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Continued growth sparks BYU admissions changes, expansion of online church program

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Brigham Young University students make their way toward campus during the first day of classes for Fall Semester on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

It’s a classic example of supply and demand. As more members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints applied to the church’s flagship institution, Brigham Young University’s admission standards increased.

“I worked here for 20 years and I knew it had been a concern that each year the ACT and GPAs were continuing to go up,” said LoraLee Gardiner, the director of admissions at BYU. “What do we do when everyone looks the same?”

The church claims more than 16 million members, with a million more added every three years. Throughout that growth, BYU’s enrollment cap has remained at 30,000, although the university’s board of trustees authorized the university last year to explore moderately raising its enrollment cap, according to Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the university.

Admissions statistics and requirements vary by Church Educational System institution, which includes BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii. LDS Business College in Salt Lake City and the online program BYU-Pathway Worldwide, in addition to seminaries and institutes of religion.

BYU had an acceptance rate of 68.5% for the 2019 spring/summer/fall admission season, with 7,775 of 11,356 applicants being accepted, according to information from the university. The accepted students had an average GPA of 3.87 and an average ACT score of 28.6, almost eight points above the national average composite score.

Modern BYU students are also coming in with more Advanced Placement credit hours than in previous years. In 1995, freshmen in with 14.9 AP credit hours, according to a 2015 article published in BYU ScholarsArchive analyzing undergraduate grade trends at BYU. In 2013, freshmen had an average of 20.4.

BYU’s admissions department saw that upward rise, and knew that college acceptance was contributing to stress and anxiety in youth. Following a national trend, it began reevaluating its processes to place less emphasis only on scores and checked boxes on applications, and more on students as a whole. Meanwhile, a new program within the church has sought to help capture the tens of thousands of students who seek a church-based education, but haven’t had the opportunity to attend.

Adjusting admissions

BYU’s new admission process, Gardiner said, is meant to be more holistic.

She said focusing on a checklist approach to admissions disadvantages students who didn’t come from wealthy families and could filter out students who come from situations where they have to work to support their families, have parents with health issues or don’t have someone available to drive them to different activities.

“Some of the students who are aligned with the aims of a BYU education may come from circumstances that didn’t allow them to participate in those types of activities,” Gardiner said.

The university still admits a large number of students who have high academic qualifications, but the new process allows them to admit from a spectrum.

“We recognize that we want to bring students in who are prepared for that academic rigor, but we do admit a wide range of test scores, so you are more than the sum of your ACT and your GPA, and that is what we are really trying to emphasize with our students in admissions today,” Gardiner said.

That doesn’t mean the university has removed its emphasis on admitting high-achieving, academic students. Christian Faulconer, the executive director of enrollment services at BYU, said scores are used as a measure to see if a student will do well at the university.

“Everyone we admit we have predicted can succeed at the university,” he said.

The holistic approach is a shift from the recent checkbox mentality, where Faulconer said he heard from parents that students were doing things such as starting a club purely to write it on an application. Instead, admissions is looking for students who are participating in what they’re interested in, instead of what think admissions would like to see.

“We are looking for people who have authentic experiences, found things that they were passionate about, that were meaningful to them, and then they were able to do them well, without trying to second guess what we want,” he said.

The hope is even if students continue to check the boxes, they become passionate about service and other activities.

“What we hope is that if you decide to game the system, that the result of that game is that you become a better person,” Faulconer said.

Admissions realizes the intense pressure families can put on students to attend BYU. But that alone, Faulconer said, isn’t enough.

“Wanting to be here, and even being raised in BYU pajamas and having a BYU flag, really doesn’t set you apart that much from the rest of the applicants,” Faulconer said.

The university does not give preference to students whose parents, grandparents or other relatives attended.

“Honestly, that is not the reason to be here,” Gardiner said. “We don’t do legacy admits, so we are interested in hearing from the individual why do you want to be at BYU.”

What the university is looking for is students who align with its mission, such as those who want to do lifelong service, continue to be learners and are looking for a spiritually-strengthening experience.

In the last two years, BYU’s application stopped asking students to rank the Church Educational System campuses in order of where they’d like to attend and list why. Gardiner said students were applying to go to BYU just because it’s BYU — even when the university didn’t have the major the student was interested in.

She encourages students to answer essay prompts genuinely instead of writing what they think admissions wants to hear.

“Even as you read essays, it is pretty easy to tell when someone is trying too hard or when they are not being genuine,” Gardiner said.

