ELI takes hits when international enrollment drops


Rebecca Griesbach

Frannie James said she’d be terrified if she were still a full-time English as a Second Language instructor.

“If I lost my job at The University of Alabama, there’s not many other jobs to get,” said the semi-retired part-time instructor.

Housed in the Capstone International Center, the English Language Institute (ELI) is a non-credit-bearing program that is designed to boost English test scores needed for admittance into American schools. The institute is funded by its students’ tuition, and recent drops in enrollment have affected the size and stability of the program.

With the English language support, some students go on to apply to other undergraduate institutions, while others later apply to the University or take undergraduate classes concurrently.

Since 2014, international student enrollment has dropped from 1,817 to 1,476 after seven years of continuous growth.

Charter Morris, director of International Services, warned his boss about this drop three years ago.

“The minute (enrollment) plateaus, that’s it,” he said. “We’re gonna see a drop, and it might hurt.”

Of those 1,817 students, about 250 were enrolled in the ELI. Now, the number of ELI students is down to 67.

Unlike the rest of the international department, ELI faculty “literally live and die” by their enrollments, Morris said.

“The canary in the mine is always the English Language Institute, because they have a much faster turnaround,” Morris said. “If there’s a trend of Visa denials … the ELI feels it first – and not just us, but everybody. I’ve heard some schools say, ‘We’re going to shut our English language program down.’”

International student enrollment, Morris said, is “at the mercy” of the economy or political situations of different countries.

“The price of a barrel of oil,” he said, “has had more of an impact than anything else.”

Many oil-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria, have cut government sponsorships to send students to American schools.

Other governments, like Brazil’s, have cut programs like the Brazil Science Mobility program, which used to fund The University of Alabama’s 130 Brazilian students. That number is now down to 11.

Other students, Morris said, may be deterred from the cost of applying to a university like the Capstone that does not have an in-house credential evaluator. To submit a transcript and have it translated and expedited, then, could cost anywhere from $200 to over $800.

“Everybody thinks that sponsor students have it so easy,” Morris said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, your government pays for everything.’ The hoops you have to jump through to get those scholarships, the competition to win the award, and just to keep it – I always feel sorry for those guys.”

ELI student Yudum Turgut wanted to come to America to study econometrics, but she stayed in Turkey until she made the test scores needed to receive one of her country’s most prestigious scholarships, which would pay $15,000 for six months of English language training.

“There’s no way I could come to here if I didn’t have my scholarship,” Turgut said. “I wanted to study in USA before I changed my degree, but there’s no way I could come here… There’s no way to pay this money.”

Her friend Ji Su Choung, a professional golfer from South Korea, is at the University on her parents’ dollar. She plans to study sports science after completing six levels of ELI coursework.

“I came here by myself,” she said. “I was living in a dorm, but I wanted to find an apartment. That was kind of a challenge for me.”

For Choung, ELI provided a space for her to voice her concerns.

“I think making friends is easy because you are spending time in class and studying together,” Choung said. “You are talking about your issues.”

Internally, the University offers few scholarship opportunities for international students, especially those that are need-based, because different countries have different ways of documenting income.

Last year, international students contributed to $49.4 million of the University’s economic impact, according to a study done by the Association of International Educators.

“You may not think what we do is important, but this is the literal contribution,” Morris said. “A lot of people think that an international student takes the place of an American student, but we don’t do that. We admit everybody that’s qualified. No one’s place has been taken.”

Yet, as enrollment has decreased, that economic impact has also decreased, and the ELI especially has had to resort to “creative means” to avoid laying off half of their non-tenured staff, Morris said.

Instructor Mary Hendley has spent time in meetings with ELI Director Bill Wallace and other faculty, where they discussed recruitment strategies and sharing faculty with other departments.

In April, five ELI faculty volunteered to cross the Pacific to save their colleagues’ jobs. They are now on payroll at a Japanese institution.

But none of this is new or specific to the University. Enrollment comes in waves nationwide, Hendley said, and the ELI has always been resilient.

“I think it’s a program that will be able to navigate the storm,” Hendley said.