student affairs at USF, said that new student enrollments in the INTO USF center fell by about 27 percent from fall 2016 to fall 2017, driven almost entirely by declines in numbers of students from Saudi Arabia and South Asia.

Still, USF officially reported enrolling almost 5,000 international students last fall, 3.7 times the number it had eight years before. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of USF’s international students came through direct recruitment channels and the other 49 percent have come one way or another through INTO, Besterfield said.

“We could not have had the same level of success in recruiting international students [on our own], just because of the breadth of their recruitment network.”
--Susan Poser, University of Illinois at Chicago

“Without INTO we would have doubled internationals on this campus,” said Besterfield, who previously served as director of the INTO USF Center. “We would have focused our resources more, maybe we would have tripled, but would we have quadrupled our international enrollment on our campus without INTO? There is no way. At the end of the day for us, it’s been a tremendous effect.”

Still, Besterfield said there's no question the landscape for pathway programs has gotten more competitive. “All of the providers and all the universities are working with the same educational counselors” overseas, he said. “At the end of the day, USF will always survive. Our proposition here is unbelievable, whether it be our ranking, location, our price point. We are surviving through this. I can’t tell you how others are getting by.”

Oregon State University, INTO’s first partner in the U.S., increased its international student population as a proportion of total enrollment from 4.9 percent in fall 2008, when the partnership started, to 11.5 percent in fall 2017. According to published enrollment figures, the university enrolled 898 students across the various INTO Oregon State intensive English and pathway programs in fall 2017, down from a peak of 1,496 in 2014. Most of the drop was in intensive English enrollments, where numbers are falling nationwide, in large part due to the drop in Saudi students.

In just the undergraduate and graduate pathway programs, Oregon State enrolled 595 students last fall, down from a peak of 650 in 2012.

INTO Oregon State University Program Enrollments

  Fall 2012 Fall 2013 Fall 2014 Fall 2015 Fall 2016 Fall 2017
Academic English 355 536 712 641 407 288
General English 76 71 81 86 35 0
Graduate Pathways 314 270 280 202 168 225
OSU Conditional Admission Program 64 141 51 16 8 6
Study Abroad -- -- 6 6 10 9
Undergraduate Pathways 336 276 366 309 395 370
Total 1,145 1,294 1,496 1,260 1,023 898

Edward Feser, Oregon State's provost, said the university wants to increase the proportion of its enrollment that's international to 15 percent. “Time will tell whether our numbers continue to hold and hopefully rise, and we’re always thinking about to what extent is the relationship mutually beneficial. I think INTO is always thinking about that as well,” Feser said. “But thus far there would be no reason for us to say the numbers have softened, therefore this partnership isn't working. I think those numbers would have softened had we not had the partnership.”

Colorado State University, INTO’s third partner in the U.S. after Oregon State and USF, has had comparatively less success recruiting students to its pathway programs. Jim Cooney, Colorado State’s vice provost for international affairs, said this spring that the pathway programs enrolled about 170 students, and that students in the pathway program or those who have matriculated out of it account for slightly more than 20 percent of the university's total international enrollment.

Cooney said enrollment in the program has been lower than what INTO projected five years ago. “I’m quick to acknowledge there’s a lot more competition,” said Cooney. “I think what I would say is their network of agents, which is what they’ve touted years ago as being so strong, that hasn’t been as strong as we thought it would be.”

“What we really give them credit for in this much more competitive market, it’s not their network that’s generating students, it's their commitment to technology. They do a better job than we can as a university in canvassing students, following up with students,” Cooney said.

Over all, Cooney remains positive about the partnership. “We’ve appreciated their willingness to have open conversations with us and rethink some aspects of the partnership, and it’s going in a good direction,” he said.

At the same time, Cooney said, “We’re not particularly happy with the fact that they keep adding partners.” (INTO added its 11th U.S. partner, Illinois State University, this spring.) “It’s not hard to figure out why they do that, because they get these fees from the universities. They’re constantly increasing the bottom line even if they’re not increasing the number of students.”

It appears that INTO CSU, a joint venture between the company and Colorado State's foundation, is losing money. Draft minutes of a December 2017 joint-venture board meeting, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, say that the joint venture ended fiscal year 2017 with a $1.2 million loss on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, and projected a continuing $830,000 loss in fiscal year 2018.

