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US HE: quality concerns main reason for eschewing pathways

With international recruitment efforts growing at US universities, interest in forging pathway partnerships is rising – but many institutions are still wary of quality standards and giving over control over the admissions process to a third party, research commissioned by NAFSA has revealed.

Partnering with third party pathway providers allows higher education institutions to expand and diversify their international student intake, educators said in NAFSA's survey. Photo: Navitas.

“There is a segment of the population which feels concerned about: What does it mean for admissions standards?”

Adoption of pathway programs in the US has been slower than in competitor markets the UK and Australia, and NAFSA’s research aimed to create a clearer picture of US institutions’ perceptions of these programs.

“By definition, pathway programs are catering to a segment of students who need academic and English preparation help”

As of April 1, 2016, there were only 45 US institutions working with third-party pathway providers – 24 public and 21 private.

And of the 374 US higher education institutions that enrolled more than 500 international students in 2014/15, only 27 – 4% – had a partnership with a private pathway provider as of April 2016.

Of these 27 agreements identified, 17 were institutions that enrolled 10,000 or more students.

The research, which included a survey of 347 NAFSA members working with international students at US universities, shed light on some of the reasons institutions opt not to engage in pathway partnerships.

Just over a third of educators (35%) surveyed gave a preference for developing in-house expertise as one of these reasons, while just over half (52%) said simply their existing intensive English programs are working well.

But the biggest obstacle was a fear of losing academic standards – nearly two thirds (65%) of survey respondents said this was a concern.

Losing control of the admissions processes was also a major reservation for 56% of those who took part in the survey, and contract issues such as cost were a concern for 43%.

“There is a segment of the population which feels concerned about: What does it mean for admissions standards? What does it mean for my academic standards? Would it put the institutional and academic standards at any kind of risk?” noted Rahul Choudaha, principal researcher and CEO of DrEducation.

The main reason for this, he explained, is that “By definition, pathway programs are catering to a segment of students who need academic and English preparation help.”

“What it means is, you need to reach out to those students who are not already ready [to enrol in a bachelor’s program at a US university].”

Some staff believe that admitting these students may be “compromising some of the established admissions standards, because now they don’t necessarily have to go through the standardised test requirements,” he said.

“That’s where the value proposition of pathway programs is; they are providing that additional training”

However, he argued that enabling universities to reach this cohort of students that need some additional preparation is one of the major arguments for working with a pathway specialist.

“That’s where the value proposition of pathway programs is, because they are providing that one year of additional training, educational experience, cultural experience, so the student is ready to succeed,” he said.

This thinking is reflected in the survey responses when educators were asked to give their reasons for partnering with a third party provider.

The most commonly cited reason for partnering with a third party provider (given by 59% of respondents) was that it enables institutions to access that provider’s recruitment network, followed by the chance to expand their enrolment of undergraduate students (57%).

The positives of partnering also included improving the yield of international enrolment; enhancing the diversity of institutions’ international cohort; and making up for a lack of in-house expertise, educators said.

The report is the second phase of research on pathways commissioned by NAFSA, following its mapping of the sector released last year.

However, the study is “not the final word on this important subject”, it notes, saying that further research is needed on pathway partnerships in order to increase understanding of the impact of pathway programs, including looking at how educators’ concerns over quality correlate with real world outcomes.

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