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Build or Partner? Becoming Competitive in the International Postsecondary Marketplace

The EvoLLLution | Build or Partner? Becoming Competitive in the International Postsecondary Marketplace
Private pathway program providers create opportunities for universities to leap into the Intensive English Language Program marketplace with both feet, but sometimes they create more questions than answers.

Intensive English Language Programs (IELPs) are becoming increasingly popular at colleges and universities across the United States because of their capacity to help drive international enrollments. Many institutions have found that partnering with pathway program providers creates an effective shortcut to competitiveness in this space, but there may be more to consider than leaders expect. In this interview, Geraldine de Berly sheds some light on the differences between in-house IELPs and pathway programs.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the differences between private pathway programs and the Intensive English Programs (IEPs) run by most colleges and universities across the US?

Geraldine de Berly (GdB): Formal pathway programs—developed by private organizations and launched as part of university partnerships—often offer sheltered credit-bearing courses available exclusively for international learners. This allows students to take credit courses under the auspices of both the university and the pathway program so they can progress toward a degree while learning the language. They have to have a lot of linguistic support and tutoring support in place, as the programs are presumably being delivered in English.

That sheltered approach is a major difference. University-run IEPs, by and large, are offering English instruction for academic purposes. Universities also offer English for Specific Purposes (ESP) programming; at Syracuse we have ESPs available for architecture and law. However, we don’t offer credit for those courses. We work with the academic departments to figure out the skillsets students need to succeed in full-time programming and then teach them the language of their discipline to further the student’s English education to prepare them for content.

Some university-run IEPs are able to offer credit courses in English specifically—making the offerings for-credit rather than non-credit. In these specific cases, depending on the level of the student, the course will meet the university’s requirement for specific parts of the English curriculum such as composition. By and large, though, IEPs don’t offer content credit courses across disciplines whereas pathway programs sometimes do.

Ultimately, we help students to learn a language. At the IEP, we’re offering programming that helps students gain the language sophistication they need to complete work at the university level and meet university requirements. There are numerous stages of language education. If students come in with lower levels of English competency, all they do is English immersion. As they acquire more English, they’re able to take one or two credit-bearing courses so that they, at the same time as they’re enrolled in the IEP, are meeting some of the requirements for a degree, though the credit courses IEP students enroll in while still strengthening their English skills tend to be in the math and science fields rather than in the social sciences.

Evo: From a revenue perspective, how important are IEPs to University College?

GdB: The English Language Institute (ELI) at the University College of Syracuse University is a fairly autonomous entity that provides revenue and recruitment streams to the university. We bring students in on our own with projects we run in-house, but we also work with admissions and the graduate schools to work with conditionally admitted students who have the academic credentials and requirements but need more English instruction. We create access to both groups of students.

So the ELI works as a feeder but it also works to provide necessary skills to students that the university is interested in enrolling as full time students. In addition, it also works as a quality assurance space; sometimes students who may have looked good on paper come here and it turns out that they have difficulties or they lack the grit they will need to persist and succeed.

Evo: Do you have any desire to move from the IEP model you have in place to offering more formal pathway programs along the lines of those developed by private organizations?

GdB: Many institutions have entered into partnerships with private organizations to offer these more formal pathway programs. Typically, these partnerships are launched for a very specific goal: the institution wanted to enroll more international students and they wanted those students enrolled fast. These universities typically want exponential increases in international students and, by partnering, they got it. After all, as I understand them, pathway programs use agents to recruit students and they have wide networks of representatives in place that are paid by program providers to recruit worldwide.

Universities themselves don’t have those kinds of resources at their disposal; they don’t have global networks of representatives. So in the broad spectrum, universities see this as a way of increasing their international student population.

At Syracuse, we have approximately 21,000 students, total, and 4,000 international students. Many institutions think about having a comfort zone of approximately 20 percent international enrollment, and Syracuse is already there. We have a lot of international applications as well. Insofar as soliciting global applications, we don’t need to increase our numbers in this way.

However, there is interest at Syracuse in increasing the diversity of our international student population. After all, China is heavily represented in our international student population. But there are many factors that play into the numbers of students coming from different countries—like the exchange rate or the price of oil—and the pathway program model won’t necessarily overcome those obstacles.