At the end of fiscal year 2017, according to that draft, the joint venture -- which pays the university for things like academic costs and facilities use, and which pays INTO for things like administrative and marketing costs -- owed about $2.8 million to each partner. The documents suggest that both parties are making financial concessions to help make the partnership work, including reduced rent on CSU’s part and reduced fees on INTO’s.

Colorado State declined an open-records request for two years of meeting minutes for the joint-venture board, which is made up of INTO and university or foundation officials, citing an exemption to the state open-records law relating to confidential information or trade secrets. A spokesman for the university, Mike Hooker, said the university’s foundation is owed $1.225 million under the terms of a promissory note it made to the INTO CSU joint venture as an initial investment. As for any amount beyond this, this, Hooker said, “the university provides services and facilities to INTO CSU, LLC, which results in trade debt and receivables in the normal course of business.”

INTO officials declined to comment on the documents. John Latham, INTO's CEO, said that a standalone loss shouldn't be seen as indicative of what INTO is doing for its partner universities. “There’s a much bigger and much more significant story about the tens of millions that are being generated once the students go on to complete the program," he said.

At INTO CSU, one can also see how the desire to compete with other pathway programs and build enrollment can put pressure on academic standards. Internal documents seen by Inside Higher Ed include a chart detailing "already launched and newly recommended proposition and marketing/recruitment initiatives" expected to support enrollment growth in INTO CSU programs. The "key initiatives" listed include various items related to lowering academic standards for admission into or progression out of the pathway programs; these are listed alongside various other proposals for things like the introduction of new programs or pricing structures and a marketing relaunch.

It's not clear how many of the listed items have been or will be implemented, but at least one of the listed items -- lowering the entry GPA for undergraduate pathway programs to 2.3 -- was put in place for this fall's entering class (an archived version of INTO CSU's website from July 2017 indicates a required GPA of 2.5 for admission into the various undergraduate pathway programs, whereas the current brochure stipulates a 2.3 GPA entry requirement for undergraduate pathway programs).

"INTO CSU sets admissions and progression standards based on our belief that we can offer students the opportunity for access to a CSU education because we have proven success in helping students succeed," Hooker, the CSU spokesman, said in a statement. "This is evidenced by our two-year average progression rate of more than 87 percent, and a persistence rate of 98 percent among graduate pathway students and 89 percent among students in the undergraduate pathway programs. While changes to standards are carefully considered primarily from a student success standpoint, they also more evenly align us with the standards of other programs, which helps INTO CSU attract students in a competitive environment."

"For students entering the undergraduate pathways programs this fall the GPA requirement moves from 2.5 to 2.3, and a new standard has been added for business, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and sciences, requiring no lower than a C average in all math courses. We are constantly evaluating possible changes to improve student success while also staying competitive with other programs. While we are considering other changes as well, those conversations are ongoing with student success our top priority as we also position INTO CSU to continue being a top option for international students seeking a pathway program."

‘Competing Against Our Own Selves’

Colorado State is not the only university where enrollment in third-party pathway programs has fallen short of expectations. A version of a contract between Louisiana State University and the Boston-based company Shorelight, posted on the Louisiana Legislature’s website, sets an enrollment goal of 850 students in a LSU pathway program by year five. This spring, three years after the program started in 2015, there were just 136 students enrolled, according to Matt Lee, LSU’s vice provost for academic programs and support services.

In fairness, recruitment was interrupted when LSU had to suspend new enrollments in the pathway program for a semester after the Department of Homeland Security issued what's known as a "request for evidence." New admissions were suspended in fall 2016 pending an update to LSU's I-17 -- a federal document that lists the programs for which universities are approved to enroll international students -- and LSU resumed admitting new students into the program in spring 2017.

But Lee is still concerned that Shorelight isn’t delivering more students, particularly in light of the fact that LSU has a strong brand.

“All I keep saying is, ‘You guys contracted with us to recruit students, and so you need to be recruiting students,’” said Lee, who assumed his current position at LSU after the contract was signed.

He went on to muse, “If you think closely about it, I’m not sure about the logic of the whole model. What they do is recruit students who don’t quite meet the admission criteria and then they kind of shine ’em up and move them on. I was wondering who thought it was a good idea that we focus recruitment efforts on a group of people who don’t meet the admission criteria to begin with. I’m all about accessibility, but here we have to balance accessibility with academic rigor and quality. We are not an open-enrollment institution.”

Shorelight has grown quickly, acquiring 16 American university partners since the company was founded in 2013 (though not all of those partnerships are for pathway programs). The University of Kansas was one of the company's first two partners in the U.S.

