With the rise of COVID-19, universities across the world are struggling to convert to online-based programs. Systems are crashing, professors are struggling to maximize teaching potential, and most of us are just wondering: can an online education really work? Enter Kim B. Clark: founder of an incredibly successful online university. While Clark’s work existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, we can still glean important lessons from his success.
Kim Clark is an avid scholar who studied at Harvard University and graduated with a BA, MS, and PhD in economics. Clark later joined the Harvard faculty and ultimately earned the position of Dean of the Harvard Business School. After 10 years as dean, he left Harvard to serve as the president of BYU-Idaho. It was there that Clark set out to design what would ultimately become one of the world’s most successful online universities: BYU-Pathway Worldwide. In his keynote address at our Global Perspectives Summit, Kim Clark shares his experience with how online education can not only work; it can thrive. He explains why he created BYU-Pathway and the key features that fostered its explosive growth and astonishing results.
From the beginning of his term as president of BYU-Idaho, Clark had a vision. The idea to take education “beyond the campus” resonated with him. “I had a picture in my mind,” he recounts, “I saw BYU-Idaho playing a role in taking education beyond the campus to people all across the world. We set out to reinvent higher education.” So Clark got to work creating a team whose focus was simple: take education to people who don’t have that opportunity.
BYU-Pathway didn’t begin as an international university; it began as an extension of BYU-Idaho. Clark and his team wanted to start domestically by collecting data and testing their new program in the US before expanding globally. They began by interviewing college-age students across the US and planned to collect market research internationally later. Clark wanted to better understand the challenges his target market faced in attending college: Why weren’t they in school? What was keeping them from attending?
Two results stood out with a surprising frequency: fear and cost. Fear generally manifest itself as a fear of failure. Often, a high school counselor or family member had convinced students that they simply weren’t “college material.” Financially, the idea of paying even an extra $10,000 a year was simply unfathomable to many would-be students.
With these limitations in mind, Clark and his team set out to create a program designed to eliminate both of those barriers. There were no GPA requirements, no graduation requirements, and no church attendance requirements. From day one, the focus was not to turn a profit. “We are not in this business to generate revenue for BYU-Idaho,” Clark explains. “We are in this business to create access, and to bless the lives of the students. If you’re willing to try, we want you to come in.”
BYU-Pathway has three main differentiating features: cost, community, and certificates. From the beginning, BYU-Pathway’s main differentiating feature was its affordability.
True to form, this college education gave opportunities to students for whom cost had been the main prohibiting factor. Its cost began in the US at $65 per credit hour, approximately 25% of the cost of competing online programs. Internationally, BYU-Pathway’s participant cost is subsidized by its affiliate church so that the price for students reflects the country’s level of income. In Haiti, Clark explains, the price per credit hour for students would be about $3-5, as Haiti is a country with a relatively low GDP.
The second differentiating factor, community, Clark created by working through local church organizations. By leaving the administration to these local leaders (with the teaching done entirely online by BYU-Idaho professors), Clark was able to establish a cohort-based system—this was how they would tackle students’ fears. Within this system, students would study on their own, but meet periodically with leaders and fellow students to go over what they’d learned and discuss their educational goals. This system provided students what a traditional online education could not: community, engagement, and hope.
Being socially engaged gave these students opportunities to stretch themselves outside of a strictly academic setting. By embedding the administration within local church systems, the oversight and care for the students became part of the local ministry itself. Leaders tended to take a more personal interest in the students, thereby fostering deeper bonds and an even greater sense of community, which further prompted students to perform well. Though the local administration took no part in the academic studies of students (this responsibility remained with their professors at BYU-Idaho), their concern in students’ progression played a key role in motivating students to perform.
Clark also introduced the concept of pre-degree certificates through Pathway. Certificates are the keystone in the unique, year-long academic preparation program that students—who have historically struggled with traditional education—are required to take before being given an opportunity to transition to BYU-Idaho to pursue a higher degree. Scoring a B-average in that first-year gains students automatic acceptance to BYU-Idaho.
Proudly, he explains that he believes these certificates to be one of the key factors of the BYU-Pathway students’ success. A certificate within the Pathway program represents a collection of about five courses that a student must complete before moving into a degree program. Students are encouraged to choose a track of courses that interests them—and these can be in just about any field of study. Students must then complete these courses before beginning their traditional university studies.
“Instead of going right into general education,” Clark explains, “you’re working on stuff you’re interested in, you’re gaining skills that you can market, and you’re gaining confidence.” And that confidence turned out to be a huge step for Pathway students. Clark and his team found that requiring the certificate first led to dramatically increased persistence to a degree on the part of the students. According to Pathway’s statistics report, 93% of students who earned a certificate either chose to continue schooling or reported improved employment.
Domestic and international expansion
BYU-Pathway launched in the United States in September of 2009. Clark shares with us, laughing at the memory, that only one month after Pathway’s domestic launch, he felt the strong need to go back to the drawing board, expand the program, and take Pathway worldwide! They had no data, and were certainly apprehensive, but the mission to create access and bless lives prevailed. To those acquainted with the workings of business, this proposition likely sounds absurd—as it did to Clark and his team. It is worth noting that BYU-Idaho is led largely in conjunction with its affiliate church, and making decisions on the basis of divine inspiration is not uncommon. This was one such instance. At the insistence of Clark’s impression that he needed to take Pathway abroad, Clark and his team performed a brief study, presented a proposal to the board (composed mainly of church leaders), and soon received approval to expand BYU-Pathway into a global program with trial locations in Ghana and Mexico.
Clark describes the next several months as a learning process—learning about training local volunteers, preparing students better, communicating better, and improving the curriculum. Overall, Clark tells us, it was an incredibly successful and rewarding experience. In 2009, about 450 people were enrolled. By 2011, Pathway had 1,639 students—a 264% increase in enrollment. And by 2015, enrollment had increased again by an astonishing 1640%, totaling 28,523 students. According to projections, Pathway can expect well over 50,000 students by the fall semester 2020—over an 11,000% increase in just 11 years! To put these statistics into perspective, BYU-Idaho itself only enrolled 24,004 students winter semester 2019. To date, BYU-Pathway Worldwide teaches in 150 countries worldwide and plans to continue to expand both internationally and domestically.
In a world filled with universities of all kinds, Clark and his team discovered a new, innovative approach to higher education. By breaking into research teams, reaching out, and talking to the marginalized and forgotten, they were able to identify an entire market of individuals and not only build a successful university, but also create positive change in the lives of those individuals. The low cost, while it minimizes profit margins, has also allowed Pathway to reach a massive market that would have otherwise remained untouched.
By relying on local church volunteers to meet with students, Clark was able to reduce those costs. These volunteers also maximized opportunities for students to be involved with individuals who care about their lives and success. BYU-Pathway’s unique certificate system, with its automatic bridge to a full-time university program, gives otherwise ignored students an opportunity they would never have dared to dream of—thus the exploding enrollment and equally impressive rates of graduation.
In closing, Clark shares a few of his thoughts on the program and its growth. “Over the years,” he says, “of course the program has grown significantly. But we’ve never lost sight of why we did it. We were trying to reach out to people who didn’t have opportunities.” Clark’s words to us are simple, but echo with the driving motivation behind all of BYU-Pathway worldwide: “I hope that people can understand how powerful education is in the lives of people everywhere—but especially people who have not had any hope. It’s one of the most powerful things that education does—it gives people hope.”
To watch our entire interview with Kim Clark and learn more about the innovative structure of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, follow our link here.