Evo: Many universities are contracting out their IELP offerings to private providers; what are the benefits of partnering rather than building in the IELP space?

GdB: The main advantages to partnering come from the recruitment network, the value of which I just discussed.

Now, if you’re recruiting more students but don’t have the facilities, it can create some unique challenges. It’s my understanding, with pathway program providers, that they bring resources and facilities to the table. Classroom building construction, residence hall construction; these are major and expensive projects and some of these large providers have the ability to invest in that kind of construction. For an institution that may be already at capacity, to have somebody come from outside and invest and build the kinds of facilities required to serve these students is a great attraction.

A third advantage is that institutions stand to make additional revenue. Through pathway programs, institutions are able to bring in international students who likely would not have attended their university otherwise. Now, I don’t know what these contracts look like, but even if institutions are paying a percentage of revenue per student, it’s still lucrative and attractive. Look at the institutions partnering with vendors for online education. They’re willing to pay vendors a percentage of revenue because they are bringing in students they wouldn’t otherwise see. Paying a percentage of revenue for students you wouldn’t otherwise enroll—even if the vendor is taking a big cut—is reasonable for some institutions as they’re still bringing in additional revenue.

Evo: How do you expect to see the number of American institutions turning to private partnerships change over the coming years?

GdB: It’s probable that more universities will partner with pathway program providers. We’ve already seen a great increase in the numbers of institutions going with pathway programs. The University of Massachusetts system now—with Amherst, Boston and Lowell—is working with Navitas. INTO started with Oregon State University in the US and has grown its number of institutional partners significantly nationwide. These pathway providers are making in-roads in the American higher education space. They’re making their case at certain institutions who are interested in using these approaches to increase international enrollments.

Evo: In an EvoLLLution Q&A, former UCLA American Language Center Director William Gaskill framed the student experience as the biggest differentiator for private providers. What can universities do to improve the student experience for their IELP students?

GdB: The student support piece provided by pathway programs is strong. Pathway program providers create a great deal of access to tutorial support and also provide additional student support. A lot of university-run IEPs offer robust student supports as well, which are critical for newly-arrived international students, but they cannot always match the level of service offered by pathway providers because they don’t charge the same tuition and fees that the pathway providers charge. Basically, university-run IEPs have fewer resources at their disposal.

Pathway programs create a great deal of access to tutoring for their international students. That level can be matched by some of the larger IEPs but not by the smaller IEPs who don’t have the revenue available to hire full-time tutors in the same way.

Evo: What are some of the drawbacks to partnerships with pathway providers?

GdB: There are a number of challenges and questions institutional leaders need to consider when it comes to these partnerships. There are multiple issues related to how universities retain their autonomy when partnered with a pathway provider. Issues have come up related to questions of governance. For example, are the staff university employees or pathway employees?

Accreditation is also an issue. A few of the major pathway providers, including INTO and ELS, became accredited, but not all of them have. With accreditation, these providers can issue critical paperwork and can independently bring students into the institution. Of course, when this happens, questions come up about the admission status of the students. Students are being admitted as full-time students of the pathway program, but are they being issued an admission or even conditional admission to the university? That’s another point of discussion between the university and the pathway program. Normally, institutional admissions offices retain the right to admit students to full-time institutional programming.

Many university-run IEPs clearly point out that admission to the IEP is not admission to the university. We can admit students to come study English, but the student needs to apply to the university itself for matriculation into full-time programs. We can provide recommendations to deserving students, of course, but the two entities are separate. Of course, for conditional admission students, they have already applied to the university and were deemed to be academically prepared but simply need to strengthen their language competency, either by getting a higher TOEFL score or attending the ELI and reaching the necessary level. In these ways there are pathways from university-run IEPs, but there’s less confusion.

IEPs can also create pathways to the university through partnerships forged independently. IEP directors are meeting with foreign government representatives and responding to proposals to bring more cohorts of students to their programs. In many cases, those cohorts choose to stay at the institution where they studied English, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. These are longer-term pathways university-run IEPs can provide.

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