Finding clients for ESL schools requires a lot of get up and go. Traveling overseas to meet with study-abroad agencies, colleges and universities ranks high on the marketing to-do list. Some ESL schools use agents in foreign countries to cull clients, while others advertise in foreign publications to get the word out to potential students.
Smart marketing, yes, but unfortunately, that isn't always enough to seal the deal. Other factors over which ESL school operators have little control can come into play. Uncle Sam's immigration policy has a hand in the success or failure of ESL schools on American soil, as does the exchange rate of the dollar and relations between the U.S. government and foreign countries. All these factors can stand in the way of even the most effective marketing plan.
"We have two battles when it comes to getting students: promotion in foreign countries and getting the State Department to issue student visas," says Stipek. "In both those areas, we have little support."
While American ESL school owners struggle to overcome these obstacles, their competitors are gaining on them. And the competition isn't the other school down the street. "Our greatest competition isn't other American ESL schools, it's ESL schools in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia," says Stipek.
In those countries, regulations on student visas are decidedly more lax, allowing more foreigners in and therefore more potential ESL students. And some foreign countries go beyond that, actually setting up marketing offices abroad to entice students and business executives to use their countries' ESL schools. That's tough competition for Americans who scramble to find agents abroad who will pitch in on the marketing front.
Stipek, along with other ESL operators, is determined to make headway. As a member of the Executive Board of the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP), Stipek is in ongoing discussions with the U.S. Departments of Commerce and State to establish commercial offices and ESL trade fairs overseas and to relax the requirements for issuance of student visas.
If their efforts are successful, it could mean an explosion in the ESL market--and it could help start-up entrepreneurs such as Donna Scriven, who recently put out her ESL shingle. Scriven, who taught ESL in Italy, Spain, Chile, Portugal and Costa Rica, is now hoping to do the same on her own turf.
Her company, English a la California, brings one to three students at a time into her home in Kentfield, California, and offers formal grammar and listening activities in addition to a daily breakfast for about $100 a day. "One of my former students said to me, `Only $100 a day! A Spaniard would expect to pay that much just for the hotel,' " says Scriven, whose first students arrived this summer.
Pricing an ESL program depends on several factors: the length of stay, whether or not housing is provided, and extracurricular actitivies such as sightseeing. At IEI, prices average $1,500 plus off-site room and board for an eight-week program that focuses on the academic aspects of language acquisition, not on sightseeing.
But at Levine's English Language Center, where tuition costs $1,000 to $1,500 for two to four weeks plus housing, sightseeing activities are a big part of the program. Depending on the school location, her students head to New York City, Disneyland, Universal Studios or Magic Mountain. "That's what's unique about my schools," says Levine. "We do everything. We never say no."
Like most ESL schools, Levine's caters to individuals and groups, including some unique students who need rather specialized vocabulary. Levine's English Language Center shot basketball terms at Vlade Divac of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and coached a class of Boston Bruin recruits from Eastern Europe on hockey lingo. You can bet they learned the most important words to any athlete: "Show me the money."