COVID's Impact on U.S. English Language Programs
In 2017, IBIS World estimated the U.S. [ESL, ASL, Foreign] language instruction industry revenue to be $1.9 billion with a profit of $174.8 million and a growth of 1.3%. The U.S. Department of Commerce with NAFSA, estimated the economic impact of F-1 visa international students in U.S. higher education during the 2016/17 school year to be $39.4 billion with English language programs (ELPs) accounting for approximately 30% ($11.8 billion).
In 2019/20 the economic impact of international students continued to grow to $44 billion ($13.2 billion for ELPs) and 415,996 direct-indirect jobs created or supported.
While the overall number of participants in these sectors continued to grow, the U.S. market share was down globally from 28% in 2000 to 22% in 2014, likely due to an increase in foreign competition (IIE, 2016). In 2017, U.S. enrollment from the top countries of origin was down, except for Brazil with an 11.1% change from the previous year (Brazilian enrollment peaked in 2014). From 2010 to 2013 Saudi Arabian student enrollment demonstrated significant increases, but has been on a downward trend since 2015, likely due to changes in the budget and regulation of the Saudi Arabia Cultural Mission.
In 2019/20, IIE Open Doors reported the total number of international students in the U.S. declined by 1.8% over the prior academic year in the over 2,900 accredited U.S. institutions of higher education. While the number of institutions hosting 1,000+ students grew from 135 institutions in 1999/00 to 225 in 2019/20 - indicating an increase in competition for a shrinking number of students. In Fall 2020, institutions reported a 16% decrease in enrollment and the mode of instruction shifting to 88% hybrid, 11% virtual, and 2% in-person.
What does this mean for the U.S. English language instruction industry?
Recruitment efforts in the top countries of origin and the development of robust online instruction remain essential. Program administrators will need to work hard to regain enrollment, expect decreased participation from some populations, and dedicate resources towards recruitment in emerging markets. With increasing foreign and domestic competition, marketing materials will need to be updated to address COVID related changes and highlight the benefits of studying in the U.S. and the program's differentiators.
Research has yet to identify factors that can predict international student enrollment in language programs, however the economic and political climate seem noteworthy.