Speaking in February, Charles Bankart, the associate vice provost for international programs at Kansas, said that in some ways the four-year-old pathway program it has developed with Shorelight has been successful: students are doing well academically. But Kansas expected many more students. The number of new students coming into the pathway program fell to 83 last fall, down from 120 the year prior. Bankart said Kansas had about 2,200 international students on campus this past year over all, about 620 of whom have come through the Shorelight pathway program.

That 2,200 figure is about the same number of total international students Kansas reported having in 2014, when it launched the program. The university said in a news release at the time that it expected the Shorelight program "to expand over the coming years possibly doubling the number of international students on campus."

“In terms of academic outcomes, I think it is definitely meeting institutional goals. I feel good about the academic quality of the program, I feel good about the ways that we have had to adapt to this and to some of the process and policy improvements that we’ve had to engage in to make this work,” Bankart said.

“I would say, however, that we’d like growth. The whole idea behind this was to have quality programs with more students, so when you go from 120 to 83 in one cycle … Granted, we know that it’s a rough world out there, but we still do direct admissions as well and we haven’t had that kind of a hit on direct admissions.”

Bankart in February expressed concern that KU's enrollment was dropping at a time when Shorelight was growing in terms of its number of partners (he subsequently clarified that he has no way of knowing how Kansas is doing compared to other institutions that partner with Shorelight, and that he doesn't see enrollment figures from the other institutions). The peak intake for new students in the Shorelight program was 176 in fall 2015.

“One of the challenges I think -- and this would be different, I think, depending on which partnership programs you’re looking at -- but I have seen an exponential impact and an inverse impact on the number of partners that Shorelight has and our student numbers," Bankart said. "In other words, Shorelight has a recruitment network that’s engaged with agents in different regional recruitment offices: that’s more of a fixed population than one would think. As they grow and their partner options become more diverse -- geographically, academically, in terms of admission standards, in terms of whatever terms are negotiated in the contract -- we are, I think, competing against our own selves in terms of that portfolio of partners that Shorelight has."

That said, Bankart reported this month that new enrollment is looking to be about 120 to 150 students for the coming fall, and the most diverse intake to date, so things are looking up. "The fall projections and apps we are receiving would indicate KU is doing well for itself," Bankart said via email. "I hope others are doing similarly well!"

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, another Shorelight partner, Susan Poser, the provost, reported that the university had 357 students active in undergraduate pathway programs in the spring -- a number she's quite pleased with. UIC partnered with Shorelight in 2016 and admitted its first pathway students in January 2017.

“We could not have had the same level of success in recruiting international students [on our own] just because of the breadth of their recruitment network,” Poser said of the partnership with Shorelight. “It allows us to continue our main mission, or you might say our founding mission, which is recruitment in Chicago and Illinois and the U.S., sort of in that order -- to continue to put our resources there while also being able to diversify in this way.”

“We’ve had 5,000 students go through our programs,” said Tom Dretler, Shorelight’s CEO. “Of the 5,000 students, 90 percent have persisted successfully from the first to the second year, we have 96 percent term-to-term retention rates, and 92 percent of our students are satisfied with our services.”

“Our philosophy is we send students to the schools that they want to go to. We’re not recruiters, even though we do handle that part of things, but we would never point a student to a university because of something in a contract.”

“Some schools, like an Auburn or a UIC, have seen extraordinary, like transformational, international student growth, and for schools that haven’t seen it, there’s ways to address it. Our philosophy is a student-focused philosophy. The university is our partner; the student is our customer. Everything that we do is about serving them.”

Emmett Winn, an associate provost at Auburn University -- one of the two institutions Dretler specifically cited as having seen "transformational international student growth" -- declined to answer specific questions about its Shorelight program and instead issued generic statements, saying Auburn "strongly support[s]" its partner, Shorelight, and that the partnership contributes to its goals of building "a diverse student population." However, Shorelight reported that there were 703 undergraduate and 85 graduate students enrolled in Auburn’s pathway programs this spring.

Enrollment Declines

Third-party pathway programs are certainly not immune to the macrotrends that are contributing to declines in new international enrollments at many institutions nationally. Some of the factors that are contributing to these declines include issues surrounding the affordability of U.S. higher education and the continued strength of the dollar, concerns on the part of prospective students about potential changes to visa policies and whether they will be safe and welcome in the U.S., and increasing competition from other countries, including Canada, whose universities posted a 10.7 percent gain in international student enrollment from fall 2016 to fall 2017.

