Structural Aspects of the Language Enrollments Issue

Your enrollments are low. Recruit more students. 

Declining enrollments put a lot of stress on language programs and language teachers, as teachers wonder if their classes will make, if their programs will continue, if they will lose their jobs. This is a particularly acute problem as the vast majority of language teachers are not tenure-track, and many of them are part-time instructors, or adjuncts. Even with tenure, if the entire program is cut, tenure is unlikely to save jobs.

In response to this problem, the message given to teachers is “get your enrollments up!” While this may seem like an obvious solution, it actually creates even more anxiety and frustration as it is a request for overloaded language teachers to take on additional work, in which they have no training, in an environment in which many structural factors are out of their control. 


So, what do I mean by this exactly? Let’s start with the additional work of marketing. Marketing is a full academic discipline and professional field, but it is not one in which the language teachers I’ve met have any training whatsoever. Now, I’m sure most language teachers could learn marketing skills, but will they be given the time and financial resources to do so? It’s unlikely. In my personal experience, asking about these types of things is either met with confusion (why are you asking about marketing strategy?) or refusal (our office doesn’t support that). 

As a result, language class marketing is usually flyers, social media posts, and extracurricular events, but we have no idea if these are effective–has a student ever signed up for Arabic because they saw a fun poster? If so, what is the return rate? There’s also no attention to larger marketing strategies, or who our marketing efforts are reaching, and no resources to develop these.

Structural Factors

While I think that marketing efforts are necessary, and that language classes also need to adjust for the current reality (more on that in a subsequent post!), there are also clear structural factors that impact language enrollments. Failing to recognize the impact of these factors, while simultaneously admonishing language teachers to “get your enrollments up”, makes individuals responsible for situations over which they have limited control. This is a frustrating and anxiety-producing environment.

So, what are some of these structural factors?

  1. Lack of language requirements: College students are under financial and academic pressure to complete their degrees in a timely manner, and double and triple majors are increasingly popular (I think in itself an understandable response to current economic uncertainty). As a result, students don’t tend to take classes beyond what is required, even if they enjoy the subject or professor. University wide language requirements, if they exist at all, are usually 1-4 semesters. Degree programs may have additional requirements, and these (in addition to majors) are usually what fill upper level language classes (if they even make in the first place!). Since upper level classes are dependent on students completing lower level ones, enrollment in these classes steadily declines as well.
  2. Language classes don’t have convenient schedules: Language learning takes time, and to get to a level where you can engage in some professional functions (the frequently assumed goal of language classes in higher ed, although we could contest this as well) you need a lot of classes. These classes also tend to meet every day, at least initially, because language skills develop through everyday repetition. Of course, this isn’t very convenient, and takes up a lot of time in student schedules, which are often already maxed out with school, work, extracurriculars, and family. 
  3. Lack of related courses: Many students take language classes because they are interested in a particular area of the world, and for this reason area studies and language class enrollments often support each other, with students interested in the Middle East generally wanting to enroll in Arabic for example (or other Middle Eastern languages!). If one of these goes away, it impacts the other, and at least in my experience, the impact of losing area studies on language is more severe than the other way around. 
  4. Declining enrollments generally: At many universities, enrollments are declining generally, and this can have an outsize impact on language classes, which tend to be smaller. A 20% decline in enrollment might take a large lecture class from 100 to 80 students, but it’s still a large class. The same 20% decline might take a 15 person language class to 12, where it will no longer meet the minimum enrollment number at many institutions (mine included).
  5. Disconnect between strategic initiative and language classes: Two common strategic initiatives in higher ed are ones characterized by terms like “internationalization” or “supporting multilingual students”. While it seems like there should be a strong connection between these types of initiatives and language learning, the latter is frequently left out. Internationalization efforts are expected to occur in English, the global language, or involve speakers of other languages learning English (but not the other way around). Similarly, support for multilingual students at best focuses on recognizing their multilingualism, and at worst is a euphemism for policing their language practices to match those of white, middle class, academic English speakers. Maintaining multilingual practices, or making the institution more multilingual by teaching English speakers other languages, or even just recognizing the connections between social injustices and language practices, rarely features in these initiatives. 
  6. Reliance on part-time staffing: While part-time instructors/adjuncts are the majority in higher ed generally, and this is an issue unto itself, this is even more true in language classes. The issue here is not that part-time instructors are worse teachers (they aren’t!) but that it is much easier to cut them, which also cuts language offerings.
  7. Languages perceived as a “fun extra”: I’ve saved this one for last, but it’s truly the heart of the issue, which is that in the United States, languages other than English are generally perceived as a deficit that holds you back (for the socially marginalized), or a fun bonus you can use to move forward (for the socially powerful). Because they are “extra”, they are the first requirements to be cut when there is pressure to reduce credits to graduation or in major degree requirements, and the first choice to cut for schedule conflicts. Because they are “fun”, language teachers are expected to maintain their enrollments through entertaining activities, such as sharing food, or showing movies, or being an over-the-top engaging teacher. While all of these are important, I never hear the same expectations placed on courses in biochemistry, or math, or engineering, or other (mostly STEM) fields deemed essential. 
  8. Add your own: There are probably more structural factors I’m missing, feel free to add them in the comments!

I’m not arguing that language programs and teachers are powerless in the face of these obstacles, and in a followup post I’ll focus on my ideas for what we can do. However, I think our responses need to be informed by a clear perspective on the situation we are in, which is one of being expected to engage in activities for which we have no training and no resources in contexts in which we have limited control. We also need to communicate this position to those who evaluate us on our enrollments (or at least try to).

Now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue! Are there other structural factors you face? Are you encouraged to “get your enrollments up” with no support? Or are there other happier takes on this issue out there? Let me know in the comments!  






One response to “Structural Aspects of the Language Enrollments Issue”

  1. Kirk Belnap Avatar
    Kirk Belnap

    Excellent points. Our surveys of students of Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish conducted about 15 years ago showed that very few enrolled to satisfy a lg. req.

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