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English Language Programs and International Student Recruitment

English Language Programs and International Student Recruitment
International English language programs can provide institutions with new pathways to enroll the growing numbers of international students looking to earn a degree from an American institution.
The teaching of English in a systematic fashion began with Berlitz in 1890 and, within a decade, there were Berlitz Schools in 16 European countries, and then offshoots (instructors mostly) of Berlitz started their own schools. Universities’ extension units began offering English as a Foreign Language programs, such as Columbia University Extension in 1911. Standalone English language teaching divisions came into existence around 1941, initially providing instruction to graduate students and professionals. Canadian universities (such as the University of New Brunswick and Queen’s University) also began offering these courses in the 1940s.

More proprietary schools — which offered English education as a business — were created in both the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1950s and in Canada in the 1960s. Industry associations, such as the American Association of Intensive English Programs and the University and College Intensive English Programs, started to appear in the 1960s to develop common standards and a level of professionalism. Lastly, the Commission on English Language Accreditation (CEA) was formed in 1999 as a specialized accrediting agency “for improving the quality of English language teaching and administration through accepted standards.”[1]

Today, there are thousands of English language programs throughout the world of varying quality and size. The globalization of our economy brings new opportunities for enrollments and programs. Higher education institutions seeking to attract non-native English speaking international students find that having an established intensive English program (IEP) is an excellent way to recruit and nurture students interested in enrolling in academic programs.

Students attending IEPs are in class for a minimum of 18 hours per week and usually longer. Students can attend for short periods of time, but most attend for at least a semester, if not more (that is, four weeks or up to 18 months). Consequently, instructors get to know the students well and the daily contact provides a powerful evaluative tool regarding the prognosis of the students for academic work. Unless they are subject matter experts, instructors cannot know how well a student will do in his or her discipline. However, good student behaviors — diligence, perseverance, critical thinking, motivation, attitude, timeliness, meeting deadlines, work ethic and commitment — are indicators of academic success.

Generally, IEP administrators work closely with university admission officers and graduate departments regarding the progress students are making in the language program. Some students are conditionally admitted to academic programs on main campus subject to meeting proficiency standards. Others come early (usually in the summers) for a pre-academic program whereupon research skills are refreshed. Students who have spent time in the IEP with the intent to matriculate into the same institution for their academic program are able to acculturate and adapt to the institutional setting whilst in the IEP. They are able to meet with faculty and academic advisors before the start of term. Therefore, when they begin their academic program, they have taken care of their logistical and personal needs and are ready to ‘hit the ground running.’

The size of the IEP varies dramatically across the country. Large programs such as that of San Diego State University have 1,000 students or more. Mid-size programs such as at the University of Delaware range from 500 to 600 students. At Syracuse University, the program is smaller, with around 150 students. Irrespective of the size, the universities hosting these programs find them to be an asset serving the recruitment pipeline, supporting retention and generating revenue.

Continuing education is not the only unit that hosts IEPs. These programs can also be situated in English departments or linguistics/language departments — usually in colleges of arts and sciences — under the umbrella of international programs or sometimes in the student affairs portfolio.

Finally, there are some non-outsourced approaches to IEP. For example, Berlitz-owned English Language Services (ELS) has university- and community college-based centers as well as various centers serving regions and localities. IEP students have access to those facilities and ELS has articulation agreements with the institutions. Another arrangement is found in pathway programs with companies such as Navitas (see UMass-Boston) or INTO (see University of Oregon or University of South Florida) that work in concert with the host institution to recruit international students into intensive English courses as well as academic courses providing a two- to three-semester experience which can be equivalent to one year of a bachelor’s degree (if the student is deemed academically eligible and subject to the student’s initial English proficiency). These partnerships are generally contractual agreements that require long-term investment and commitments.

Ultimately, IEPs support the development of new and highly lucrative enrollment streams for institutions looking to access new student marketplaces.

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[1] “About CEA,” Commission on English Language Program Accreditation. Accessed at