Navitas, a publicly traded Australian company that partners with eight U.S. colleges and universities to recruit for and deliver pathway programs, reported in April that while its university enrollments grew by 2 percent for North America, that was due to strong growth at its Canadian partner universities offsetting the "continued fall in enrollments in the U.S."

"Higher visa rejection rates and ongoing uncertainty caused by the current U.S. administration's approach to immigration continue to reduce international student volumes into many universities," the company reported.

Over all, the company reported 6 percent enrollment growth worldwide in its university partnership division. Gretchen Bataille, a senior academic adviser at Navitas, said that some of the company's U.S. partners are "disappointed to be sure, and frustrated. They see Navitas is recruiting a lot of international students, but they're not coming to the U.S."

Many of the existing pathway agreements were signed back when new international student enrollments were still growing nationally. When Florida Atlantic University signed an agreement with Navitas in January 2015, a news release quoted FAU's provost saying that Navitas’s “experience in international education will form a key part of our goal of growing out international student numbers to 10 per cent of the student population.” At that point, FAU reported having about 600 international students; 10 percent of its approximately 30,000 student population would be a fivefold increase.

FAU said that it enrolled just 80 students in its Navitas programs this spring: 57 at the undergraduate level, 20 graduate students and three ESL students. Russ Ivy, the senior associate provost, said recruitment declined after the political climate changed.

"Our first class came in spring of '15. That was our first class that they admitted for us. We had set numerical goals for every year of where we wanted to be, and actually, until the political climate started to change, we were actually ahead of that, but things have definitely dwindled a lot -- as I assume they have for others as well. We still have faith in Navitas, though, because we recently signed an agreement to do direct admits as well," Ivy said.

“It’s not so much that the applicants have gone down; in a lot of markets it seems like our visa rejection rate has gotten higher, so it’s harder to get students here,” Ivy continued. “When we first started a lot of our markets, the students that were coming here were from Central Asia. Pakistan was a big market for us at the beginning and their visa rejection rate has gotten higher. India -- the visa rejection rate’s a little higher than it used to be.

“Where we were getting the traditional Navitas student base from is where visa rates were becoming more problematic. We were relying, really, on a small number of markets, and it’s better to broaden that perspective, which Navitas has been working on. They’re expanding their presence into Latin America. We think that’s going to be big for us. We already get a lot of Latin American students without much effort, so we’re thinking once there is a concerted effort, that’s going to take off for us.”

At the University of New Hampshire, which joined up with Navitas in 2010, the number of students in the Navitas program has dropped from an all-time high of around 400 in 2015 to 188 this past year. It’s a big drop even in the context of declines in international students reported by many institutions. The original goal for the program -- which was not met -- was to enroll 500 students by 2015.

Unlike the FAU program, which heavily drew students from South Asia, UNH's program predominantly enrolls students from China. P. T. Vasudevan, the senior vice provost for academic affairs at New Hampshire, said that Chinese students account for about 80 percent of the Navitas enrollments.

“On the one hand, we want to see more numbers but not more numbers at the expense of quality,” said Vasudevan. “If you look at the other universities [Navitas partners with], UNH stands way above in terms of ranking compared to, let’s say, the University of Idaho or [the University of Massachusetts at] Dartmouth … One of the things we told Navitas is that we certainly want to have students of very high caliber.”

As enrollments in the Navitas program dropped, the university opted not to renew the contracts of some ESL lecturers -- six, by the union’s count -- and laid off the director of the ESL Institute, which services the Navitas program. The former director, Katherine Earley, said that some of the enrollment drops may be attributable to a shift toward recruiting students with higher levels of English proficiency.

“In my opinion what was going on in the beginning [with] Navitas, the caliber of students they brought in, many of them were not college ready,” Earley said. “I think by the time I left the university, the majority of students were at the upper level of [English] proficiency, whereas when I began the majority of students were at the lower levels of proficiency. If you want the best students, you’re not going to have as many students.”

A 2015 self-study report about the Navitas pathway programs at UNH found that 43 percent of the 291 students who had successfully completed it to date had to repeat at least one ESL level. Of those who were required to repeat, 44 percent were required to repeat two or more semesters of ESL course work.

The report noted that there were large numbers of withdrawals due to the duration of ESL studies, particularly among students who were in what was then branded as International University Transfer Program English, a pathway option for students with lower English test scores that took an estimated four to six semesters to complete (students started with a one- to three-semester IUTP English pathway and then upon completion moved into a three-semester IUTP Academic pathway before they matriculated into year two at UNH). 

