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How American IEPs Can Adapt to the Shifting Marketplace

The EvoLLLution | How American IEPs Can Adapt to the Shifting Marketplace
With enrollments on the decline, IEPs in the United States must develop robust and creative strategies and partnerships to differentiate themselves from their international competitors.

Intensive English Programs—IEPs—are an invaluable resource for recruiting and retaining international students, but increased international and online competition mean that many are facing declining enrollment numbers. In this interview, Cheryl Delk-Le Good discusses the challenges facing this niche sector of higher education, and highlights the valuable role that divisional and institutional IEPs can play on the broader university campus.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the biggest challenges facing IEP leaders across the United States?

Cheryl Delk-Le Good (CDLG): The biggest challenge we’re facing at the moment is declining enrollments, which have led to staffing and curricular changes, and in some cases, program closures.

The reason we’re seeing lower enrollments is there are fewer lower-level students coming to the United States to study English. They’re either choosing other countries or studying English in their own countries or online. The dollar is very strong right now as well, making affordability an issue.

Additionally, safety is a concern for some international students and their families. There has been a lot of overseas media coverage on school shootings in the United States, and parents do take that into consideration when deciding where to send their children to learn English.

Evo: What are a few of the strategic goals that tend to be shared by IEP leaders across the US?

CDLG: From what I’ve heard at conferences and presentations over the past six months, offering more flexible programs and different program lengths is becoming increasingly important. The decline of longer-term English language study has prompted our member programs to offer different types of session lengths that better align with what prospective students want, one of which is shorter programs with a professional or more specific focus.

Second, capitalizing on the location of our programs is an important factor in program success. Whether the program is located in a small city or near a big airport, or perhaps near diverse tourist options, could impact enrollment. Unlike in a few countries, intensive English language programs in the United States cannot include any element of paid professional internship or work experience, but programs that facilitate exposure to professional contexts (e.g., multinational corporations) are seen as a benefit to students.

Programs are also building out local, regional and national partnerships that help drive program enrollment and success. Community initiatives, such as integrating into sister-city relationships or integrating students with alumni, can be quite successful in helping recruit students. Partnerships with universities and colleges overseas also remain very relevant. Some of our proprietary programs are also leveraging recruitment efforts through partnerships with higher education institutions.

Going back to program offerings for IEPs, guarantees of admission to professional or academic programs have become more important than the number or types of degrees or programs offered. Many IEPs have been providing a conduit to university or certificate study for a long time, but now the pathway is considered a different program and treated differently for the I-20s that are issued. This has resulted in many of our members rebranding already existing “paths” inside of the required regulatory approval, in order to offer a regular pathway program at the institution, in addition to the IEP.

Another major strategy is data management. Pathway IEPs are becoming a more robust conduit to university or certificate study, but we need to leverage data management in order to make sure that we’re monitoring the opportunities that those pathways create, in particular those pathways that lead to degree or certificate programs.

The last thing I want to mention is maintaining values. Every intensive English program at EnglishUSA must have a mission statement, and many also have value statements. Ensuring that the program administration—the instructors, the staff, and corporate or institutional partners—are on the same page in determining what the language program is trying to achieve or the role it plays in the larger institution is important to maintaining a cohesive, coherent program that best serves the needs of the students.

Evo: You mentioned program length and evolving pathway models, both of which speak to a level of responsiveness to student demand. What else can IEPs do to become more student-centric and focused on meeting students’ expectations and needs?

CDLG: Right now, affordability is a big topic. Canada and Australia offer more competitive exchange rates at the moment, and this influences many students when deciding where to study. Often, they simply can’t afford to come to the United States and, as most language programs are self-supporting, they have moved into survival mode. Programs need to consider being creative in building out funding options, particularly with regard to payment options for students who want to come but can’t afford to pay the high tuition payments up front.

Evo: There’s an increased, or at least a revised, role that IEPs can play in supporting the enrollment pipeline of their institutions. How can main university campuses evolve to make IEPs more central to the long term strategic objectives of the university?

CDLG: While IEPs can fit almost anywhere into a university’s organizational structure—the provost’s office, academic departments, international affairs—they can always provide recruitment opportunities for the wider institution. They’re so intersectional: Academic departments can call up IEPs and ask them to put together support classes for international students, or university administration can work with IEPs to develop teacher training for faculty, staff and administration.

Some campus units may discount the value that IEPs bring in this regard. Everyone has their own job to do, of course, but IEP faculty and staff often work behind the scenes to help international students, for example, feed into the campus community and broader university. There needs to be communication in this regard so that IEPs can prove their value on campuses and provide this assistance to students.

At the most recent AIEA conference, two EnglishUSA members gave a presentation to a group of SIOs: Senior International Officials. It became evident that the more SIOs learn about how the different types of language programs function on and off campus, the more they’ll know what their options are for students—and they’ll better understand what’s available right now. EnglishUSA is eager to help members share best practices in reaching out to potential institutional partners and government to help graduate and undergraduate directors of admissions connect to SIOs, and to build those connections for student recruitment and student success.

Evo: What differentiators can really help IEP divisions stand out and compete, not just with IEPs offered by universities in other English-speaking countries but also with English language providers in students’ home countries?

CDLG: Some programs are responding to that challenge by providing some online instruction or some free offerings to give prospective students a taste of what they can provide on site, but language programs can’t function entirely online. The government is very clear on that. You can have hybrid programs later on when the students come but the government requires 18 hours a week of in-person classroom instruction.

While we can’t offer a full intensive English program online, there are some programs that are experimenting with MOOCs in a try-before-you-buy scenario.

Evo: What are some of the topics IEP leaders should be aware of over the next few years as you see the space progressing?

CDLG: Over the next few years, the IEP space needs to take a good look at how it, as an industry, can increase its competitiveness. We have over 4,500 institutions of higher learning and language programs that are very qualified, but we can’t simply rest on our laurels—there are English language programs all over the world which are becoming increasingly competitive, as I mentioned earlier, and often more so due to multiple factors mentioned.

We don’t have a national international education strategy like other countries do, but visa policy and government rhetoric can have such an effect on recruitment. We need to find new ways to differentiate ourselves, perhaps by creating a national platform that will showcase why the United States is the best place to study.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the role that institutional and divisional IEP leaders can play in in moving American IEP pathways and the international education industry in the direction it needs to go?

CDLG: We need to differentiate ourselves from our international competitors from a recruitment perspective, and one way of doing so is by looking at the strengths our members offer beyond excellent programming. I was recently in Brazil for a workshop and student fair, and it was a good reminder to let our members know that we need to do more to communicate to students overseas about the diversity of programs we have all over the country—in almost every type of city and climate—to meet their personal, professional, and academic needs.

Knowing their strengths and maintaining strong values is so important. The value of an organization like ours is that we share best practices, and we share a vision of what an IEP can be when it lives up to its full potential.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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