American colleges seeking to increase their international student enrollments are offering more flexible admission policies than ever before. An increasing number of institutions offer conditional admission programs for students whose English proficiency test scores fall short of minimum cutoffs, and at many colleges the terms of these programs are changing.
Whereas the traditional model has been for conditionally admitted students to complete a non-credit-bearing intensive English as a Second Language course sequence before matriculating into the university, a growing number of colleges are creating pathway programs through which students can enroll concurrently in ESL and academic courses. In many cases, students can even earn academic credit for their ESL coursework.
Conditional admissions is not a new practice -- universities with well-regarded, accredited language institutes like Michigan State have been doing it for decades -- but what is (relatively) new is the sheer scope and variety of these programs. Driving the growth has been the rapid rise in the number of Chinese and Saudi Arabian students, who together make up 29.9 percent  of all international students in the United States. These students have the means to pay for an American higher education – or, in the case of Saudi students, government scholarships to support them – but in many cases need additional English language training.
In 2011, the average test-taker scored an 80 out of a possible 120 on the Internet-based Test of English as a Foreign Language, while the mean scores  for Chinese and Saudi students were 77 and 61, respectively. A college with a cut score of, say, 79 (like Michigan State) therefore risks cutting off well over half the potential applicant pool from these two countries if it doesn’t have some kind of mechanism for conditional admission.
“What conditional admissions does is it provides opportunity for that student who would not otherwise have made it, and it gives a chance for an institution to reach out to a student who it would not have been able to recruit otherwise,” said Rahul Choudaha, who researches international student recruitment in his capacity as director of research and advisory services at World Education Services, a credential evaluation agency. “I do see the value for a particular segment of students and institutions to have this kind of mechanism. The challenge is the misuse of it.”
As Choudaha asked, “How do you ensure that while you provide opportunity and a second chance to students, it does not lead to an overlooking of minimum standards set by the university?”
Barmak Nassirian, an independent higher education consultant and former staffer at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, agreed that well-designed conditional admission and pathway programs are a good idea in the abstract, but the challenge is upholding standards when there are competing motivations – chief among them money. Colleges aren’t typically in the business of creating specialized programs for students who fall on the wrong side of a bright-line requirement, but there is money to be made by recruiting – and retaining – a larger and larger pool of international undergraduate students.
“My concern is that there is an enormous gray zone where all kinds of practices can be justified in the name of hand-holding and in the name of ‘this student will eventually get to the right place,’ ” Nassirian said.
The practice of conditional admissions may be coming under new scrutiny. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently raised concerns  about the common practice of issuing I-20s certifying admission to a degree program when in fact students are being admitted under the condition that they first enroll in an intensive English program. Prospective international students present I-20s in applying for visas.
“The concern with this practice is that this is essentially defrauding the immigration requirements by telling SEVP [the Student and Exchange Visitor Program] the student met the admission criteria [for the degree program listed] on their I-20 when they did not,” the Homeland Security department said in a statement. “The other issue with this trend is that it leaves DHS with the wrong impression with regard to the student’s location. For example, the ESL program may be in a physical location not listed on the I-20, thus defeating the purpose of tracking the student’s location through [the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System].” The Department of Homeland Security is expected to issue new draft guidance on conditional admissions and pathway programs soon.
“How do you ensure that while you provide opportunity and a second chance to students, it does not lead to an overlooking of minimum standards set by the university?”
--Rahul Choudaha, World Education Services
Beyond regulatory issues, questions have also arisen with regard to conditional admissions and academic standards. In September, a dean at the University of San Francisco reportedly resigned due to concerns about the recruitment of large numbers of Chinese students who lacked the necessary English proficiency and the effect of this on the overall classroom experience. USF raised its minimum TOEFL score this fall – requiring that students not only earn a 79 on the Internet-based test (the previous requirement), but that they also score a 17 or above on each of the four subsections.
However, the university also increased the number of international students who were admitted conditionally. According to the institution’s website  – officials at USF declined to comment for this article – students with TOEFL scores ranging from 48 to 78 are eligible to apply for conditional admission, and conditionally admitted students enroll concurrently in ESL and academic courses. Conditionally admitted students typically take between eight and 16 credits of English each semester, and these credits count as electives. A total of 143 Chinese freshmen were conditionally admitted to USF this fall, 23 of whom exceeded the university’s previous minimum cut score.
Furthermore, recent revelations about low standards for faculty and students at the University of Southern Utah's intensive English program  have raised questions about varying levels of institutional oversight of ESL programs, which generally serve a gatekeeper function when it comes to conditionally admitted students (as it is the ESL faculty who determine who passes each level of English and who ultimately qualifies for matriculation into the university). Although there is nothing to suggest that Southern Utah's ESL program is typical, it is one case in which some students seem to have progressed through the program and into the university without reaching the level of English proficiency they would need to succeed.
