Elder Clark G. Gilbert is a senior leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the commissioner of the Church Educational System. He recently related the following story:
At a recent editorial meeting highlighting religious universities, the response from one prominent education publication was: “We recognize some of your educational innovations, but we do not think they are tied to religious identity. They are simply evidence of good governance and talented people.” … Not only are religious schools innovating, but they are doing so because of their religious identity. Religious purpose can be the wellspring of innovation.
I know someone who agrees. The first thing he let me know was this: “Learning is a spiritual endeavor.”
The setting was a nondescript office building via Zoom. My interviewee was Brian K. Ashton, president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, which serves more than 60,000 students annually. As the name implies, students are found all over the world, and these students are often in countries that struggle with poverty or challenging labor markets. BYU-Pathway’s mission is simple: to develop disciples of Jesus Christ who are leaders in their homes, the Church, and their communities. President Ashton became president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide in 2021.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Public Square Magazine: What is the story of [BYU-Pathway] that you most want to tell? That is, if there were three things you want everyone to know about [BYU-Pathway], what are they?
President Brian K. Ashton: First, our students are phenomenal. They have grit. They have desire. We’re in over 180 countries. They speak multiple languages. They want to improve their lives.
But over half live in countries with broken labor markets. In Africa, there are enough seats in universities for only 9% of college-aged youth. Much of the world has so many fewer opportunities than we’re used to in the United States—not just Africa. Sometimes there is corruption—you have to know someone to get a good job. There just aren’t opportunities. Obviously, it’s not true universally—many countries have thriving labor markets—but in countries that struggle, our students face real uphill battles.
The good news is that there is an opportunity to hire these people. We call it “social impact staffing.” You can make a difference by hiring these wonderful young people because they will do good to you, and these jobs will do good to them. I want everyone to know and spread the word about these young people—who can make a difference in the world and for whom they can make a difference.
Second, I hope that everyone understands that [BYU-Pathway] is open to people of all faiths. You’re going to be asked to pray. You’re going to read scripture. But you do not have to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in order to be a part of BYU-Pathway. We believe that you learn truth more easily in a spiritual environment, of course, but church membership is not a requirement for enrollment in [BYU-Pathway].
Last, there is simply no better value in education. You’re going to get a high-quality education that gets the value up-front. The first things you’ll get are job skills, marketable and practical.
PSM: You said that this is fundamentally a spiritual endeavor. What do you mean by that?
BA: BYU-Pathway is first about the spiritual.
All truth is taught by the Holy Ghost. It doesn’t matter if it’s math or biology or language. It all comes through the Holy Ghost. We can make it harder or easier by our actions, but learning is spiritual. Doctrine and Covenants 130 teaches that there are laws involved. Study. Practice. Effort. Work. But we have to get the Holy Ghost in our lives if we really want to engage in learning.
And we can live in such a way that we make that process easier. We can live up to those laws—but ultimately, we want truth so we can become like our Heavenly Father.
If we’re going to be exalted, we must find truth.
Both the purpose and the method are spiritual. We learn by the Spirit, and we learn for spiritual ends.
PSM: You mentioned the certificate-first model. What is that?
BA: The certificate-first model is different from almost anything else in higher education. Students in [BYU-Pathway] take classes toward certificates. Everything is built to be practical and applicable. The certificates ensure that if they leave, they leave with something—and the certificates are stackable.
But our experience has been that the more applicable and applied we make it, the higher the rates of continuation in the program. Students can feel that it’s useful—and that builds motivation and engagement. There’s something to be said for a pragmatic approach: it just resonates differently with students—and they stay engaged at higher rates when they feel that what they are learning will be immediately applicable. When you give someone who hasn’t had the chance at education, who is eating two meals a day—on a good day!—they can see that there’s a shot at some real career success, and they can continue to improve themselves. They begin to value education. They want to keep going.
PSM: How do they get general education credits?
BA: There’s a certificate for that, too—but not until later on in the degree. The GE credits come at the end. Their first certificates are intended to be the most applicable of all.
PSM: What can other institutions copy from [BYU-Pathway]? What can’t they copy?
BA: Universities come to us all the time and want to copy it. I’ve already mentioned the certificate-first model. Certificate-first makes a lot of sense. When someone gets a first certificate, their persistence goes up considerably.
But there are other things. You can go online, for example. Other universities can absolutely lower costs. Most universities make a ton of money with online programming, and then they subsidize what is happening on campus. They worry that if they lower costs by using online delivery, they’ll devalue what is happening on campus. But that’s not the right way to think. Going internationally and providing programs that will help people? They could do that. But they won’t be able to if they don’t lower their costs dramatically. They are passing on a market that is incredibly important—to their bottom line and to the world—because they can’t find a way to lower their costs.
There is no reason why we couldn’t offer an incredibly high-quality higher education at a low cost to everyone on Earth.
There are things going on here that run much deeper than curriculum models.
Education has always been a scarce resource. The rich and very smart get to use it. It becomes exclusive. Education has traditionally been—I don’t want to say elitist, but for lack of a better term—education has traditionally been elitist. Even if it’s free, it’s those who are rich who can afford tutors and tuition and everything else.
We’ve really challenged ourselves to see what we can cut out and still keep the quality of the program the same. Just the building alone of a traditional campus is incredibly expensive—so we got rid of the buildings. Faculty and staff are critical, but they’re a major expenditure. So how can we keep the experience top-notch while finding new ways to do things?
The university model is [for the] “best and brightest,” and they leave out huge chunks of the population because of lack of resources. When you’re infinitely scalable, you can do things differently. You can let everyone in.
We’re democratizing higher education.
My brief experience with Brian Ashton has put me firmly in the camp of those who believe that innovation in the Church Educational System flows from the religious purpose of the institution. It is this spiritual vision that compels BYU-Pathway to rethink traditional models and find new ways to democratize higher education through online delivery, stackable certificates, and dramatically lower costs. The religious identity provides both the motivation and the means for innovation. When education is viewed not just as a transaction but as a spiritual journey of learning by the Holy Ghost and becoming disciples, it opens new possibilities.
BYU-Pathway Worldwide offers an inspiring example of what can happen when education is untethered from old constraints and anchored to a higher purpose. The innovations emerging from this religious identity are bringing life-changing opportunities to students around the globe. It is the spiritual vision that continues to drive BYU-Pathway’s push for progress, nothing else.
Or, as President Ashton has said in the past, “Learning is a Spiritual Endeavor.”