The English language program market in the U.S. has been challenged for the last several years by lower enrollments—and now, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly taken its toll on the industry. Programs are experiencing the most dramatic decreases in English language program enrollments in their histories. In a recent survey of members, over 75% reported session enrollments of 50 or fewer students.
However, many of these declines began several years prior to the pandemic due to the strong U.S. dollar, competition from other English-speaking-country markets, less beginning-level English language study, and a decline in scholarship opportunities for students that included academic English language study.
From an association point of view, there have been over 50 EnglishUSA-reported member program closures, from early on in the pandemic, the end of summer 2020, and December 2020. Program closures have included all types of programs (those governed by higher education institutions and private language schools). Some of the chain providers have consolidated operations, suspending operations at some physical locations while pooling teachers from different schools to teach students online.
However, English language courses have consistently been offered throughout the pandemic, with the majority of programs moving quickly to teach language skills and content remotely. This industry has always been resilient, and EnglishUSA member programs innovated and offered more flexible options early on in response to the pandemic. Now, best practices and innovations that emerged during the pandemic are being incorporated into programs to serve students in person (full time or hybrid). Programs are looking forward to new enrollments in summer and fall 2021, based on increased applications and extensive COVID-19 classroom and local protocols in place.
Given the size of the U.S. and flexibility and authority granted to individual states regarding COVID-19 guidelines, in-person study options (whether full-time in-person study or hybrid) vary from state to state, city to city, and program to program. Prospective students and parents are asking whether language programs are open and ready to enroll students while also concerned about whether borders are open to international students. While borders are open to students from most countries, not all embassies have resumed regular operations. The best option for students and parents is to check each embassy website, all of which are regularly updated by the U.S. Department of State (https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html), on wait time for student visa appointments. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has also recently issued a request for public input regarding potential barriers to visa applications for international students (among other core operations). EnglishUSA announced a “take action” campaign to encourage its members to submit suggestions to advocate for embassy openings.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program’s (SEVP) initial and continued handling of the pandemic has been helpful. On April 26, 2021, SEVP announced that it will extend and continue to abide by guidance originally issued in March 2020 for the 2021–22 academic year and will not make any changes to the March 2020 guidance. New students may be issued visas to study in the U.S. even if their program of study is a hybrid program with only some in-person learning required.
EnglishUSA’s highest priorities for its members are to provide support for recruitment and enrollment management by continuing to promote opportunities for members to share best practices and for strategic partners and associates to share their expertise on the changing market and student need. The association also continues its support for advocacy with SEVP and other government agencies to encourage state and national leadership to adopt policies that encourage and support international students and visitors. The Biden–Harris administration was very supportive of the international education industry during its campaign trail, and we are looking ahead to continued positive rhetoric surrounding international education, which will help change current negative perceptions. The new administration can and should work with schools and leaders in the field (e.g., EnglishUSA) to address these issues in a way that does not harm international education or the U.S.’s ability to attract the best and brightest to study in the U.S.—a renewed “you are welcome here” campaign. There is still a huge appetite to pursue an education in the U.S., and there will be pent-up demand in our market, so we need the administration to support and assist embassies and consulates to work efficiently to process visa applications and remove obstacles in international students’ paths to English language, professional, personal, and academic study.
The changes language programs made due to COVID (recruiting students virtually, online and hybrid instruction, modifying assessment practices, offering a variety of programs, etc.) will likely stay with the field beyond the period of the pandemic. Global competition is likely to continue to increase, with variables such as ease of getting a visa, opportunities to work, and program costs key to attracting students, as well as the overall strong reputation of the industry that accreditation and association membership help to promote. More online English preparation is being built into pathway models, i.e., starting the program online in-country, then coming to the U.S. for in-person preparation. Also, student orientations will increasingly move online and be delivered predeparture.
The resilience of English language teaching in the U.S. did not and does not wait for circumstances or policies to revert to the way they were. We don’t “bounce back”; we bounce forward. We know that no aspects of education will ever be the same again. The challenges we have faced will lead to continued creativity and diversification in the field in ways that are yet to be conceived, and as an association, we’re looking forward to playing a role in supporting our members and the industry as a whole.
Cheryl Delk-Le Good is executive director of EnglishUSA and has served in leadership positions for multiple international education associations in her 30-year career. Cheryl served as director and faculty of the Intensive English Program at Georgia State University and taught at Western Michigan University and Michigan State University.
EnglishUSA is the largest and most diverse professional association of 250+ intensive and pathway postsecondary English language programs and associates (service providers such as agents, testing companies, publishers, etc.) across the U.S. EnglishUSA comprises member programs governed by universities, colleges, and community colleges as well as private language schools in small, medium, and large cities across the U.S. Among these members, we have more than 1,000 individuals who engage with EnglishUSA’s resources, events, and online community. EnglishUSA promotes the well-being and success of its members and supports the industry as a whole in providing quality programming and services to students while also pursuing advocacy efforts at the national level.
All EnglishUSA member programs are accredited by either the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training or the Commission on English Language Program Administration, and/or they fall under their governing institution’s regional accreditation. The accrediting bodies require adherence to standards in a variety of areas, with the well-being of the student the primary focus.