The minimum English proficiency test scores required by U.S. universities for direct admission vary dramatically. Minimum TOEFL scores for direct undergraduate admission can range from 45 (at, for example, the University of Alaska Anchorage ) to 100 at Ivy League institutions and elite liberal arts colleges (such as Amherst , Columbia  and Yale ). For many selective but nonelite institutions, 79-80 seems to be the norm.
For students who fall below cut scores, but otherwise are determined to meet a university’s admissions requirements, options vary. Some colleges establish a floor for conditional admission – for example, a university with a minimum TOEFL requirement of 79 for direct undergraduate entry might offer conditional admission only to students with a score of 68 or above – while others will conditionally admit students at any level of English language proficiency.
Some colleges require conditionally admitted students to enroll in a university-governed intensive English program, while others have partnerships with private language providers. The largest of these, ELS, has relationships with 613 colleges that accept completion of its English for Academic Purposes Program as proof of English proficiency. Of these institutions, 572 make admission offers to students on the condition that they successfully complete ELS’ curriculum. ELS -- whose centers are accredited by the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training -- has 60 locations in the U.S., 53 of which are located on college campuses. Twelve of the 60 centers have opened in the last three years -- at East Tennessee State, Ohio Dominican, Marquette, Northern Illinois, and Texas Tech Universities; the Universities of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Houston at Clear Lake, Mary Washington, and Tampa; Bates Technical College; and in “city centers” in Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley.
David Hawkins, the director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said the association’s Commission on International Student Recruitment has discussed the growth of conditional admission and pathway programs in the course of its ongoing discussions. The commission has focused largely on the controversial practice  of using agents paid on commission in the recruitment of international students – a practice that’s barred under federal law when it comes to domestic student admissions.
Hawkins said two concerns expressed by commission members are the degree to which conditional admission and pathway programs are integrated into the institution and the extent to which the university controls them (or doesn’t). “Everyone understands that some of these programs generate revenue and are administered in a different way than the university handles traditional admissions,” Hawkins said. “They’re different business entities, if you will. And I think the concern that stems from that is perhaps the university doesn’t have oversight over the third parties that are involved in the transaction and that there are different tactics used to recruit students. The idea that there are commissioned sales going on in this environment is something that’s been discussed.” ELS, for example, has a global network of about 1,700 agents who earn commissions from the company for students recruited to its English language programs.
Conditional admission and pathway programs can perform two main functions: 1) they create a new pipeline of international students who wouldn’t otherwise be admissible and 2) they provide international students with additional support and a lower-stakes environment in which they can acclimate to the expectations of the U.S. higher education system. The University of Delaware, which has created a robust conditional admissions program in the last five years, raised its TOEFL requirement for direct undergraduate admission to 90 to capture more students in the Conditional Admissions Program (CAP). Scott Stevens, the director of Delaware’s (university-governed) English Language Institute, estimates that about 80 percent of the university’s undergraduate international students are admitted conditionally.
“Part of the idea behind CAP is a recognition that simply having a score on an iBT [the Internet-based version of the TOEFL] does not in any way, shape or form indicate that a student is fully prepared,” Stevens said. “The idea is for these students to learn what we call in the profession ‘cognitive academic language proficiency.’ So it’s not simply understanding and speaking the language, but being able to take notes, being able to read and write critically, reading and writing academic texts, being able to participate actively in problem-based learning and making presentations: this is a very wide and complex skill set. You can’t just in any way assume that a student with a 90 iBT will have that.”
“We really see CAP as a much, much better way of preparing students for matriculation and frankly another way of vetting those students who perhaps got those [English proficiency test] scores by luck or maybe by some dishonest means,” Stevens said.
Delaware’s intensive English institute, which is accredited by the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation, is of the traditional model: students cannot matriculate into university courses until they complete the English language course sequence and they do not earn academic credits for their ESL courses, save for the very highest level writing class. Stevens said he worries about the growing trend in which universities grant academic credit for ESL courses: “I don’t see how one can justify that.”
Ed McManness, director of the International Institute at La Salle University, in Philadelphia, says the justification is a straightforward one. “When we went to college we got credit for language whether we took Spanish or French or German, but many of us couldn’t take an academic test or write an essay in that language. But still we passed a course and got credit for it.”
La Salle has a new pathway program this year that allows students with TOEFL scores between 64 and 79 to earn 30 academic credits in their first year. (La Salle’s recommended minimum TOEFL for direct undergraduate entry is 76, but, as McManness explained, some students who meet or exceed the minimum still feel they can benefit from the transitional program.) Each semester, pathway students take two ESL courses in their pathway cohort and one history course taught exclusively for the pathway students, in addition to enrolling in two courses in the university at large. In another twist, the pathway students are considered fully admitted to La Salle, rather than conditionally, despite their low TOEFLs.
“Students learn language when their learning situation contains the vocabulary and the information they really want to learn,” McManness said of the benefit of letting students begin courses in their majors early on. “It’s not simply like being in an intensive language program.”
