Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
The international higher education marketplace is a lucrative one, but many institutions see more barriers than opportunities when it comes to growing in this space. As such, a number of colleges and universities outsource their entire suite of global programming. However, some institutions have found a great deal of success in keeping those programs in-house and finding creative ways to generate student demand. In this interview, Ramu Nagappan reflects on the two IELP programs run by UC Berkeley Extension and shares his thoughts on what it takes to succeed without outsourcing.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the differences between formal pathway programs and the IELPs run by most colleges and universities across the US?
Ramu Nagappan (RN): We’ve had a pathway program for about four years in our College Foundations program, and its intent is to prepare students from a variety of backgrounds to succeed in a U.S. college. The Intensive ESL component is an important part of the program. The students are developing their verbal skills, written skills and critical thinking skills. Some students come in typically fairly fluent in English but we emphasize writing and presentation skills to really set them up for success.
ESL is important but there are so many other things that we add on because we think they’re important ways for students to manage the transition to becoming successful U.S. college students. There are two classes in particular that we’re very proud of. One is a service learning class, where students meet for two hours per week as a group in a classroom with an instructor to talk about what service learning is, what it means to contribute to a community, and it gets them thinking about social issues and social justice. Then, for a certain number of hours over the course of a semester, the students volunteer in a variety of different fields to give them exposure to the world outside the classroom.
The other class I think that’s really valuable for students is the yearlong class focused on acquiring good study habits and understanding the expectations of an American classroom, which may be different from those of institutions in their home countries. This is a chance for them to understand what it means to participate in discussion in a small seminar, what it means to have a voice in an American classroom, and what it means to write and communicate successfully.
ESL is really important but we have a lot of different disciplines and we’re successful in offering those. Our College Foundation students take classes in math, science, computer programming class and others. They are getting a wide exposure to a field of study but really I think fundamentally the most important thing is we want them to think critically and develop the set of core skills that will be applicable on whatever major they choose once they get to college.
Evo: What differentiates the College Foundations Program from the Global Access Program at UC Berkeley Extension?
RN: The College Foundations Program is for students who have completed high school, who have not yet started college. It’s really their chance to prepare to apply to U.S. universities. We have tuition workshops and test preparation as well. We don’t want to put too much emphasis on testing skills but it is important to students.
The Berkeley Global Access Program is geared toward students who are already in college. They’ve typically finished at least two years of college at their home institution abroad. We have direct relationships with a number of universities who send us students they think would benefit from this experience and who are qualified to study here. The students spend either one semester or one year in the U.S. where they take a mix of classes. Most of the classes they take are on the Berkeley main campus with other undergraduates, so depending on their major they will take a broad amount of courses. The students also take one course at UC Berkeley Extension; sometimes its related to their major but often it’s an ESL class.
Evo: Does Berkeley use College Foundations as a way to increase its number of college-ready international applications?
RN: It’s a totally separate project. We have talked to the office of undergraduate admissions about our program and they know it well at this point, but it’s not a pathway program. There are other institutions, even within the UC system, where there is a true pathway program available and students are offered conditional admission as undergraduates if they successfully complete the pathway program. Ours isn’t structured like that at all. Students apply for admissions to our College Foundations program, and if they meet the criteria and we see merit in their application, they are admitted. That’s when they start applying to schools all over the country. Many of them do apply to Berkeley because they aspire to that and they’re excited since they’re here, but there’s no conditional admission. The College Foundation program is an opportunity that we have at UC Berkeley Extension to reach out to a diverse group of students, bring them here and help them find where they actually belong, which may be Berkeley but it may be somewhere else.
Evo: From a revenue perspective, how important is the College Foundations program to UC Berkeley Extension?
RN: It’s a small but growing part of our international offerings. Our leadership is committed to helping us grow it in terms of revenue. The College Foundation Program is a valuable part of what we’re doing here, but it’s much smaller than the Berkeley Global Access Program. We’re looking at a variety of potential partnerships that will help us identify prospective students in new markets.
Evo: How much more revenue is generated by Global Access than College Foundations?