The university continues to evaluate admissions procedures as the church grows. Faulconer said he doesn’t expect the process to be the same a decade from now, regardless of whether or not more students are applying. He said the university refines processes and pilots essays to assure certain populations don’t receive an unfair advantage.

BYU is also trying to add transparency to admissions and has added videos to its website addressing questions about the application process.

And in the wake of the college admissions bribery scandal, it doesn’t see something similar occurring there.

“I am really pleased that we already have a bunch of controls in place that would have prevented that from happening,” Faulconer said.

The online solution

The Church Educational System’s most popular higher education program isn’t BYU. It’s BYU-Pathway Worldwide, a little-known program that’s been out of pilot for fewer than 10 years and boasted an enrollment of 41,426 students last year.

The program started as a way to handle BYU-Idaho’s rapid growth and help students who couldn’t physically get to a church-owned university obtain a CES education. It exists to help what Clark Gilbert, the president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, refers to as the “hidden many.”

Gilbert said 40% of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. have a college degree, 20% started and didn’t complete one and 40% have never enrolled in college.

The result is 60% of Latter-day Saints who lack a college diploma.

“It does look obscure, but it is the majority of our membership,” Gilbert said.

BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s students aren’t deciding between it and BYU, or it and another CES school. Gilbert said 70% of surveyed BYU-Pathway Worldwide students were choosing between the program, or not going to college at all.

And while it does accept international students, it is only available in English, and most students are within the United States. It attempts to capture students whose barriers to higher education are price, their belief they wouldn’t be successful in school and physical distance between them and a CES campus.

BYU-Pathway Worldwide hopes to eliminate those constraints.

Students start off enrolled in Pathway Connect, a one-year program teaching study and life skills to prepare them for a degree, before moving to the certificate and degrees program through BYU-Idaho's online program.

Pathway Connect is priced at $73 a credit in the U.S. for Latter-day Saint students. It is $125 per credit in the U.S. for Latter-day Saint students pursuing a certificate and degrees. The cost for both programs is 25% more for non-member students.

“It is about half the price of most community colleges,” Gilbert said.

Typical requirements for admission aren’t required for Pathway Connect. Students don’t need to submit an ACT score, a transcript or have an ecclesiastical endorsement to start the program.

The program is designed to give students stackable credentials by first leading them through a certificate, an associate degree and then a bachelor degree.

Of its 41,426 students in 2018, 26,674 were in the skill-building PathwayConnect program, and another 18,089 were students seeking online degrees and certificates from BYU-Idaho.

The program includes weekly gatherings at more than 550 locations worldwide, where students meet in church buildings to receive social support and go through structured activities.

The program had 529 sites last year. Gilbert said more than 10,000 students and 22 sites are located in Utah.

“Utah is one of our fastest-growth areas in terms of the entire church,” he said.

Of those Utah students, 20% are Latino. System-wide, the median age of students is 30. About 59% of students are female.

“Especially here in Utah, it really is a resource to sisters going back and getting their education,” Gilbert said. “It really is a resource to Hispanics, and to underemployed adult men who are looking to retool themselves. It gives them an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Gilbert anticipates the program will have 45,000 students this year. Returning missionaries are pre-approved for the program.

The program doesn’t have sports, it doesn’t have educators or students perform research or offer graduate programs, all in efforts to keep costs low. It only offers courses with high student demand and high job placement. It uses volunteer missionaries and utilizes church buildings to keep infrastructure costs low.

“We don’t spend anything that doesn’t go to a student outcome,” Gilbert said

The program includes a mentoring team that reaches out when students hit a “stall point,” like not registering for a semester or going eight days without turning in an assignment.

The outcome, so far, has been a 75% retention rate from the first to second semester, 80% of students who have gotten more education for better employment and 94% who answered they’d grown their involvement with the church.

Gilbert said the program has boosted retention by teaching job skills first and getting to general education classes later.

“The worst thing you could do for a first-generation college student is to start them into courses that are hard and don’t seem very relevant,” Gilbert said.

It’s a design, he said, that is scalable. There’s currently no enrollment cap.

“The miracle of BYU-Pathway is that no matter where you live in the church, no matter what your academic or financial background, you have access to an affordable, spiritually-based education everywhere in the church,” Gilbert said.

It offers mini devotionals, similar to what occur weekly at CES schools. What makes it work, Gilbert said, is the religious component.

“When we teach people their divine potential, they become better students,” he said.

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