Thursday, September 01, 2011


What’s the role of ESL at a community college?

It isn’t obvious.

ESL refers to English as a Second Language. In many states, responsibility for ESL classes falls on community colleges. It can be an awkward fit, since it isn’t obvious how to gauge success.

One model puts ESL alongside other languages. If we give general education credit for, say, French 1, then why shouldn’t we for ESL 1?

The problem with that model is that the students taking French 1 can easily take other credit-bearing classes at the same time. Your garden variety liberal arts major can take French alongside history and math and psych without an issue. But a student in ESL 1 is generally able to take few, if any, other credit-bearing classes at the same time. That’s particularly true when you get to courses that require English 101 proficiency.

In that sense, then, ESL is more like developmental math or English. It’s a prerequisite to get students prepared for credit-bearing courses. In this model, success can be judged by how well it gets students into the mainstream course sequence.

The problem with that model is that it assumes that the students actually intend to enter (and complete) the degree sequence. Some do, of course, but it seems that many don’t. They sign up for ESL to pick up some English for everyday life, and then leave when they either decide they have what they need or decide that they aren’t finding it.

There’s a rationality to that, but it doesn’t fit the credit-bearing model. Financial aid is for matriculated -- that is, degree-seeking -- students. If the students have no actual intention of completing degrees, then they either have to go without financial aid or lie about their intentions.

Leaving aside the morality of that, it raises an issue around attrition rates. Students who enroll with no intention of completion show up in our attrition numbers, for which we get punished. They also make assessing the success of the program difficult. Did the students leave because they got what they wanted or because they didn’t?

If we had a more robust and easily accessible non-credit ESL program, for which students could get financial aid, it would be easy to sort out these issues. The students who just want a crash course in conversational English could sign up for that; the ones who want a pathway to a degree could sign up on the credit-bearing side. The pedagogy of the two is different, so this isn’t just a matter of bookkeeping.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found an elegant way to handle ESL? I’m hoping someone has found a better way.