Vasudevan, the senior vice provost, said New Hampshire’s English Language Institute is well equipped to bring students at any English level up to proficiency -- that’s what they do. But he said it is a matter of communicating to students how long they can expect to spend in the program depending on the level of English they start with.

“Clearly if students come with a lower level of preparation in English language, it’s going to take them that much longer, but what is important is to ensure that we inform parents and students that if you have this score, you’re going to be in this program for this length of time,” Vasudevan said. “That is what we’re trying to address here. At the same time, we also told Navitas that, yes, even though we’re able to do this and train any student at any level of English language, we would prefer to see students with an [International English Language Testing System] score of 5.5 or higher.”

All told, Vasudevan said, 1,065 students, including the 188 enrolled as of this spring, have come to UNH through the various Navitas programs at various levels of English proficiency since the partnership's inception in 2010. As of data that were current for this past spring semester, a total of 603 students had both completed the academic pathway program and continued on at UNH as sophomores. 

"We find their average grade point average is about a 3.2 to 3.3," Vasudevan said (Navitas put the exact average figure at 3.24). "These students have done very well. Students work incredibly hard; they receive a lot of awards. Many of them have gone on to grad school. Once they matriculate into UNH, it has not been much of a challenge. The biggest challenge for some of them is navigating and getting better at communication skills, both written and oral."

Recalibrating Expectations

As colleges have experimented with the pathway model, and as competition has increased, some institutions have recalibrated their expectations for enrollments.

Marshall University, an INTO partner, has about 200 students enrolled in INTO programs this spring, down from about 350 in 2015-16. The director of the INTO Marshall center, Stephanie Hurley Collier, attributed much of the drop to a shift in visa issuances for pathway students in India and Pakistan, from where INTO Marshall draws many of its students. With the drop in students from India and Pakistan, Collier said the program is shifting toward being Chinese-student dominant, with the fastest growth coming from Anglophone Africa, specifically Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

Marshall's program began in 2013. “When the contract was first signed with INTO University Partnerships and Marshall University, we were really at the innovation end of these joint venture activities. I can’t remember the exact number, but we were one of few in the U.S. who were doing that at that point. Now there’s been an explosion of pathway programs so students have a really high level of choice at some high-ranking institutions. I do think that the market has changed considerably for us. I do attribute one issue with us not reaching our original target to be associated with the change in market. I would couple that with the desirability of the U.S. as an international student destination being a challenge right now,” Collier said.

At the same time, Collier said, the share of Marshall's student body that is international increased from 1.7 percent in 2012-13 to 5 percent in 2016-17. "What I would say is even with the decline in this last year, Marshall’s international percentages are still higher than they were independently, so I think the value added from the INTO network is quite profound," she said.

At Drew University, which started a pathway program with INTO in 2014, the original plan, as reported in the local press and in Drew's own communications, was to build up to enroll 500 students. The New Jersey university, which with a total undergraduate enrollment of about 1,500 is INTO’s smallest partner university by far, enrolled about 150 students in its academic English and pathway programs this spring.

Drew officials say the model for the center changed somewhat: INTO Drew was originally conceived as a starting point from which students would transfer to other New York-area universities -- it originally was branded as INTO New York at Drew University -- whereas it has shifted now to focusing more on retaining the students it recruits.

“I’m happy with where they are,” said Robert Massa, Drew's senior vice president for enrollment and institutional planning. “I don’t think we’ll ever get over 200, but if we can roughly have 10 percent of the overall enrollment at Drew be through INTO, I would be thrilled with that, and that’s where we are about now, so it’s good. Even though it’s producing less than my predecessors were told four or five years ago, I’m still very happy with the joint venture.”

At the same time, Massa said of the pathway model, “it's not a panacea … First of all, it’s expensive. We have a whole support system that’s set up for these students to ensure that they're succeeding.”

"And it’s labor-intensive. The recruiting is individual, so there are lot of resources that go into it. I would venture to say if you had a per-student cost of enrollment for traditional direct admit versus students coming in through these types of pathway programs, I don’t think there’s any question that the cost would be significantly higher on the pathway side. I don’t have any data to back up that.”

“The costs are high, but I think they’re justified. I think they’re justified because these students bring a tremendous wealth of experience and diversity; they’re very determined to succeed. Some of them are among our best students.”

A New Partnership

While some of the partnerships have fallen short of enrollment targets, that isn't stopping other institutions from seeing potential in the model.

