Language barriers are enrollment barriers for community colleges
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Language Barriers Are Enrollment Barriers for Community Colleges

ESL students are among those with the most to gain from community college access. Why don’t colleges market to them?

There’s a paradox at the heart of the American education system. We’re a diverse country: 13.7% of the American population are immigrants. We have a larger Spanish-speaking population than Spain. Over a fifth of residents speak a language other than English at home. And yet, American educational institutions have struggled to fully support language-learning students—both those learning English as a second (or third, or fourth) language, and those studying other languages.

This is unfortunate. English as a Second Language (ESL) and Languages Other Than English (LOTE) students seek these courses as a way to broaden their skillsets and open new employment opportunities. For ESL students in particular, English language mastery is a stepping stone toward numerous other advantages. The problem is that many of these courses are not advertised in a language that ELS students speak.

We’ve written more about this and other issues affecting community college enrollment in our latest white paper, “Dismantling the Obstacle Course: How Community Colleges Can Use Content Marketing to Negotiate Enrollment Barriers.”

The good news is that community colleges can do more to reach these students. Here are five reasons community colleges should make a broader outreach effort, as well as our own insight into how bilingual marketing can reach the students who need ESL courses most.

1. ESL courses are the first step toward a degree and wider work opportunities.

In the United States, the ability to speak English is a prerequisite for many career pathways. This isn’t just true for finding a job—it’s true for earning the qualifications necessary to find a job. For community colleges, what this means is that if they hope to increase enrollment in a particular program, they should first increase enrollment in their ESL courses so that students can then sign up for a program. Students who enroll in ESL classes may have a longer timeline to complete a degree, but community colleges can use the time during which they are learning English to provide them more detailed information about potential career pathways once they’re ready.

2. ESL students are most likely to struggle with enrollment.

If ESL students are the least likely to even hear about community college opportunities, then they’re also the most likely to be confused by enrollment forms. Navigating these forms is often so challenging for native English speakers that large percentages fail to even apply for student aid. While colleges can do more overall in marketing their enrollment support services, they should dedicate extra outreach to ESL communities who will need this access most.

3. Language barriers extend beyond ESL learners.

We’re used to envisioning an ESL student as someone who doesn’t speak English, but many students who express themselves clearly when speaking may face hidden barriers when it comes to completing a written assignment. For many of these students, additional tutoring for their reading and writing skills would be a huge benefit to their academic careers. Unfortunately, community college writing centers are not always prepared to offer resources for ESL writing students. Expanding writing tutoring options to specifically support ESL students would help these students succeed in courses across the board.

4. Non-English courses can help students progress through a degree faster.

While building English language proficiency is a worthwhile goal, it’s not the only way to help students who are trying to build a career. This is especially true in states such as California or Texas, where over a quarter of the population are Spanish speakers. A student who is considering a career in nursing or as an auto mechanic can accomplish that goal faster if courses are offered in their native language. This may especially benefit students who possess strong verbal skills in English, but struggle with the written component. There are also other advantages: a nurse operating in a primarily Spanish-speaking hospital can benefit from having done her training in the language that they will be using to communicate with patients.

5. LOTE students can also benefit from more language access.

While ESL students are most in need of community college courses, there’s also an opportunity for community colleges to foster an environment that benefits students learning other languages as well. For instance, if a college is offering non-English courses in Spanish, they could encourage students in a Spanish course to attend. Or, they could create a language exchange program within the school, where ESL and LOTE students pair up to help each other learn. Tandem language learning can also help students connect outside of class with different language-speaking communities in a way that is beneficial for everyone.

Multilingual marketing is easier and more effective than you may think.

It’s likely that many community colleges recognize the importance of reaching students who need English-language assistance. It’s also likely that these same community colleges are overestimating the difficulty of running a bilingual marketing campaign. In fact, running a multilingual campaign only really requires two things: a translator to convert materials into the target language, and an effective marketing channel to reach the audience for whom those materials are intended.

Fortunately, in a country blessed with a wealth of proficient foreign language speakers, finding a translator for a major language demographic in a particular region is not a significant barrier. Social media also provides an excellent platform for distributing translated resources. Our own multichannel content marketing platform offers both social media sharing and an online microsite to host in-depth content.

However, we have one more marketing trick up our sleeve, and it’s an oldie but goodie. Using US postal data, we can target print mailers toward neighborhoods with a higher demographic of a given language. The US postal system provides data for over seventy different languages, and allows for precision down to specific households or carrier routes.

In fact, we’ve seen this strategy pay off for our own clients. Recently, Diablo Valley College in California won an award from CCPRO, a marketing association for community colleges. The award recognized Diablo Valley College for a successful bilingual campaign that they ran, where they used our services to produce a twenty-four-page magazine, of which half the pages were in English and the other half in Spanish. We’re proud of the dedication they’ve shown in serving their Spanish-speaking community, and are equally proud to be the tool they chose to make it possible.

If you would like to make your own bilingual marketing campaign a reality, contact us. We would be delighted to discuss your content needs and share more with you about our marketing capabilities.

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