One Size Does Not Fit All: Assessing International ESL Program ProvidersBeth Lair | Associate Director of the English Language Learning Program, Loyola University Chicago
Hundreds of thousands of international students study in the United States each year. According to the 2014 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the number has increased to “a record high of 886,052 students in the 2013/2014 academic year.” Many of these students may want to strengthen their English language skills or want time adjusting to the classroom environment or educational system before they begin their university coursework. Other students may need to improve their English language skills before they can be admitted to an undergraduate or graduate program. In these cases, students must not only think about the university program and studies they wish to pursue but then also the type of ESL (English as a Second Language) program they wish to attend.
For some students, a private language school may be the best option. A private or proprietary school may be based on or near a university or college campus or they may be located in a separate office building. They typically have a curriculum that has been created or developed by a central office and taught by instructors in all of their ESL centers. This curriculum may focus on developing oral fluency but not necessarily writing skills. Private school instructors usually have experience teaching, especially overseas, but may not be required to have a master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). These schools have the advantage of being flexible in that they may accept new students on a rolling or continuous basis. Program sessions are typically shorter so that students feel they are progressing and making language improvements more quickly and if they need to repeat a course or level, they can do so in a shorter period of time. These schools might also have partnerships with colleges or universities in the area so that once students complete the highest level they may be eligible for admission at more than one university or college.
University-based ESL programs are another option and students are usually integrated into the campus community and have full use of the college or university services or facilities. They can join student organizations, attend campus events, live in the residence halls and use the dining halls, recreational centers, libraries, etc. This integration allows students to feel a part of the university or college and to practice English with the domestic students they meet on campus. The curriculum was designed by faculty and focuses on the academic skills students will need to be successful in their future university coursework. Instructors will have a master’s degree in TESOL or a closely related field in addition to having domestic and international teaching experience. Because these ESL programs are affiliated with the university, they will usually follow the university’s policies and calendar. If it is a semester calendar, students are usually only allowed to join the program at the start of the session, and if a student needs to repeat a course, they will need to retake that course for the duration of the semester. University-based ESL programs provide students with the necessary academic skills to be successful in any university program, but they typically will prepare students for studies and assist the students in matriculating into undergraduate or graduate programs at the home institute.
More recently, in order to internationalize as well as increase and diversify enrollments, some universities have opted to partner with corporate organizations for privatized pathway options. Whereas private schools and university-based programs have their separate objectives, agendas and niches in the marketplace, some universities have entered into joint ventures with corporate entities like INTO and Study Group among others, and the lines between these two distinct types of ESL programs have become blurred. These partnerships appeal to universities because their corporate partners have the expertise and capacity to recruit larger numbers of international students. In cases where the university has a pre-existing ESL program, the ESL program may be absorbed by the corporate entity, may work with the corporate entity to maintain services and standards, or may run alongside the private pathway program where they seem to be in competition with one another. These types of joint ventures will vary between universities and even in the partnerships with the same corporate entity.
With all of the options that students have when deciding on an ESL program, it’s important that they choose the best program for themselves and to consider each program’s distinct services. University-based ESL programs, such as the English Language Learning Program at Loyola University Chicago, have the advantage of being able to utilize the university’s resources and facilities as well as to encourage the authentic use of language by having our students interact with the campus community. It’s important to foster cross-campus partnerships by having university professors visit ESL classes and be guest lecturers, having university students volunteer to act as conversation partners, having the students attend campus tours or events, etc. Furthermore, an understanding between the ESL program and admissions office where completion of certain ESL requirements is sufficient demonstration of English proficiency for undergraduate and graduate studies can help to retain these students. University-based ESL programs have that advantage of the university relationship and it’s important for the ESL program to foster and strengthen those campus relationships for the enrichment of the student experience.