Face Forward: New Strategies For An Intensive English Program In Uncertain Times
News headlines, such as “US IEP sector experiences second year of declines,” and “With international student enrollment declining in the US, intensive English programs feel the pinch,” give an ominous message to continuing education units across the country, including ours. At University of Washington Continuum College, our International and English Language Programs (IELP) is one of the largest, most established and successful intensive English language programs of its kind in the United States. We help undergraduate and graduate students improve their English language skills, prepare for further study in the United States and learn about American culture, business and other subjects.
We love what we do and we believe in our mission, but like our colleagues in higher ed across the country, we can’t deny it: The outlook for Intensive English Programs (IEPs) is not good. Trend lines for IEPs are headed in one direction: down. The facts reveal that the steady enrollment decreases that began in December 2015 have continued to decline, down 38 percent over the past three years.
There have been tough times in our IEP community before. We saw declines after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the SARS epidemic in 2003, but this latest downturn feels different—less fleeting, less temporary. In the past three years, we’ve seen the confluence of multiple factors that have caused a slowdown: the loss of international scholarship programs; the rise of English language programs offered closer to home or in-country; and the advancement of technology, which has improved capabilities for online language learning and cultural exchange.
Additional factors include the emergence of private-sector technology companies that are providing sophisticated learning management systems and promising affordable English language eLearning experiences, the high dollar valuation and cost of attending IEPs, and the increasingly less-than-welcoming environment for international students in the United States. Like many industries and the higher education landscape in general, the tides are turning and the future of US-based English language programs is in uncharted territory. We are no longer asking ourselves when our enrollments will bounce back; now, we are asking how long we can keep our ship afloat.
Our program is part of a very large public university, and we have often relied on the strength of that brand to attract students. Our approach to addressing enrollment downturns has reflected general decision-making in the academy—it has been slow and analytical. We have reluctantly reduced administrative staff through attrition, reduced our full-time instructional staff at the end of each academic year, and made small cuts to expenses in the hopes of downsizing our way to sustainability. We turned our focus toward short-term, customized English language programs in the hopes that the revenue they generate would make up for IEP losses.
After three straight years of enrollment declines, it is clear that familiar problem-solving approaches—reducing staff through attrition, shrinking our number of full-time instructional staff and cutting expenses—are not working. Drastic times call for drastic measures, or at least new thinking. As a leadership team, we decided that it was time to look outside academia for new ideas to reinvigorate our IEP. We’re not a business and don’t want to be, but if we began to think more like a business, would it help? Could we find strategies to face new challenges with more confidence and creativity?
Entrepreneur and author Tom Panaggio’s article on specific ways to save your business in a disaster infused new thinking into our strategy for the future of UW’s IEP. Here is how we are approaching the problem using Panaggio’s six guideposts:
- Look in the Mirror
Panaggio posits that success ultimately rests with the leadership of any organization and that reluctance to change is the single biggest reason that businesses fail. These sentiments resonated with us. While we had made some small changes, we were operating in the same fundamental way, using safe and familiar strategies to address enrollment declines.
To address this, we set goals in three broad areas: customer satisfaction, program health and employee engagement. We defined subsets for each area, and for each subset we collected baseline data, determined targets and identified measurables. We created dashboards to measure our progress and made tough decisions about where to cut and where to invest. We are now, as Panaggio puts it, playing to win, rather than playing not to lose.
- Don’t Be a Prisoner of Hope
When the downturn in enrollments started three years ago, we were guilty of waiting for a bounce-back. We kept to the status quo in our operations and cautiously waited for things outside of our control to turn around. Now, we have accepted that there is a new, completely unpredictable and uncertain normal. This normal is also full of opportunities for us if we can break out of our old mindset. This thinking has propelled us to put all ideas on the table, to re-think how we operate, and to explore new ways to enrich the international community.
- Know Who You Are
According to Panaggio, “Knowing who you are is key in a competitor-filled market fighting to capture and maintain market share, no matter what your business does.” Our IEP faces fierce local competition from a strong community college system that offers much of what we do at a lower cost. In order to better communicate our unique value proposition to students and partners and offer reasons why they should choose our IEP over others, we are rebranding. The exploratory process of rebranding will help us identify what sets us apart from other IEPs in the region and will help us craft our story—one that gives honor to the years gone by, but also presents who we want to be in the years to come.
- Keep Marketing
Although cutting expenses has been foremost in our practices, over the next year we are investing in an outside marketing consultant to help us build our digital marketing presence and enrollment management strategy. We are building a new website and student communication strategy that will include an audience assessment and CRM optimization plan. We will use more sophisticated approaches to student acquisition and enrollment management, rather than relying primarily on the brand of our university (Panaggio characterizes this as, “Marketing is an investment, not an expense.”) These investments will keep us competitive with the technology companies that want to move into our space.
- Know Your Customer Experience
In the past, we made decisions based on what we thought students wanted or needed. This included our decision-making about course offerings, our student services, and student activities. We never really “stood in our own line,” as Panaggio suggests, or felt what it would be like to be a student applying for, enrolling in, and participating in our programs. Our strategic planning process this year pushed us to find ways to learn about our learners’ experiences from the time they demonstrate interest in our programs through to program completion.
- Embrace Risk
This year, UW Continuum College IELP leadership will spend a great deal of time gathering information about the needs of our students and partners. We will make difficult decisions about what work to continue and what to stop. We will develop adjacency strategies for alternative or complementary program offerings, and extension strategies for our existing programs, such as adapting programs for specific audiences (i.e. programs for older learners, 40+, and/or younger learners, 15 to 18 years). We will also develop new alliances and partnerships and take steps to improve our customer (student) experience.
This new climate is requiring us to take risks and reinvent ourselves. We are looking outside academia for ideas and solutions that can help us adapt to and address our new landscape. We have decided that, instead of falling victim to an uncertain future, we will face what lies ahead, straight on, face forward.
Author Perspective: Administrator