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After a rough patch, intensive-English programs voice “cautious optimism.” I take a look at their issues. And Afghan Fulbright hopefuls are stuck in limbo.

Cautious Optimism

It’s been a rough few years for English-language programs. Even before Covid-19 struck, enrollments had been in decline. Between 2015, when enrollments hit a high, and 2019, the number of intensive-English students in the United States dropped nearly 44 percent, according to Open Doors — and then bottomed out during the pandemic.

Budgets for the programs, which are typically self-sustaining, took a beating, too. “Everyone was slashed,” said Lisa Kraft, director of academics and international special programs at Pace University’s English-language institute.

Still, at last week’s EnglishUSA meeting, the phrase I heard repeated was “cautious optimism.” A majority of attendees reported a “modest increase” in enrollments in a spot poll, and there was excitement about the Biden administration’s “renewed commitment” to international education.

Ahead of the meeting, I talked to a half-dozen English-program administrators across the country about the issues, the challenges, and the opportunities for intensive English:

Is online programming here to stay? Most programs are now back to face-to-face or hybrid instruction, but the shift to online learning during Covid could stick around. At Pace, Kraft said she and her colleagues had long wanted to offer online courses but “we never could really push it and didn’t think there was a market for it.” The pandemic showed that interest was there, she said. 

Caroline Gear, executive director of the International Language Institute of Massachusetts, said that online teaching made courses more accessible for some students, improving attendance rates. Her instructors plan to incorporate some of the tools of online teaching, such as using Google Classroom as a learning “hub,” into regular courses. 

But Mark Algren, who recently retired as executive director of the Center for English Language Learning at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said many students still value face-to-face learning, especially for language study. “Language programs made quite an adjustment to the online, virtual environment,” he said, “but is it an inflection point? That’s anyone’s guess.”

Testing got a shake-up. With testing centers shut down, the pandemic ushered in an era of at-home language testing. Companies like Duolingo expanded aggressively into the academic English market, with many colleges announcing that they would accept such scores in admissions, at least temporarily. Established players like TOEFL quickly stood up at-home exams.

Patricia Juza, associate dean of student affairs and international programs at University of California at San Diego Extension, said the at-home exams offer convenience and access. “I think some newer platforms are here to stay because they are so popular,” she said. But online tests can also raise concerns about security as compared to in-person proctored exams. For Juza, though, the real issue is the reliability and validity of such newcomers. Colleges will need to track the academic outcomes of students over time to see if the new tests accurately predict classroom proficiency and first-year GPAs.

Covid also led to shifts in placement testing. Temple University’s Center for American Language and Culture began using platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp to do virtual interviews to assess English-speaking ability, said director Jacqueline McCafferty.

There’s a new focus on credentials and collaborations. The pandemic has opened the door to new partnerships. McCafferty is working with Temple’s online graduate certificate in global tourism to add an English-language component, tapping into a new openness to online learning and interest in stackable credentials. Integrating English into three more certificates could be in the works, she said. “We really see the potential of English-plus: English-plus-this, English-plus-that,” she said.

Other programs are looking beyond campus to expand their enrollment base. Pace had long had a special discount for au pairs to take classes, but began to offer it as a broader community rate, reaching out to local chambers of commerce and community organizations. Gear plans to hold free English classes for Afghan refugees in western Massachusetts.

Will the use of paid agents in international recruiting be expanded or curtailed? Cheryl Delk-Le Good of EnglishUSA said she has heard more of a “buzz” from English programs interested in working with agents. But one challenge will be vetting and building trusted relationships with on-the-ground recruiters when much admissions work continues to be virtual, she said.

On some campuses, intensive-English insittutes have using agents for years, even when their colleges don’t use them as part of regular undergraduate admissions. That’s made such programs particularly concerned about a provision in recently-approved veterans’ education legislation that appears to ban the payment of commissions in overseas-student recruitment.

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The Lost Fulbrighters

After Hussain Ahmad learned he had been selected as a Fulbright semi-finalist, he began to draw up a short list of American colleges where he hoped to apply for a master’s degree. Ahmad’s ambition is to expand broadband access to Afghanistan’s rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods, with a particular focus on telehealth, and by coming to the U.S., he hoped to learn from some of the best professors and programs in computer science. Among the colleges on his list were Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, and Georgia Tech.

