NAFSA research on landscape of third-party pathway partnerships in the US

A recent report released by NAFSA: Association of International Educators aims to understand the scope of third-party pathway partnerships in the context of the US higher education and the viewpoints of international educators on these partnerships. The purpose was to establish a baseline of evidence on an evolving partnership model with private providers for international student enrollment.

Dr. Rahul Choudaha of DrEducation was the principal investigator of this commissioned research project entitled Landscape of Third-Party Pathway Partnerships in the United States. He was also the principal investigator of NAFSA's previous research report--Bridging the Gap: Recruitment and Retention to Improve International Student Experiences.

Here is the related coverage:
New study explores US educators’ views on pathway partnerships, ICEF Monitor
US HE: quality concerns main reason for eschewing pathways, The PIE News
Perceptions of pathway programs, Inside Higher Ed
• Slides from NAFSA presentation

NAFSA research on third-party partnerships for international student enrollment by DrEducation


While traditional Intensive English Programs have been existing for a long time, pathway programs offered by private providers in the US started are a relatively recent trend. The program started almost a decade back around the global financial recession. This research focuses on privately-run ESL pathway programs with credit bearing courses linked to partnering universities.

The research was conducted in two primary phases.

Phase One: To identify characteristics of institutions partnering with third-party pathway providers based on analysis of publicly available data, review of literature, websites of providers, and related news articles. There were 45 institutions partnering with eight third-party providers as on  April 1, 2016.

Phase Two: To examine the reasons and considerations for working with third-party pathway providers by collecting primary data through focus groups and survey of NAFSA institutional members. The survey yielded a response rate of 14.7 percent from 347 international educators from 261 institutions.

Highlights from Phase One
  • 374 institutions in the US enrolled more than 500 international students in Fall 2014. Only 27 (4%) of them were in partnership with a third-party pathway provider as on April 1, 2016. 
  • 39 partnering institutions enrolled 56,560 international students in fall 2014, representing 6% of all international students in the US (data for six institutions was unavailable). Enrollment data of international students in specific pathway programs was unavailable. 
  • Most of the public institutions in partnership were large in terms of enrollment (17 institutions had enrollments of 10,000 and above). There are 161 universities in the United States that meet these characteristics, so 11 percent of them are working with third-party pathway providers.
  • Most of the private institutions were comprehensive master’s colleges and universities (10 institutions had enrollment between 1,000 and 9,999). There are 376 colleges and universities in the United States that meet these characteristics, so less than 3 percent of them are working with third-party pathway providers.
Highlights from Phase Two

Top reasons cited for partnering with third-party pathway providers 
  • To access recruitment network of pathway provider
  • To expand enrollment of international students at the bachelor’s level
  • To improve yield of international enrollment
  • To make up for lack of in-house expertise
  • To enhance diversity of international enrollment
Top reasons cited for not partnering with third-party pathway providers 
  • Fear of loss of academic standards
  • Concern for loss of control of international admissions process
  • University-governed intensive English program is working well
  • Terms of contract with provider (i.e., length and cost)
  • Prefer to develop in-house expertise
Considerations cited for working with third-party pathway providers
  • Define academic qualifications and preparation of students
  • Ensure transparency of recruitment practices
  • Align with institutional goals and culture 
  • Involve campus stakeholders during decisionmaking
  • Understand key responsibilities of institution versus provider 
The report contains several cross-tabs which illustrate the how these findings differ by institutions currently in partnership and those who are not. It also provides a mapping of the institutions and third-party providers by various institutional characteristics like enrollment, selectivity, location etc. Click here to download report.

Given the reality of the financial pressures that many higher education institutions are facing, there is an increasing interest in expanding international student enrollment. This research is one of the first efforts conducted in the US to understand the scope and viewpoints of international educators on third-party pathway partnerships. This is the beginning of efforts to uncover more evidence and insights that can support informed decisions which have high impact on campuses communities including students, staff and educators.