Why are community colleges doubling-down on language learning?

Of the 40 million workers displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic since March, foreign-born workers have endured some of the worst job losses, according to a recent Pew study. What’s worse, those jobs may not be coming back. Economist David Autor has characterized the pandemic as an automation-forcing event, and he estimates that 40 percent of jobs may be gone for good. 

That combination of short-term job loss and longer-term structural changes to the labor market will hit non-native English speakers especially hard. Nearly half of Hispanic adults say the COVID-19 outbreak has already forced them or someone in their household to take a pay cut, lose their job or both. Employment among immigrant workers has fallen 19 percent since the pandemic began. 

In the coming months, community colleges will be vital in closing this employment gap, providing workers with both the technical and language skills they need to get back to work. There is one big challenge, though: while many students who speak English as a second language attend community colleges in hopes of quickly finding a good job and improving their careers, there remains little coordination between English language learning programs and workforce agencies. 

Rethinking language instruction

Community colleges are increasingly a haven for the more than 20 million adult immigrants who have limited proficiency in English and hope to improve their careers. English language learners are more likely to attend a community college than a four-year institution, with second-generation Americans now accounting for nearly one-quarter of all U.S. community college students. As a result, English as a second language (ESL) programs are among the fastest-growing in community colleges and other adult education programs, according to the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education at Westchester Community College (New York).

In order for these programs to be successful, however, community colleges must rethink how they provide language instruction. The most effective programs today are not like the language classes you might remember from your middle school days. They rely less on workbooks, quizzes and rote memorization and instead tap into the potential of emergent tools and technologies that have, in recent years, made language learning far more effective, personalized and efficient. The best of these programs are rooted in specific frameworks and contexts that help the learner go beyond basic vocabulary lists and understand a new language in real-world terms that matter to them. Research shows English language instruction that incorporates this sort of context is far more effective than traditional methods. 

In the post-COVID economy, immigrants who place their language education within the context of work — and, specifically, the kinds of jobs they hope to find and that are available — is critical. Unfortunately, most community college English language programs are not clearly aligned with the needs of local employers. There is little interaction between workforce agencies and those providing English language skills to potential workers. While such partnerships are increasingly common among technical programs, they remain rare among those focused on developing language skills. 

Working with employers

Some community colleges and programs, however, are starting to realize the value of collaboration with employer stakeholders. Pennsylvania’s Tuscarora Intermediate Unit (TIU), for example, has worked in recent years to form relationships with employers to gain a deeper understanding of how they can better prepare their students for work. TIU leaders quickly learned while employees are now increasingly willing to hire workers who speak English as a second language, they don’t always have the resources to invest in programs to help employees improve their language skills. This in turn helped inform TIU’s own investment in contextualized, flexible English language learning for working learners.

ADVANCE, an adult education and workforce development program housed at Lake Tahoe Community College (California), is adopting a similar approach. The director, Frank Gerdeman, points out “community colleges are preparing students for the jobs of the future, and it would be negligent of us not to include a pathway for non-native English speakers into those careers.” When community colleges and adult education centers partner with both employers and content providers, they are able to create meaningful educational pathways that drive positive economic benefits for students and their communities.

As the country’s economy slowly moves toward recovering from the devastating impact of the pandemic, community colleges will play a crucial role in getting people back to work. By partnering with workforce agencies and building programs around the needs of local employers, English language training can be key to this mission. They can help ensure that talented, hard-working Americans are not left behind simply because they speak another language. 

About the Author

Katharine Nielson
is CEO of Voxy, a personalized language learning platform.