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.


The 2006 ESL Task Force concluded with recommendations that the three higher educational systems coordinate efforts to identify, track, and provide adequate instruction and support for ELLs as well as the engagement of ESL professionals in the recommendation and coordination of such services. There is no evidence that these recommendations have been taken up or acted upon since the 2006 report.

Based on this lack of progress along with new findings from the 2020 survey and new developments since the 2006 report, the 2020 ESL Task Force makes the following recommendations in order to provide ELL students equitable access to opportunities:

  1. Bolster support for greater systemwide intersegmental coordination in order to improve communication, service sharing, and service enhancement for ELLs both within and across the CCC, CSU, and UC systems. It is clear that greater systemwide and intersegmental communication and coordination is needed in order to ensure greater success for ELLs in California higher education. This task force is one of the few, perhaps the only, cross-segmental dialogue that has occurred to review the needs of ELLs. With greater collaboration and a true focus on serving ELLs from a systemwide perspective, solutions to many of the concerns from this report could be found. The CCC system and its individual campuses have been disproportionately impacted by recent legislation. They have simultaneously borne the greatest burden of supporting ELLs because of their open admissions model and the responsibility of preparing students for transfer to CSU/UC and beyond. The task force recommends allocating resources in a manner that strategically prioritizes the CCC system and its individual campuses.
  2. Provide resources and promote partnerships that leverage the extensive expertise and existing curricular infrastructure of CCCs to prepare and support ELL students in both undergraduate and graduate programs at the CSU/UC systems. This is especially important for CSU/UC campuses that do not have an adequate infrastructure to support ELL students and are unable or unwilling to create such infrastructure.
  3. Recognize and address the disconnect between resources allocated to the recruitment of international students and the resources dedicated to supporting them once they are enrolled. International students should not be viewed solely in terms of the tuition revenue they generate, but also in terms of the specific kinds of support they need while acclimating to life in a new country and new academic system.
  4. Provide resources for better communication, recording, and archiving of policies within individual institutions to address the needs of ELLs. Our survey indicates that there is considerable variation among faculty and administrators in terms of their awareness of how ELLs are identified and served within their own institutions. Many ESL stakeholders rely on anecdotal information or informal “institutional memory” instead of clear policy.
  5. Enable more robust identification and tracking of ELLs across courses and across institutions in cases of transfer. Tracking provides clearer data points that make visible the successes and needs of ELLs as they move through the three systems.
  6. Ensure adequate and sustainable ESL course offerings at the CCCs. It is important to identify factors in the reduction of ESL course sections and services at the CCCs, and commit to equity by providing robust offerings as well as support for ELLs (including tutoring, dedicated counseling, and clear methods of identifying and tracking ELLs).
  7. Systematically review all advanced-level ESL courses for satisfaction of general education requirements. Specifically, such courses should be assessed as to whether they should be accepted as satisfying Humanities Areas C2 and 3B or other general education requirements. This is consistent with moving beyond ethnocentric views of ESL that cast English language learning as remedial instead of as equal to foreign language learning; ELLs should be recognized as multilingual learners, just as much as anglophone students learning a language other than English.
  8. Examine the current state of ELL identification and placement into California community colleges and develop a consistent systemwide approach that addresses unintended consequences and inequitable impact of legislation on ELLs. ELLs need to be clearly identified and provided options in accordance with AB 1805 in order to make appropriate decisions about the courses that will enhance their success.
  9. Establish clear criteria to ensure consistency in applying the California State University & University of California Guiding Notes for General Education Course Review for the approvals of advanced credit English as a Second Language courses for satisfaction of general education requirements. CCCs submitting courses for review have been subjected to inconsistent approvals and denials regardless of course outline content.