How to Choose an IEP?
Choosing an Intensive English Program in the U.S.
By Carl De Angelis
In the U.S. over 800 full-time intensive English programs (IEPs) have made a commitment to excellence in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). Over the past 30 years, the development of standards and best practices in the field has brought two major consortia into existence, as well as an accrediting body specifically for the IEP community.
The University and College Intensive English Programs (UCIEP) and EnglishUSA (formerly AAIEP) each developed thoughtful and thorough guidelines for IEPs. Over 400 IEPs in these consortia adhere to their guidelines. In addition, the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) has established itself as an accrediting agency for IEPs. Truly there is a healthy preoccupation with quality among IEPs; but with so many options, choosing the right program can seem daunting.
Choosing the right program for you is also very difficult because it involves a large commitment. IEP classes and language laboratories will account for 15 to 20 hours of your time per week. You will be associating daily with the other international students in the program, making new friends and establishing contacts for your future career. You will be living in a new location in a city or town where you will be meeting U.S. citizens in your daily activities, and you will encounter English as a living language. As a result, you will have many opportunities to use your newly acquired language skills regardless of the IEP you select.
So, with a host of excellent programs to choose from—and considering the length of time you will reside at the IEP of your choice, not to mention the money you will spend—how will you make the right choice?
Location, Location, Location
Begin by asking yourself where—at least in which state or region of the U.S.—you wish to study for the next three or six or twelve months. Think big, and be adventurous. Perhaps even choose a place you always wanted to explore. Consider your geographic options, the seasons, the population. Consider what goals, in addition to learning English, you may wish to accomplish and the setting that would allow you to use your English outside the classroom to the best advantage. Consider potential opportunities for professional networking: if you’re striving to be an actor or actress, Los Angeles is the place; for politics, Washington, D.C. If you come from a small town and want a change of scenery, New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco might be a welcome change. If you want a change from the congestion of Tokyo, Taipei or Mexico City, consider the Midwest states or the Pacific Northwest. No matter which IEP you choose, opportunities for language learning and self-development abound.
Of course, you must be brave to go abroad with limited language skills and undertake a course of study in a new environment. You will have to use the language that you are learning immediately. Your natural instinct will be to seek the security of a group of speakers of your primary language. However, it is better to avoid large groups of speakers of your own language if possible. IEP staff persons will assist you in your acculturation and language learning. So whatever program you choose, try to strike out on your own: seek IEPs with small enrollments of your own language speakers. Don’t choose a program because your cousin or friend attended. Make a decision that will challenge your language and intercultural skills.
Do Your Homework
That is, do your homework before you begin your actual English studies. This is the most important part of choosing a program. Once you have decided upon a location, find the best program for you. Right now you’re reading the best source of information about IEPs that I know, Intensive English USA (IEUSA). First published in 1964 by the Institute of International Education (IIE) as a pamphlet, this publication has grown into a worldwide resource for those wishing to study English in the U.S., with over 600 entries. The introduction tells you how to use the book, but here are a few tips:
• Academic preparation: Most IEPs focus on English for academic purposes to prepare students to enter U.S. institutions of higher education. If you have another purpose for studying English, turn to IEUSA’s index for a list of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) programs and start there.
• Plan ahead: If you want to attend a U.S. college or university, consider those IEPs listed that offer conditional admission to the host university with acceptance into the IEP. Also check to see if the IEP offers credit for ESL courses. This could save you some money down the road.
• Class size: Smaller is better, but also look at the total program size. A very small program may not have all the levels of instruction that a large program does, nor all the support services.
• Support services: See what is offered in addition to language study. Homestays and host families, academic counseling, conversation partners, field trips and sociocultural activities, and airport pickup all will ease your transition and enhance your language learning.
• Faculty: Look for a high percentage of instructors holding advanced degrees in TESOL or related fields.
• Cost: Don’t pay for a name. Some of the best IEPs are not the most expensive or attached to Ivy League institutions.
• Affiliation: A program is not necessarily better or worse because it is affiliated with a university or is for-profit or not-for-profit. Check the statistics such as class and faculty size first.
• Consortia membership: Both UCIEP and EnglishUSA (formerly AAIEP) membership will guarantee that programs are at least preoccupied with academic standards. Remember that there are many excellent programs that may not be members of these consortia.
With the location in mind and supported with IEUSA data, call or e-mail the program contacts as given in IEUSA and ask for information or visit the Intensive English website. Look carefully at the program’s literature. Get a map. Imagine yourself living in the location day to day. Learn about the city, town or university where your program is housed from another source besides the IEP brochure. Try to get hold of a newspaper from the location of the program. Write to the Chamber of Commerce. Again, do your homework.
Let the Buyer Beware
Glossy brochures: Don’t fall for an IEP brochure with a beach photo on the cover that is nowhere near an ocean, or an urban skyline for a program several hours from the city depicted.
Cost: Calculate both tuition and living expenses when exploring your options as well as any additional fees that you will have to pay. Insurance is also mandatory when you study in the U.S. The cost of living varies greatly in the U.S., especially between urban centers and rural areas, making college towns very appealing from a financial point of view. When calculating tuition costs, which also vary greatly regardless of location, reduce the price of each program to a weekly unit cost. The weekly unit cost will allow you to truly compare prices. Lastly, shop around for the best insurance deals and carefully read the coverage each plan offers.
Personal safety: It’s probably true that New York City is more dangerous than Bloomington, Indiana. But don’t make the mistake most New Yorkers make and assume the whole lovely state of New York is Manhattan or Brooklyn. Buffalo, Syracuse, Ithaca and Stony Brook are excellent New York locations having excellent IEPs. Also keep in mind that thousands upon thousands of students have studied English in New York City without having been mugged. IEPs do have security. Don’t worry too much about life in the big city if that’s the life you want to try out. If safety is a major issue for you, however, think smaller.
By adding the simple measures outlined above to your IEP search, you can rest assured that the IEP you choose will be the right one for you.