But six months after they made the semi-final round, Ahmad and his fellow applicants are still waiting. Their June interviews were postponed to September, with Fulbright officials citing staffing and logistical constraints related to Covid. Then in August, the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban, with its hostile views toward education, especially that of women and girls, took over. September came and went, without any action.

Courtesy of Hussain Ahmad

In a statement, the U.S. State Department said it is “tracking events in Afghanistan closely and are reviewing the future of the Fulbright program. We are committed to the aspirations of Afghan students and scholars.”

This year’s Afghan Fulbright recipients are now on American campuses.

Fulbright exchanges have been canceled in the past for safety reasons, most recently during the pandemic. A complicating factor is that the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with the Taliban, although Ahmad points out other countries have run similar international scholarship programs despite the lack of formal ties. Britain, for example, secured emergency visas for Afghan recipients of its prestigious Chevening scholarships.

Ahmad, who is 26 and a graduate of Pakistan’s Institute of Management Sciences, fears he and the other semi-finalists are running out of time. College application deadlines are approaching, and scores on exams such as the TOEFL will expire.

Being named a Fulbright scholar could help students secure college admission as well as a U.S. visa, Ahmad said, and connects them to an important network of alumni. And for many of the students, a costly American degree simply is out of reach without the program’s financial backing. 

“We want an opportunity in America so that our future can be secure,” Ahmad said. “As the situation develops, I’ve really lost hope.”

​​Still, he and some of the other semifinalists have started a Twitter campaign to rally support. You can find it using the hashtag #SupportAfgFulbrightSemifinalists2022.

Related: Higher-ed associations have released a new resource kit to help colleges support Afghan students and scholars. Here are some additional ways to help.

Around the Globe

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will reconstitute its the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council, Assistant Secretary Eva Millona said at the EnglishUSA meeting.

NAFSA’s China Member Interest Group wrote to the University of Buffalo to ask that the institution reconsider its decision to terminate the F-1 status of Chinese students who failed to turn in proper visa paperwork by a September deadline, calling the action “draconian.”

The Biden administration wants a federal court to pause its appeal of a case blocking new applications to DACA while it puts in place a new rule to protect young undocumented immigrants.

A loss of foreign-student tuition during the pandemic has led to international-education staff cuts or reassignments at Australian universities.

Brazil’s National Congress approved a 92-percent cut to federal spending on science.

Singapore’s government said a new foreign-interference law will not affect international academic collaborations, but some critics fear it could lead to academic self-censorship.

Emerson College suspended a campus chapter of conservative student group Turning Point USA after members passed out stickers critical of China’s government. 

The University of Hong Kong is demanding the removal of a long-standing memorial that commemorates the victims of China’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

China’s private-tutoring restrictions could extend to preparations for the university entrance exam, the gaokao, which some experts say could lead more students to take an international track.

The British government plans to make “essay mills” illegal, subjecting companies sought selling essays to fines.

The University of Chicago has received a $50 million gift to support educational access, undergraduate research, and international education.

The availability of on-campus study and opportunities for post-graduation work and migration are key factors in international students’ decisions, according to new research from IDP.

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And finally…

Covid has grounded me, but I’ve traveled through my TV — since the start of the pandemic, I binged all 32 seasons of The Amazing Race. (Lest you think I’m an enormous couch potato, it’s my workout distraction.)

I’d caught a few minutes of the reality show here and there, but honestly, it wasn’t really my thing. There’s a lot about TAR I can’t relate to — I don’t know about you, but my overseas travels rarely include rappelling off buildings, searching through hundreds of hay bales, or rolling giant rounds of cheese.

What hooked me, though, is the little everyday moments of travel the show captures that I miss: emerging from an airplane’s cocoon into the scrum of a new city, the ineffable disparities in how fast different lines at immigration move, traffic snarls in places like Manila and Mumbai, jet lag, the dance between trepidation and anticipation when you try a food for the first time. In the rare instances when the frenetic pace of TAR slowed, I savored the glimpses of familiar haunts and added to my list of places to visit when we can — hopefully soon! — travel again.

Now, of course, I’ve got to find something to take its place. What shows have you liked? As always, you can reach me at

’Til next time —Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.