Published on 2015/08/12

Three Differentiators That Help IEPs Stand Out From The Crowd

The EvoLLLution | Three Differentiators That Help IEPs Stand Out From The Crowd
Success in the international intensive English language program marketplace relies on institutional prioritization, physical location and quality instruction.

In the more than thirty years I have devoted to the field of English as a Second Language (ESL), the role and status of Intensive English Programs (IEPs) have changed profoundly. In the 1980s, IEPs were relegated to hand-me-down space no other program wanted: dank basements or musty attics. ESL faculty were, for the most part, poorly paid adjuncts to whom security, promotion and living wages were denied. The quality of space and the status of faculty in those days accurately reflected the standing of IEPs in institutional priorities—unsupported and unnoticed, perceived as irrelevant to the university mission, and a footnote on the last page of the organizational chart—if it appeared at all.

The sudden growth and rise to prominence of many IEPs on university campuses, particularly in the last five years, provide three key lessons for administrators who want their ESL programs to stand out in a very competitive market.

1. Location, Location, Location

Where is your IEP “located” in your university’s strategic vision? Is it considered integral to a plan to internationalize the campus and prepare all graduates to be global citizens? Is it a critical conduit for international student admissions as the result of conditional admissions or pathways programs? If the IEP does figure into the university’s globalization plan, is that strategic position in the mission and vision of the institution reflected in its location on the organizational chart?

Compelling arguments can be made for locating IEPs within academic colleges (where the majority of university-governed programs are housed), offices of professional and continuing education, or international student services offices. The right choice for your university depends on which reporting unit is in the best position to advocate for the IEP by advancing its mission, promoting its growth, and creating collaborative partnerships with the key academic and service offices necessary to support ESL students and ensure their success and well being.

Wherever the IEP ends up on the organizational chart, ensure that its director has sufficient stature and access to key decision makers to be effective and nimble. For me, this means the IEP director should report directly to a dean, vice provost, or comparable senior administrator.

2. (Physical) Location, Location, Location

Location also refers to the physical placement of the IEP, and that’s the second principle all universities with large, widely respected IEPs follow: assigning programs excellent facilities located near the heart of campus. Any strategic plan incorporating IEPs to foster campus internationalization must focus on ways to promote international student engagement in the life of campus and cross-cultural interaction among domestic and foreign students.

A centrally located IEP facility with inviting, open space for receptions, programming and special events can prove to be a natural draw for matriculated American students to meet internationals and an ideal venue for the university as a whole to hold international and multi-cultural celebrations. A well appointed IEP building with state-of-the art instructional technology will be a critical draw for future ESL applicants as well, sending a clear message that English language learners are valued by the university.

3. Instructional Excellence

Finally, your IEP’s reputation will ultimately be determined by the quality of instruction for which it will become known. To attract the best and brightest ESL professionals in a competitive market, your university will have to offer attractive salary and benefit packages, as well as a defined career ladder. Increasingly, ESL specialists regard their discipline as part of the academy and as such, increasingly reject the classification of staff, finding faculty appointments (even if non-tenure track) to be far more attractive. The hiring of adjuncts should be the exception, rather than the norm. Ongoing curriculum and course development within an IEP require the continuity that only a core of full-time faculty can provide. Moreover, the reputation of your IEP will spread in proportion to the number of your faculty members who have the opportunity to attend and present at national conferences—as well as the incentives and release time to publish in professional journals within ESL and innovate in the classroom.


What IEPs lacked three decades ago—excellent facilities, full-time faculty appointments commanding good salaries, and strategic placement on the university’s organization chart and planning document—are now critical to attracting students and sponsors and for establishing a strong reputation in the field. In short, universities need to invest in their IEPs, as they would any other highly prized academic unit, if they intend such programs to yield the dividends of higher international student enrollments and strong tuition revenues.

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Readers Comments

Polly South 2015/08/12 at 3:11 pm

I’m not entirely sold on the idea of IELP instructors being on the same level as the more conventional academic instructors. I do think it’s actually to the program’s benefit that it can still distinguish itself with different goals and methods.

    Wilma Roberts 2015/08/13 at 11:32 am

    Why not? Professors teaching any other language on campus is working within an academic department teaching “conventional” academic courses. Why should ESL be different? These instructors are preparing students for the language in which they’ll take their whole degree should they choose to matriculate. Most other languages taught on campus are only used for courses in their specific department.

Morgan Hendrie 2015/08/12 at 4:20 pm

The point about basically using your IELP facility as a kind of international house is a great idea. Not only can it be a point of gathering for the students in the program but it can also be a meeting point for those students and other international students already enrolled in academic programs, and for all of those students to meet their domestic peers.

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