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Last fall, U.S. college enrollment fell for the third straight year, part of a significant and steady drop of nearly one million students since the start of the pandemic.
At the same time, employers, including higher education institutions, have been grappling with intense staff shortages.
We are overlooking a segment of potential students and workers who could help address both challenges: immigrants and refugees.
Millions of immigrants are either unemployed or underemployed in the U.S. today, representing a largely untapped but robust pipeline of potential learners and employees.
We just need to help them with their English skills.
Shockingly, the United States currently serves the needs of just 4 percent of adult English learners.
Both four-year universities and community colleges could have a significant role to play in the critical work of providing better access to quality English instruction. But to do so, they must reimagine what English language learning looks like inside and outside their classrooms. It’s imperative that they create personalized, career-focused educational opportunities designed around the needs of all English learners — newcomers as well as those who’ve been living and working in the U.S. for years — and the labor market.
Related: English learners in college: From marginalized to invisible
Many higher education institutions are still relying on outdated, ineffective and unscalable teaching models, despite clear evidence of alternatives that could help adult English learners acquire language more effectively and efficiently. New research explains how personalized language learning offered in relevant, real-world contexts is far more effective than grammar-driven approaches, fill-in-the-blanks exercises and the canned, scripted dialogues still commonly used in many ESL programs.
Institutions should instead focus on instruction rooted in “task-based language teaching,” an approach that organizes courses around specific tasks rather than abstract rules of grammar and conjugation. Task-based courses equip learners with the language skills they need to accomplish their goals — from enrolling in a graduate program to getting a new job to communicating with their children’s teachers.
Task-based language training dovetails with Integrated Education and Training (IET), an approach many community colleges are already using to provide skill-based support for career training programs and apprenticeships; several four-year universities and employers also offer successful models to study.
At Denver’s Emily Griffith Technical College, for example, students can use their performance in computer-based, career-aligned English courses to demonstrate readiness for certification programs in nursing and computer networking. This model allows learners to improve their English skills at their own pace so that they can directly enter the certification programs without taking a formal ESL class first.
The United States currently serves the needs of just 4 percent of adult English learners.
At the University of Maryland, frontline employees across campus have access to English language instruction designed to quickly improve communication and collaboration and open up new employment and learning opportunities on campus and beyond.
And, finally, higher education institutions can partner with companies to offer employer-based English programs alongside other educational benefits. A growing number of companies already provide such training. Employees at the Alabama-based Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, for example, receive personalized English instruction designed for hospitality workers, many of whom are also immigrants and refugees.
These models are all ripe for replication. With the two-fold challenge of declining college enrollment and ongoing labor shortages, it’s never been more urgent for institutions to find novel ways to attract new students and help a new pool of qualified candidates enter the workforce.
If community colleges and four-year universities work to reimagine English instruction, they can drive enrollment, address worker shortages and unlock career opportunities for new Americans — improving the lives of millions of workers and the economy as a whole.
Katie Brown is founder of EnGen, a Certified B Corporation that has partnered with community colleges, universities and employers to deliver personalized, contextualized, mobile-first, career-aligned English language instruction to immigrants, refugees and speakers of other languages.
This story about adult English learners was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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