One new entrant to third-party pathway partnerships, Western Washington University, is hoping its new partnership with Study Group will help turn things around when it comes to its long-standing struggles with international student recruitment.

Western Washington's provost, Brent Carbajal, said the relationship with Study Group is the outgrowth of what he described as “a fairly long story of our frustration.”

“I would say easily through the last 10 years, through two or three presidents, the campus has articulated a campus priority of internationalization,” Carbajal said. “A variety of approaches had been taken here that were very unsuccessful in attracting international students, to the extent that even now we sit at 1 percent international enrollment at the university, which, given our geographic location [in the Seattle area] and values, is really unacceptable.”

“Succinctly put, our commitment to international has been long-standing and expressed in many different ways, and we felt like this partnership was going to be a way that we could reach those international enrollment goals. Understandably, as a state institution, we didn’t have the financial capacity to be doing our own recruitment.”

The Western Washington contract with Study Group has been controversial.

“This was done without anybody’s knowledge: the Faculty Senate was apprised of this a week after the administration had signed a 10-year contract with Study Group,” said Allison Giffen, the senate president and a professor of English. “That soured things enormously. Those in the administration involved, they gave us the reasons for why they didn’t tell us, none of which were very persuasive. I can only speculate that democracy’s messy and they didn’t want to be slowed down by the kind of careful work that is now quite needed.”

While there is some disputing of some of the details -- Carbajal said he discussed the contract prior to its signing in a meeting with faculty leadership over the summer, while Giffen says that's not the case -- Western Washington’s senior administration does not dispute the overall point that it failed to adequately involve faculty in the discussions about the Study Group contract. 

Western Washington’s president, Sabah Randhawa, sent an open letter in which he said he made assumptions about the degree to which faculty had vetted the topic during previous conversations with another company -- which fell through -- and apologized for “not engaging our faculty colleagues more directly in conversations about the partnership with the Study Group.”

"The way this all kind of developed, faculty were involved with conversations with another company that we had to campus, but negotiations with that company very quickly deteriorated when the political situation in the country changed," Carbajal said. "Then in order to really move forward, in order to sign a contract with a provider, a lot of that conversation unfortunately ended up taking place over the summer and very quickly, given that this is kind of a partnership that needed to be implemented understanding that there are other schools that wanted to be in partnerships as well."

Faculty have had lots of questions. In a January Faculty Senate meeting, Western Washington professors posed questions to a Study Group representative about things like control over admissions decisions, the role of agents in recruiting students and the kind of training that Study Group provides to those agents, and whether changes could be made to the admission standards outlined in the contract, according to meeting minutes.

The contract, which was obtained by the Faculty Senate, stipulates that the university will pay Study Group a flat $5,000 fee, split over the first three quarters of a student's time at Western, for students it recruits for direct admission into Western programs. A $5,000 fee represents almost a quarter of Western's 2017-18 out-of-state undergraduate tuition rate of $20,760: for context, many consider a commission rate equal to 10-15 percent of first-year tuition to be fairly standard across the international student recruitment industry.

For students Study Group recruits into the new Western pathway programs, the company is entitled to a share of tuition revenue both for the pathway year and after students matriculate as regular degree-seeking students into Western according to the following schedule:

Percentage of Tuition Paid to Study Group

  Pathway Year Year 2 Year 3 Year 4
Undergraduate Pathway 57% 25% 10% 0%
  Quarter 1 Quarter 2 Quarter 3 Quarter 4
Graduate Pathway 45% 33% 15% 0%

Giffen, the Faculty Senate president, said there’s no question Western Washington needs to internationalize. But she said it’s not just about head counts of international students. And she’s uncomfortable with public universities entering into these kinds of tuition-sharing agreements with private corporations.

“I don’t really frankly understand why we need them, especially the on-campus part,” she said. “The administration says we don’t have the resources or skills that we need to do the recruiting they do around the world. I’m not persuaded of that myself personally, but rather than give them all the money, why don’t we take the money and build our own [intensive English program] up and do it ourselves?

“And the issue that’s emerged repeatedly in Faculty Senate is a concern, kind of an ethical concern, about what we’re doing for our Washington State students for whom English is not a first language,” Giffen continued. “Those students would benefit dramatically from things like the kinds of support systems that pathways are offering.”

“The students who get that stuff are the students who are paying enormous sums of money. What are we doing for our own state students, who we have a mission to serve?”

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