It’s been a rough few years for English-language programs. Even before Covid-19 struck, enrollments had been in decline. Between 2015, when enrollments hit a high, and 2019, the number of intensive-English students in the United States dropped nearly 44 percent, according to Open Doors — and then bottomed out during the pandemic.
Budgets for the programs, which are typically self-sustaining, took a beating, too. “Everyone was slashed,” said Lisa Kraft, director of academics and international special programs at Pace University’s English-language institute.
Still, at last week’s EnglishUSA meeting, the phrase I heard repeated was “cautious optimism.” A majority of attendees reported a “modest increase” in enrollments in a spot poll, and there was excitement about the Biden administration’s “renewed commitment
” to international education.
Ahead of the meeting, I talked to a half-dozen English-program administrators across the country about the issues, the challenges, and the opportunities for intensive English:
Is online programming here to stay? Most programs are now back to face-to-face or hybrid instruction, but the shift to online learning during Covid could stick around. At Pace, Kraft said she and her colleagues had long wanted to offer online courses but “we never could really push it and didn’t think there was a market for it.” The pandemic showed that interest was there, she said.
Caroline Gear, executive director of the International Language Institute of Massachusetts, said that online teaching made courses more accessible for some students, improving attendance rates. Her instructors plan to incorporate some of the tools of online teaching, such as using Google Classroom as a learning “hub,” into regular courses.
But Mark Algren, who recently retired as executive director of the Center for English Language Learning at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said many students still value face-to-face learning, especially for language study. “Language programs made quite an adjustment to the online, virtual environment,” he said, “but is it an inflection point? That’s anyone’s guess.”
Testing got a shake-up. With testing centers shut down, the pandemic ushered in an era of at-home language testing. Companies like Duolingo expanded aggressively into the academic English market, with many colleges announcing that they would accept such scores in admissions, at least temporarily. Established players like TOEFL quickly stood up at-home exams.
Patricia Juza, associate dean of student affairs and international programs at University of California at San Diego Extension, said the at-home exams offer convenience and access. “I think some newer platforms are here to stay because they are so popular,” she said. But online tests can also raise concerns about security as compared to in-person proctored exams. For Juza, though, the real issue is the reliability and validity of such newcomers. Colleges will need to track the academic outcomes of students over time to see if the new tests accurately predict classroom proficiency and first-year GPAs.
Covid also led to shifts in placement testing. Temple University’s Center for American Language and Culture began using platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp to do virtual interviews to assess English-speaking ability, said director Jacqueline McCafferty.
There’s a new focus on credentials and collaborations. The pandemic has opened the door to new partnerships. McCafferty is working with Temple’s online graduate certificate in global tourism to add an English-language component, tapping into a new openness to online learning and interest in stackable credentials. Integrating English into three more certificates could be in the works, she said. “We really see the potential of English-plus: English-plus-this, English-plus-that,” she said.
Other programs are looking beyond campus to expand their enrollment base. Pace had long had a special discount for au pairs to take classes, but began to offer it as a broader community rate, reaching out to local chambers of commerce and community organizations. Gear plans to hold free English classes for Afghan refugees in western Massachusetts.
Will the use of paid agents in international recruiting be expanded or curtailed? Cheryl Delk-Le Good of EnglishUSA said she has heard more of a “buzz” from English programs interested in working with agents. But one challenge will be vetting and building trusted relationships with on-the-ground recruiters when much admissions work continues to be virtual, she said.
On some campuses, intensive-English insittutes have using agents for years, even when their colleges don’t use them as part of regular undergraduate admissions. That’s made such programs particularly concerned about a provision in recently-approved veterans’ education legislation that appears to ban the payment of commissions
in overseas-student recruitment.