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IOWA CITY — On top of depriving the state of Iowa and its public universities of racial and cultural diversity, tuition revenue, educated workers and grant-wielding researchers, massive losses in international enrollment have decimated the campuses’ need for English as a Second Language services — compelling big cuts.
The University of Iowa on March 23 notified half its 18 ESL instructional-track faculty that their contracts won’t be renewed this summer — leaving the nine eliminated faculty without a job June 30.
Those reductions epitomize challenges Iowa’s public universities face in the wake of COVID-19-compelled enrollment losses, budget cuts and shifting staff needs — while also causing ripple effects across a state facing a labor shortage and a need to keep workers from leaving.
“I need to stay employed, so I'm looking for other work,” said Anna-Maria Cornell, one of the UI ESL lecturers who recently learned her contract won’t be renewed after six years on the job. “I'm looking at transferring my skills to nonteaching positions.”
Although Cornell said she’s applying for some open UI posts, she’s casting a wider net — including outside the state.
“I don't want to do that because I really like it here,” she said. “But I'm open to the best opportunity, wherever it takes me.”
Iowa State University — offering both ESL courses for students needing English support and an Intensive English Orientation Program for those who’ve not been accepted at ISU but want to hone their language skills — has pared down its orientation program from 14 employees in 2016 to six in fall 2021.
University of Northern Iowa, facing similar international enrollment declines, has slashed its Culture and Intensive English Program for incoming international students from 17 full-time employees in 2016 to four instructors today.
“The decline in staffing is commensurate with the enrollment decrease,” UNI spokesman Andrew Morse told The Gazette.
International enrollment nationally and regionally has been slipping for years — even before the pandemic accelerated the losses, with Iowa experiencing among the biggest declines in the country.
From a combined 8,615 international students across Iowa’s regent campuses in 2015, today’s 4,383 total represents a 49 percent drop — a slide that began in 2018, two years before COVID-19.
Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, international enrollment across Iowa’s public universities fell by a combined 1,485 students — amounting to a loss of 20 percent at Iowa State University, 29 percent at UI and 39 percent at UNI.
University of Iowa impact
As those international enrollment trends began to emerge, the UI ESL program two years ago eliminated four positions, according to UI lecturer Cornell.
“So we all kind of expected that this was coming,” she said of the recent cuts. “We just didn’t expect that it would be quite so many people.”
When Cornell started in 2016, UI’s ESL Programs Office counted 51 employees — including 47 full- or part-time lecturers or associate professors of instruction, three administrators and a director. With gradual cuts, including those just announced, the office will slide to 11 staff — a 78 percent drop.
“This is not a reflection of the faculty,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said. “The college greatly appreciates the service of these faculty to the ESL programs and the students served by it.”
What it is a reflection of, Beck said, is the drop in demand for ESL services — including the campus’ Iowa Intensive English Program, which provides English instruction and cultural, social and academic orientation to students who aren’t proficient enough to take English-taught degree courses.
In fall 2015 — when UI’s international enrollment peaked at 4,540 students — the campus’ intensive English program had 315 students enrolled, including 203 full-time.
In fall 2021 — with the campus’ international enrollment halved, to 2,176 — intensive English program numbers were down to 13, according to UI International Program numbers.
Total enrollment across all the university’s ESL classes started declining before the pandemic, which multiplied the losses. From 3,196 ESL enrollments in the 2017-18 academic year to 1,928 in 2019-20, numbers dove 56 percent — to 844 in 2020-21 and then to 548 this year.
“International student enrollment directly affects the need for ESL courses and support,” Beck said. “As the number of international students seeking higher education in the United States has declined, the demand for English language training has diminished as well.”
In addition, she said, international students now have greater access to direct admission through proficiency testing, curtailing their dependence on ESL training and courses, some of which at UI now have fewer than six students enrolled.
The first time lecturer Cornell had a class with just three students was in early 2020 — before the coronavirus pandemic upended the semester. International students didn’t make it to campus the following fall due to lockdowns and travel restrictions, although some did take classes online, according to Cornell.
“We actually had students taking classes from their native country … . They were taking classes all through the night and sleeping during the day,” she said. “That was really stressful for the students.”
Thinking back to the full classes of mostly Chinese students Cornell had when she started, this spring’s turnout was dismal.
“This semester was really bad,” she said. “I’m supposed to teach four classes. I’m only teaching one course, with four students in it.”
UNI, ISU impact
Five years before the pandemic, UNI counted 143 students in its Culture and Intensive English Program — which offers intensive English language, culture and social instruction. This year’s count sits at 42, according to UNI spokesman Morse.
Iowa State reported 64 students in its Intensive English Orientation Program in 2016, down to 21 in fall 2021, according to ISU spokeswoman Angie Hunt. Additionally, Iowa State -- which offers ESL courses through its English department -- saw enrollment in those classes drop from 635 in 2016 to 219 in 2021, a slight uptick from 2020’s 108.
Although ISU hasn’t made any recent changes to that English orientation team, Hunt said, “We are always having conversations about how best to support students who wish to strengthen their English language skills in speaking, writing, reading or listening in order to meet admissions requirements and be successful in their programs.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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