ESL Students in California Public Higher Education (2020 Update)

Intersegmental Issues


This report responds to the key questions raised by educators regarding English as a second language (ESL) practices, programs, and support services across the three California postsecondary systems: the California Community Colleges (CCC), the California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC). Though there is unanimous agreement that English language learners (ELLs) represent an important demographic served across the three segments of higher education in California, the types of support offered to these students is both unbalanced and unclear. Many of these issues were noted in the 2006 Intersegmental Council of Academic Senates (ICAS) ESL Task Force report but remain unchanged in 2020, and recent statewide legislation along with national and international developments have rendered the landscape even more precarious for ESL instruction and support services.

The survey conducted for the purposes of this 2020 ESL Students in California Public Higher Education report found uncoordinated approaches to assessment for language learning, uneven methods of identifying ELLs, and an overall reduction in sections of ESL courses. Moreover, while ELL students are not a homogeneous population, it appears as though certain kinds of ELL students receive disproportionate levels of support. For instance, the 2020 survey responses reveal that many institutions have very clear means of identifying international students yet very unclear means of identifying ELL immigrants. The chief method of identifying immigrant ELLs is self-identification; however, immigrant ELL students may not choose not to identify as such. Often the most accurate means the college has to identify ELLs is enrollments in ESL classes. Self-identification or even college identification is usually imprecise and inconsistent.

This report concludes with a list of recommendations and action items in direct response to the lack of significant progress made towards serving ELLs since the 2006 report. The recommendations and action items signal the absolute necessity that the three higher educational systems coordinate efforts to identify, track, and provide adequate instruction and support for ELLs as well as engage ESL professionals in the recommendation and coordination of services.

While framing these concerns and addressing them through an equity-minded lens, it is important to acknowledge that the challenges and barriers facing ELLs not only affect their ability to be successful within or to transfer between public institutions of higher education, but also their ability to participate in and contribute to the social and economic well-being of the State of California. It is with this broader perspective in mind that the ICAS ESL Task Force recommends that this report, its findings, and its recommendations, be shared with faculty, staff, and administration in all three segments of public higher education in California, intersegmental groups, California professional organizations concerned with the specific needs of ELLs, legislators and other governmental entities, and our colleagues in K-12 education.