RN: The main difference in the revenue generated by College Foundations and Global Access is the Global Access Program has far more students, so it’s obviously generating more revenue. Global Access has a lot of connections to our main campus and offers a number of benefits to our campus partners. It supports our financial goals in a variety of ways.
The College Foundations program requires a little more push to market and so our goal is to work directly with institutions. With the Global Access Program, there are probably about a dozen universities that we have already formed relationships with and have agreements in place for them to send us students every year. With the College Foundations Program, we’re just starting to develop more of those relationships. We prefer the partnership approach as opposed to having individual students apply. That way, the schools that can help us identify the most promising students for our program and make sure it’s the right fit.
Evo: What are some of the benefits and draw backs of building an IELP program in-house rather than contracting it to a private provider?
RN: The reason we create our own curriculum and work directly with schools is we get to set the expectations. We can clearly define what our program is and what it isn’t. By creating our own curriculum, we draw from our strongest instructors and of course incredible faculty on campus. We want to draw on all the levels of expertise we have here in the academic fields. Especially in the College Foundation Program, we have a great team of instructors who work very collaboratively and our curriculum is increasingly intertwined so the math instructor is talking to the English instructor and the English instructor is talking to the service learning instructor. People at the curriculum level think about potential areas for collaboration and reinforcement and are also helping our students through this year, which can be challenging for them. After all, these students are younger than the rest of the population of students at UC Berkley Extension—they’re typically around 18 years old.
For many of them, it’s their first time in the U.S. so in addition to all the academic expectations and a pretty demanding curriculum, they’re undergoing a host of other personal challenges. Part of our program is our really robust advising structures, which are there to help the students when they are having challenges or when they hit a point of crisis. Occasionally we have students who are really struggling but because we have instructors who are talking to each other and talking to us, we’re able to intervene and help those students.
Evo: To your mind, would the loss of curricular control be more important than loss of revenue as a reason for an institution to build their own IELP program?
RN: The curriculum is one we’re really proud of. We’re always tweaking it and given our areas of expertise we’re able to put a critical eye to it every year; thinking about what can we do differently or what can we do better. Giving that up would be hard, even more than revenue considerations.
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?
RN: One thing we’re increasingly avoiding is working with recruiters. We find that working with recruiters inserts an intermediary, which makes communication difficult. We want to deal directly with the students or, as I said before, deal directly with schools who would send us students for the College Foundation Program. Recruiting agents are an important part of marketing in the international postsecondary context but for us we’re moving away from that. We want to leverage our brand and our reputation and go out there to develop these relationships ourselves. It is more work and we’re re-thinking our marketing strategy a little bit so we have a better sense of how to market in different global regions. In China, for example, expectations and marketing strategies might be quite different from what we’re used to here, but we want to forge direct relationships.
In terms of student service outsourcing, we think we do a pretty good job of delivering critical services in-house. We’re happy with the level of service we’re providing and we’re happy with the kind of relationships we’re able to build with the students. That said, I think we’re able to do this because we’re still relatively small. If we were to scale up the College Foundation Program significantly, then we might have to think about how we handle that in order to maintain the level of service and the kind of high-touch environment that we have here.
Evo: How do you see technology coming into play in the scaling process for the College Foundation Program?
RN: We’re interested in scaling but we probably won’t scale up as quickly because of this unique population. These younger students have unique needs and expectations in terms of technology, so we use technology in the classrooms to support learning. We use a Learning Management System that supports most of our academic activities, but we’re not using technology so much outside of the classroom. We’re not using technology, for example, to create community amongst our students or to keep in touch with our students or alumni … yet!
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to create a successful IELP?
RN: The keys to success center around having a strong set of values about what you want your curriculum to accomplish. The other thing that helped us is starting with a couple of strong relationships abroad, so we had a group of students to get us off the ground right away without having to rely too heavily on recruiters. The third key to success is understanding the needs of these students and having talented staff who can work with them one-on-one and really understand what they need, what they’re coming here for and make sure their expectations are appropriate. We help them through some of the inevitable bumps in the road so it’s good to have advisors and who understand what it means to create a good experience for an 18-year-old.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students