March 2010 issue

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USA: private versus public IEPs

The United States market is characterised by a high number of both private and publicly run language schools. Far more than in other countries, international students will find here a wide variety of language schools – some public and some private – based on campus at universities and colleges. Jane Vernon Smith investigates the differences and similarities between them.

Typically, a prospective student looking for a vacation programme that combines language learning with fun and activities will investigate private language schools, while a student seeking to prepare for entry to a US ­­university is more likely to focus on one of the public universities’ Intensive English Programmes (IEPs).

However, the reality is that there is a great deal of overlap between provision in the two different sectors. Large, privately run language schools, such as the Embassy CES/Study Group, offer programmes across the whole range, including junior, academic, exam preparation and business, while some IEPs attached to universities can provide more than academic preparation or Toefl/Ielts classes. At the English Language Centre attached to the University of Maryland, Baltimore, apart from Academic English, Toefl preparation and six levels of intensive En­­­glish, courses available also include Pronunciation and Conversational English, Professional Skills Development and English for Professionals. Likewise at the American Language & Culture Institute at California State University, San Marcos, academic programmes are supplemented by teacher training programmes and an American Culture Experience short-term group programme.

There are, however, some clear-cut differences that may influence student choice. While public IEPs generally adhere to fixed semesters (terms), with specified start and end dates, privately run programmes are often far more flexible, as Lisa Besso, Director of Academic Affairs USA at Embassy CES/Study Group, testifies. “Many private IEPs offer rolling admissions, allowing students to start each week, or every other week, [and] students at private IEPs can usually choose their course length from a minimum of two weeks.”

More than this, their flexibility can run to offering a choice of time schedules. Manhattan Language in New York, for instance, offers five alternative schedules to choose from. “Many of our European students come to New York to sightsee and take short-term English classes. They love the option of classes from 8:00-11:30am,” explains Director, Bonita Vander. “They can work on their English in the morning and still have a full day to enjoy everything that New York has to offer.” At the same time, “Our students…in long-term programmes value the fact that we offer an evening and weekend schedule, as well as an afternoon schedule, and they have the opportunity to do an internship, work, or take a class in [a completely different subject] at another type of school, and still pursue their English studies.” Vander also points out that the school is open all year round, so that students who use their winter holidays to visit the city can also fit in two weeks of classes, which is invaluable to those with tight schedules and/or tight budgets, she points out.

Another area in which private schools claim superiority is in their provision of more levels of tuition than the public IEPs, along with smaller class sizes and “more personalised instruction and progress monitoring”, according to Teresa Barile at Rennert, New York. At ELS Education Services, which has more than 50 English language schools across the United States, based mainly on university campuses, 12 levels of instruction are available in most group programmes, according to Director of Marketing and Communications, John Nicholson. Manhattan Language also offers 12 levels. However, this is by no means universal among private language schools, many of which do not advertise this aspect of their provision on their website.

While the private sector distances itself from public IEPs in these areas of provision, the latter can, perhaps, pull a few surprises in this regard. The average class size at the American Language and Culture Institute (ALCI) at California State University, San Marcos, is just 15. Meanwhile this school and the English Language Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) – both public IEPs – are able to cater for six proficiency levels. Moreover, says UMBC’s Rebekah de Wit, “We focus very much on learners’ needs at the individual level…We believe that the individual attention we offer all our students accounts for the high levels of satisfaction they express with our programme.”

While Nicholson further pinpoints private schools’ “freedom to pursue academic and service excellence without being bound by sometimes rigid budgetary or policy constraints,” public sector IEPs are likewise confident of their ability to deliver excellent programmes. At ALCI San Marcos, the instructors hold master’s degrees, and, “We carefully select our textbooks to prepare students for college/university coursework. None of our courses are self-taught labs,” says Director, Dawn Schmid.

At the same time, underlines de Wit, “IEPs at most public institutions…tend to be more cost-effective than those at private institutions, which is a very real and practical benefit to students – and,” she notes, “the benefits of lower price continues when students transition into a degree programme at the same institution.”

Within this sector, profitability tends to be less important than it has to be among privately run institutions. “Our IEP sees its mission as providing support to the university’s goal to enhance the diversity of the student body, as well as providing academic support to non-native English-speaking students in university degree programmes,” explains Schmid.

In striving for diversity, neither UMBC nor ALCI San Marcos follows any strict rules in this regard, but they seek to recruit in as many parts of the world as possible. The IEP at UMBC currently has students from more than 25 countries, while the university itself hosts more than 120 nationalities. Here, also, diversity means more than just a wide spread of different nationalities. Highlighting socio-economic background, values and interests, “The student body at UMBC, as at most public institutions, comprises a much wider cross-section of American life than one finds at most private institutions,” claims de Wit.

Private language schools, meanwhile, also pay attention to achieving international diversity. At the English Language Institute at the private University of Bridgeport, Director Meg Cooney, reports, “We eagerly seek students from under-represented nationalities.”

Another benefit associated with the public IEPs is the close ties they have with the university to which they are attached. They often have access to the university facilities for their students’ use, comments Schmid, and some, like the ALCI at San Marcos, also have conditional admission and Toefl/Ielts waiver for students who successfully complete their Academic Preparation programme.

However, some of these benefits may also be on offer at certain private language schools. ELS, in its unusual position of being a private provider with schools on many both public and private university campuses, is particularly strong in this regard. Successful completion of the ELS Intensive English programme fulfils the English language requirement for admission to more than 600 tertiary institutions in the USA. “This means that the student has flexibility and a wide range of choice in choosing the institution and programme that meets her/his needs”, as Nicholson points out, as well as allowing them to make this choice either before or after completing the required English proficiency level.

It is the many areas of overlap between provision in the two sectors that point to a conclusion that there are more similarities than differences between them. It is, therefore, up to agents’ depth of knowledge to enable them to guide each client towards a programme – be it in the public or private sector – that best suits the individual.

Marketing and recruitment

Marketing and recruitment methods may in fact be the area in which the private-public sector divide is most in evidence.

Public institutions have smaller budgets, and often rely on the recommendation of past and current students to supplement a strategy based on print and online advertising. Large private operators, by contrast, tend to support an extensive marketing set-up. ELS, for example, has sales directors designated for different student markets and, as John Nicholson, Director of Marketing and Communications at ELS Education Services, points out, this allows it to market its programmes at a wider range of student fairs and mount promotional activities throughout the world.

Private language schools also highlight their ability to work with agents, as a strength that differentiates them from public IEPs. As Meg Cooney, Director of the English Language Institute at the privately run University of Bridgeport, highlights, “We spend a lot of time nurturing our relationships with recruiting agencies, and pay on average 10 per cent of the IEP tuition.  I have heard some public universities have difficulties paying commissions because of legal restrictions, but it is an integral part of our marketing plan,” she adds.

Nicholson also stresses the importance to his business of well-trained and knowledgeable agents, noting that, “They allow a greater number of students to be aware of your university, and additionally better qualify the students that apply.” He adds, “The concerns that some American university officials have [regarding]

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The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Language Travel Magazine. If you would like more information on any of these advertisers, tick the relevant boxes, fill out your details and send.





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Study Group  
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