The Mixed Methods Blog

Perspectives from our researchers, highlights from recent studies, and other news about CCRC

Shining a Light on the Growing Population of English Learners

The backs of several students carrying backpacks

A growing number of students learning English are enrolling in community colleges throughout the nation. They bring with them important aspirations: to earn the postsecondary credentials they need to establish a career in the United States and to develop their English language skills. And they come with varied educational experiences. Some come straight from taking high school ESL courses, while others may have never taken ESL. Still others arrive from other countries, many after having secured professional degrees, giving them more educational experience than most of their native-English-speaking peers.

However, there is little research on exactly who English learners in community colleges are. Even within the better defined group of students taking ESL courses, there is minimal research documenting their college experiences and pathways. A new CCRC paper attempts to illuminate existing research on this population and highlight factors within the community college context that affect the experiences and academic outcomes of ESL enrollees.

Examining these students’ community college pathways and ESL experiences is crucial to better understanding ways that colleges aid or impede their postsecondary success in the United States. In addition, understanding how these students experience community college—from entry through completion—is important, since research suggests that students who enroll in ESL courses in college tend to have poorer postsecondary outcomes than those who do not take ESL.

Previous research also points to challenges related to how students are assessed and placed into ESL courses, including the ways colleges determine who should take ESL placement tests in the first place. Additionally, research suggests that the ways English learners are labeled and portrayed within the college context can impact their identities as academic learners. The ESL label may come with negative stereotypes and connotations that can affect how students view themselves as academic learners and cause them to avoid being identified as English language learners.

To better understand these experiences, we first need to understand more about the students who make up the English learner population. Because these students are not always placed into or do not always enroll in ESL courses, it can be challenging to identify and track them in college. English learners are a subset of immigrants and they vary substantially in their backgrounds and college goals. Their English language learning needs may have been assessed in the K–12 system, but those records do not follow them to college, and their academic preparation in their native language may have been strong or weak.

In addition, not only do English learners enter college with diverse educational and professional experiences, but these students can have quite different reasons for enrolling in ESL courses. Some students may intend only to improve their English language skills and don’t plan to earn a college degree, while others enter community college and enroll in academic programs or adult/continuing education divisions and may wish to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree or complete an associate degree. Without reliable means to assess academic English proficiency and thus identify English learners, we lack the ability to document their diversity of backgrounds, aspirations, experiences, and outcomes.

It is important that future research highlight English learners’ varied goals and explore how they connect with students’ placement into ESL courses and pathways through ESL and other college courses—along with the different supports they may need. This will require more accurate approaches to identifying English learners in community colleges and research that centers their experiences and perceptions. It is imperative that the growing English learner population in community colleges receive the attention it deserves both from researchers and colleges so these students can advance along with their peers. With a broader base of knowledge about English language learners, we hope to uncover ways to better support these students in reaching their postsecondary and professional goals.

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