ESL courses cut, English proficiency standard raised

English as a second language (ESL) classes are no longer being offered at UAA. As a result, an international student that applies to UAA is now required to meet a higher cut score on international English proficiency tests in order to have student visas signed by Enrollment Services.

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Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services Lora Volden said the change in ESL course offerings only affects an estimated 10 applicants.

“Our [minimum cut scores] have historically been really low, and if you look at the national comparison, peer institute comparisons and even Fairbanks and Southeast comparisons, we were about 20 points below kind of a normal range,” Volden said. “That worked fine because we did have those English as a second language courses, but now that we don’t have them, we ran up against this difficulty because international students who are coming in to study on a visa, we are required to follow certain federal policies, guidelines regarding those visa requirements in order to authorize that visa.”

Volden said that one of those requirements is that a student must be enrolled in 12 credit-bearing courses. International students could previously enroll in four ESL courses and meet that requirement.

“Once those courses were no longer offered, those students who had very limited proficiency, there wasn’t any way for us to sign that visa so that they could study here,” Volden said.

Tara Smith was the only full-time faculty member teaching ESL courses, but this semester she is instructing civic engagement and guidance courses. Smith said students who would normally take ESL courses are now in developmental English courses.

“The traditional model of developmental education was really conceived for people who are advancing, are still in their first language,” Smith said. “Research in the field and what the students need— it’s a different set of challenges usually for students who are acquiring a higher level of proficiency in their first language versus the types of things that students who are learning English as an additional language need to study.”

International students applying for admission to the university for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree now have to score at least 71 out of 120 points possible on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL.

“Having ESL meant that we could accept students who had lower TOEFL iBT scores because they could be full-time students making progress in ESL and taking those courses away meant they would have to be put in course they might not be ready for,” Smith said. “So they temporarily raised the standards for international students this year, which meant that students who had applied under the old scores couldn’t be admitted with the new score admissions requirements.”

Interim Provost, Duane Hrncir, said offering ESL courses for credit was costing the university more in instruction than was paid back in tuition.

“We could not sustain the academic-style offerings from a financial perspective: last year the cost of instruction for the ESL courses was over $148,000, but these courses only took in around $77,000 intuition,” Hrncir wrote in an email. “An additional option might be to offer non-credit, ‘immersion-style’ programming to support English Language Learners, which we are continuing to explore. However, overall UAA sees very few students who would seek stand-alone courses to improve their English language skills.”

Hrncir said the program also had low enrollment.

“At its most recent peak, the program had about 180 students,” Hrncir said. “Last spring, across the 10 courses offered, there were only 58 students enrolled. UAA recently realigned its TOEFL scores to ensure International applicants now arrive with higher demonstrated proficiency.”

Smith said ESL students typically enroll later than average UAA students, and she said offering ESL courses without credit attached disregards the rigor of learning a new language.

“The level of work they are doing is worthy of college credit,” Smith said. “It is very problematic to say simply because it’s English and not a different language, they shouldn’t be earning credit.”

Yvonne Jeschke is an international student from southwest Germany, and she said the TOEFL testing comes in four parts: Reading, writing, understanding and articulation of English. Jeschke passed the TOEFL with a score over 10 points above the new minimum standard.

“I feel like it is, for a lot of people, going to be intense and [they] might be even scared to take it. It’s expensive, it’s not like you’re saying, ‘Oh well, if I fail this time I’m just going to do it again next week and I’m going to spend another I don’t know how many dollars on it,’” Jeschke said. “And there’s only a certain amount of times you can take it. It’s only offered in certain areas and certain cities around the country. It’s not that easy to get a spot, to sign up for it, to pay for it and then to actually pass it. There’s a pressure going into it because you want to get that score at that one point.”