“The key thing for us is that the ex-pathway students are performing at the same level as the direct international, if not slightly better. That’s interesting when on paper they didn’t qualify for direct entry in the first place.”
--Bob Gilmour, director of academic programs for Oregon State's INTO OSU.
The pathway approach, in which students enroll in a mix of academic and credit-bearing English coursework in a foundation semester or year, continues to grow in popularity. The programs appeal to international students who wish to begin academic coursework right away, for financial or other reasons. Some of these programs are run by institutions (like La Salle’s). For example, Miami University, in Ohio, is now in its second year of offering a semesterlong American Culture and English program, in which students with TOEFL scores of 65-75 can be conditionally admitted and enroll in a one-semester, 15- to 17-credit pathway program consisting of two ESL courses – worth nine credits all together -- one sophomore-level American studies course (taught in a special section, reserved for students in the program) and one regular university course. The program also offers co-curricular activities and excursions and requires all students to live on campus with American roommates. In its first three semesters, the program has enrolled 120 students, the vast majority of whom are Chinese.
Meanwhile, George Mason University's one-year, 28-credit ACCESS program, open to students with TOEFLs of 68 or above, consists of a mix of academic, freshman transition, and English-language support classes. The students, who are predominantly from Saudi Arabia, China and the United Arab Emirates, are provisionally admitted into the university pending successful completion of the program. The program is now in its third year, and its director, Nicole Sealey, said it experienced one-year retention rates of 70 and 86 percent for the first and second cohorts, respectively. (Mason’s overall one-year persistence rate is around 86 percent.)
Increasingly, for-profit companies are partnering with U.S. colleges to offer foundation or pathway programs. The emergence of these companies has attracted controversy (for much more on that, see this Inside Higher Ed article ), but they continue to expand their footprints. An Australian company, Navitas, runs pathway programs at three branches of the University of Massachusetts, as well as at the University of New Hampshire and Western Kentucky University, while Kaplan International Colleges runs “Global Pathways” programs at Pace and Northeastern Universities and the University of Utah.
Study Group, which offers pathway programs at James Madison and Widener Universities, just announced it would open a new location at Roosevelt University, in Chicago, next fall. And INTO University Partnerships, which enters into long-term, joint ventures with partner universities, has established pathway programs at Colorado State and Oregon State Universities and the University of South Florida. It announced a new partnership, with Marshall University, in West Virginia, in November.
The oldest of the INTO programs, at Oregon State, has about 400 students enrolled in pathway programs offering entry into various undergraduate majors and graduate programs. For example, a student enrolled in a pathway program in business will take a slate of courses in anthropology, ESL, English composition, health, math, and public speaking, as well as an introductory business course. Oregon State retains control over the academics: the ESL instructors are Oregon State employees, and content courses in the various disciplines are controlled and taught by faculty in the corresponding academic departments. Students in the undergraduate pathway programs must earn a minimum 2.25 GPA and at least a C- in English composition and college algebra to progress into Oregon State with sophomore standing at the end of the pathway year.
The students who gain entry into INTO pathway programs may fall below standards for direct university admission not only in terms of English, but also GPA: while Oregon State requires a TOEFL of 80 and a GPA of 3.0 for direct undergraduate entry, students can be provisionally admitted into the INTO OSU undergraduate pathway programs with a 60 on the TOEFL and a 2.5 GPA. “The assessment of a credential from a high school beyond our borders – in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh -- is more art than science,” said David Stremba, the managing director for INTO North America. “It’s very difficult to understand the level of rigor; it’s very difficult to understand a system that is often quite different than what we’re used to in the United States.”
A pathway program, Stremba said, is about “leveling the playing field, and allowing very good students to prove that they are ready for a degree program.” Not all will succeed – in using the metaphor ”widening the funnel,” Stremba emphasized that a funnel is by nature widest at the top – but many will. Oregon State and INTO report that for the fall and winter 2011-12 cohorts, 67 percent of undergraduate pathway students successfully completed the program and progressed into Oregon State as sophomores. Another 3 percent completed and transferred into other universities, and another 22 percent are currently retaking one or more pathway courses and still have the chance to advance into OSU. Eight percent failed or dropped out.
Of those who do progress, former pathway students earn higher average GPAs than international sophomores who were directly admitted to Oregon State: 2.78 to 2.64.
“The key thing for us is that the ex-pathway students are performing at the same level as the direct international, if not slightly better,” said Bob Gilmour, director of academic programs for INTO OSU. “That’s interesting when on paper they didn’t qualify for direct entry in the first place.”
Gilmour said the benefit of a pathway model is that it allows universities to maintain or even raise their standards for direct admission while still creating opportunity for students who fall below those standards. “It’s really creating a buffer zone for the university, which is in everyone’s interest, including the students themselves,” Gilmour said. “They know what they have to achieve in that pathway year and it’s really in their hands to achieve it.”