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Equipping Adult ESL Students For Equitable Placement In The United States

Given the importance of effectively communicating in English for completing educational programs and finding work, colleges and universities should have systems in place to make sure their adult ESL students have resources available to learn the language. Photo by Sergio Villalobos.

While studying abroad may seem like a simple business transaction for many receiving schools in the US, for international students it is not. Students are complex individuals who bring different backgrounds and methods of learning to the classroom. For adult English as a Second Language (ESL) students, in particular, their experience and uniqueness in the age of globalization becomes more prevalent. Even though government policies regard foreign students as an asset to the classroom, upon graduation, the majority of international students are expected to return to their countries. However, after spending approximately four years of their lives in the US, foreign-born students have had more than enough time to become acclimated to the country; this means many international students reside in the US after graduation, especially if they find jobs, a life-long companion, and a place to call home. Since this is often the case, higher learning institutions need to take the time to teach adult ESL students how to effectively write in English, especially since they usually pay more tuition than local students and may settle in the US after graduation.

Although some ESL students excel in science, engineering, and math, and may even perform better than local students, they sometimes do not have the ability to write a proper research paper at their level of study; and this should not be ignored. Some states, like California, Texas, and New York, have had a long history and allegiance to foreigners, and thus, over time their higher learning institutions have become hubs for international students. At an average campus Writing Center in the New York City, for example, ESL students are frequent patrons. Some of them understand the importance of writing effectively in English and genuinely want to develop this skill, but some of them visit because their professors could not be bothered with such tedious issue. In fact, some professors entice ESL students with extra points or a higher grade if they could provide a signed note from the Writing Center tutor. But too often the Writing Center is used as a tool for damage control, and the student is not learning how to effectively write since he or she is only concerned about that stipulated higher grade.

While professors may be restricted by time or other constraints, and cannot review the fundamentals of writing, they do expect their students to have a command of writing in English, especially when the class is content focused. It is necessary, therefore, that higher learning institutions provide a safety-net for non-English speaking foreign students, other than the Writing Center and sporadic ESL workshops. Much debate surrounds how to handle the English writing skills of ESL students, including allowing them to “write with an accent” since many languages have fixed verbs, unlike English. However, that can be problematic and raises a host of concerns: first, how far are educators willing to bend the writing rules for ESL students? In other words, what is the threshold for accepting bad grammar and poor essay structure? And second, organizations usually hire the best students, and expect that their employees have excellent verbal and written communication skills. This means, all students, international or not, must be able to write well in English.

Apart from having limited language readiness resources at some higher learning institutions, international students usually pay significantly more than in-state students for the same education. In New York an international student’s tuition costs almost twice as much as local residents. According to a February 2012 New York Times article, in some states, like Washington, international students at the state university pay three times as much as in-state students. At the same time, local students pay significantly less, or get a free ride, particularly if they receive financial aid. The same NYT article also stated that international students contribute a significant $21 billion dollars to the national economy each year and that contribution will only grow as schools increasingly continue to offer admissions to international students. According to Open Doors data published by the Institute of International Education, 32 percent more international students study in the US than there were a decade ago. Furthermore, the number of international students studying in the US increased by almost five percent during the 2010/2011 academic year from the previous year. Obviously, the internationalization of higher learning institutions is a thriving business transaction for both schools, local economies, and the government.

The issue here is that many ESL students are not receiving a fair trade at some higher learning institutions. They pay significant tuition costs and expect to have the foundation of any college degree – how to write an effective, relevant research paper at the college level. And while some of their English skills may improve during college, sometimes it is not up to the standard of the professional world, and thus, some institutions are truly setting up foreign students for failure. Subsequently, higher learning institutions are pumping out a host of sub-par language ready graduates, which has consequences, since some ESL students continue to reside in the US after graduation.

As borders among countries and across seas continue to become blurred, and higher learning institutions continue to accept an increasing number of international students, these institutions need to be more deliberate about providing language readiness resources for ESL students. There is a widespread belief in the US that internationalization is the key to our future, and while this may be true on many fronts, the questions remain at whose cost, and how much are we willing to compromise in order to remain one of the leading nations in the world?

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