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An Overview of Common Challenges to Growing International Enrollment: The Role of IEPs

The EvoLLLution | An Overview of Common Challenges to Growing International Enrollment: The Role of IEPs
An Intensive English Program can help a university to transform its global presence, but there are some core obstacles standing in the way of IEPs fulfilling that potential.

This is the second installment of a two-part series by David L. Di Maria exploring the challenges facing international enrollment growth at colleges and universities today, and reflecting on the role an Intensive English Program (IEP) can play in helping to overcome these obstacles. In the first installment, Di Maria discussed some of the obstacles resource-constrained institutions face when trying to grow their international enrollments. In this second installment, he will outline what it will take for an IEP to help overcome those obstacles.

Intensive English programs serve to provide access to U.S. higher education for academically qualified students who require assistance in improving their level of English language proficiency in order to achieve specific academic objectives. Such programs are typically staffed by faculty and administrators who have extensive international experience, foreign language abilities as well as knowledge of second language acquisition and intercultural communication strategies. These professionals can assist with the development of training programs and resources for university faculty and staff charged with serving an increasingly diverse student body. Additionally, intensive English programs make the university’s programs accessible to more diverse populations, which can have a positive impact on future enrollments.

There are, of course, some fundamental challenges the IEP can face when it comes to truly realizing this role. Below are four common challenges involved with leveraging an intensive English program to serve in the enrollment pipeline:

1. Silos

Whether the intensive English program is housed within an academic unit, administered by a contracted third-party or managed by the international education office, there is a tendency for these programs to operate within a silo. The indicators of such isolation include separate applications for intensive English and academic programs as opposed to an integrated application, inability for intensive English students to access core campus services (e.g., housing and medical care) and failure of academic departments to recognize satisfactory completion of the intensive English program as a means of demonstrating the required English proficiency requirements.

2. Funding

While intensive English programs can serve as an excellent source of revenue for a university, it is important that an adequate amount of funding continue to be reinvested into the program. Such a model would ensure funding is available to support future international enrollment goals as well as prevent a gap from developing between needs and resources with regards to the ability to adequately serve current students. Failure to continually make adequate reinvestments into the intensive English program ultimately results in a parasitic model that is harmful to IEP students, staff and the broader university.

3. Staffing

IEP faculty and staff tend to hold part-time, fixed-term appointments and may work for more than one IEP in the area in order to make ends meet. Such a situation leads to frequent turnover and minimal engagement outside of the classroom, which detracts from the overall quality of the IEP. Additionally, at university-based programs where IEP-specific accreditation is not required, instructors may be poorly qualified and this can ultimately cause damage to the reputation of both the IEP and the affiliated university. Such reputational damage ultimately impacts the ability to recruit, retain and matriculate students.

4. Quality Assurance

The fourth challenge pertains to quality assurance of the intensive English program. While the Accreditation of English Language Training Programs Act requires “stand-alone” intensive English programs to obtain independent accreditation, programs wholly owned, operated and governed by the university may meet the requirements of the Act by simply falling under the umbrella of approved programs for which the university received accreditation. This presents a dual standard whereby stand-alone programs are assessed on standards of excellence specifically designed for intensive English programs while university-based programs undergo far less scrutiny. As students and other key stakeholders interested in quality assurance become more savvy consumers, administrators of university-based programs interested in growing their enrollment would benefit from obtaining the same IEP-specific accreditation as stand-alone programs.


A quality IEP can create significant levels of access for international students who otherwise may not have chosen that particular institution. It levels the playing field with regard to admission, which can result in increased diversity, it facilitates adjustment, and if successful, it provides students with the skills necessary for achieving success within institutions where English is the medium of instruction. While there are many other challenges to growing international enrollment, overcoming the four roadblocks outlined here is critical to allowing an IEP to fulfil its enrollment-pipeline potential, and this must be an area of focus for institutional leaders looking to sustainably, responsibly and strategically grow international enrollment.

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