It’s no secret that teaching English as a foreign language has become big business in the United States. Not surprisingly, several English language institutes have sprung up throughout major American cities and in other English-speaking countries as well. Although these institutes operate as businesses, many provide an invaluable educational experience and serve as a stepping stone for those who want to eventually study at an American university. Even as the global economy has slowed down in recent years, some of these institutes have grown significantly as young professionals study English in the hopes of one day securing a top paying job back home. Unfortunately, many English language institutes are entirely too focused on profit rather than the well-being of the students and teachers. Students are often charged different prices depending on where they are from and teachers at these schools have seen their wages actually decrease and benefits cut despite record profits.
Moreover, there is a growing trend for less established English institutes to charge ridiculously low prices in an attempt to undercut the market and make significant profits on the volume of rapid growth. These institutes are almost always low in quality and overrun by unmotivated students who are only attending an English school to maintain an F1 visa status. Consequently, teacher turnover is strikingly high and disorganization is the norm at the low-budget schools. Generally speaking, a quality English language institute should have a healthy balance between good students and price. The appropriate monthly tuition (20-25 hours of weekly instruction) for one month (4 weeks) at an English school should be no less than $600 and no more than $1000. Anything less than $600 is likely to be a ‘visa mill’ and anything more than $1000 is a well-organized marketing machine. Both types of schools have little interest in education or building a community. Lets examine the worst English Language Institutes that should be avoided by potential students and teachers; Education First, Kaplan, Solex College and Computer Systems Institute (CSI).
Education first or EF is a massive company that does more than just English language training and is actually considered to be the leader in international education. In fact, this company that was founded in 1965 and based out of Switzerland, has 37,000 staff and over 500 offices and schools located in more than 50 countries. Large EF schools can be found throughout major US cities and in large cities of other English-speaking countries. Education first, however, is a misnomer as the company should be called ‘Education Last’. The company is far from being educationally oriented and operates strictly on the bottom line. There is no exact tuition price as students are charged different prices depending on where they are from. Typically, most students pay between $1800 to $2500 per month. While there are some quality teachers at EF, the students are being thoroughly overcharged. EF uses an in-house source to publish its own textbooks, which are some of the worst in the industry and littered with grammar mistakes.
The Teacher turnover rate at EF is high even by ESL standards, which comes as no surprise since teacher wages are the lowest in the industry despite being such a large company. Although working full-time hours, instructors are treated as part-time commodities that aren’t even paid for breaks. In other words, if a teacher has even a 10-minute break between classes at EF, he or she is not paid. There have also been numerous reports of unfair labor practices and unwarranted hostility towards teachers by management. Their treatment of students is no better. There have been hundreds of complaints of price gouging as students are charged different tuition prices and made to pay unfair rents for sub-par living accommodations. There have even been reports of management threatening to disrupt the visa status of students who opt for another school after arriving in the United States.
Similar to Education First, Kaplan is another global giant that does more than just English language instruction. Kaplan International is the name used for its 40 English institutes located in major cities around the world. Founded in 1938, the company also provides test preparation and career training programs. Although it might have been a reputable company in the past, Kaplan management has taken a hard-line stance towards obtaining the bottom line for the past decade or so. Not surprisingly, real education is a low priority at Kaplan. Like Education First, textbooks are inadequate and lacking substance. Students pay upwards to $1500 per month for mediocre lessons.
Similar to Education First, teacher turnover is high, which is not surprising since hourly pay might be the lowest in the industry and there have been several complaints of unfair labor practices by management. It’s gotten so bad at Kaplan that a group of teachers at Kaplan International New York formed a union in 2012 and were miraculously able to get a two-year labor contract earlier this year. Since then, wages have slightly improved at most Kaplan locations, but teachers who are working nearly full-time hours are still being paid as part-time employees and benefits remain limited. There have been reports that management remains hostile towards teachers at most Kaplan locations since the New York union contract was signed in April of 2014.
We take a different direction now and examine a couple of smaller institutes that offer low budget ESL courses. Solex College, based out of Chicago, was founded in 1995 and has campuses in downtown Chicago and in the outer suburbs of the city. Prices at Solex are extremely competitive as tuition costs are no more than $400 per month and sometimes less depending on the program and length of stay. Solex claims to be a smaller and friendly alternative to the larger companies like Kaplan and Education First, which costs thousands of dollars more. However, lower prices and a smaller company doesn’t mean better conditions for students and teachers. While Solex may not be a definite ‘visa mill’, it is close. There are several reports of classes dominated by unmotivated students who are only there to maintain a F1 visa status in order to stay in the country. While these types of students exist at all schools, a quality school should have no more than %10 of these types.
In addition, teacher turnover rates are high, which comes as no surprise as education is a small priority. Although smaller, Solex focuses only on the bottom line, which entails paying teachers the minimum hourly rate in the industry ($20 per hour) and offering no sort of healthcare or benefits. Teachers come and go quickly. There is little interaction between teachers and management and almost no possibility of advancing to a higher position. In the end, Solex is no more than a holding pen for students looking to maintain an F1 visa and a revolving door for teachers who quickly become frustrated and leave.
Don’t be fooled by their nicely crafted website and marketing techniques. This is one of the worst schools in the ESL industry. Founded in 1989, CSI, as it’s commonly called, offers a variety of career programs in medical and business administration in addition to its intensive English program. CSI has campuses throughout Illinois and Massachusetts. Prices are comparable to Solex College if not less expensive. However, this place is a bona fide ‘visa mill’. Education is an afterthought at this company.
Classes are overrun by ‘students’ seeking only to maintain a F1 visa status. There is little education, training or professional development occurring at this school. However, you would never know it if you checked out their website or talked to the marketing department, which is well-organized. Not surprisingly, teacher turnover is absurdly high. There is no opportunity to advance, get a raise or receive any kind of benefits. There have been several reports of hostility, harassment and threats on the part of management towards the teachers. Essentially, institutes, such as these prefer high teacher turnover in order to deter any attempts by teachers to organize.
Each of the schools discussed above displays everything that is wrong with the ESL industry and the larger issues of for-profit education.This is not to say that there aren’t good for-profit educational institutes out there. Good companies exist, but they are hard to come by in the ESL industry. If you would like to contribute to this list, please do not hesitate to comment or leave a message. One objective of this blog to educate the public about a highly disorganized and unregulated ESL industry in the hopes of raising standards in the industry. These are certainly four of the worst English language schools.