Emphasizing Quality and the Role of Academic English Proficiency in International Admissions

By Srikant Gopal

Higher education institutions (HEIs) in the United States are under enormous pressure. Navigating the rapidly changing landscape of today’s evolving environment — from the geopolitically driven hurdles associated with the student visa process, to the rising costs of higher education and the growing competition from quality institutions in other countries — is incredibly difficult, and a challenge that will likely persist for the foreseeable future. These trends directly correlate with the decline in international student flows, as prospective students turn their attention to colleges and universities that can offer similar experiences minus these obstacles.

As HEIs analyze enrollment numbers and the diversification of incoming classes, it may seem as though loosening the reins on admissions requirements will combat the issue, but the opposite is true. Institutions across the country have reputations founded on quality and excellence because their admissions offices, boards of trustees and staff have upheld the highest standards when admitting incoming student bodies who have funneled through their campuses for centuries.

The admissions process is multifaceted and requires a balance of the components represented in students’ portfolios. Personal statements, recommendation letters, grade point averages, transcripts, extracurricular activities and volunteer work help paint a well-rounded picture of an applicants’ accomplishments and potential for future success at university. Compromising any of these application requirements would be detrimental. Components like personal statements and recommendation letters provide first- and third-person viewpoints of an applicant that would be missed with an application alone; GPAs and transcripts speak to the application of subjects that are foundational for higher ed; and extracurriculars and volunteer work speak to the important aspects of the non-academic life students will undertake on campus.

In addition to these, test scores provide an objective data point for admissions officers as part of the decision-making process. These tests are responsible for assessing specific skills that complement an applicant’s academic experience. For international students, one such assessment is the TOEFL iBT® test, the English-language assessment (ELA) that is designed specifically to measure academic English-language proficiency using test content drawn primarily from academic sources. The TOEFL® test’s integrated tasks, which require the simultaneous application of more than one language skill to answer a question, simulate English communication the way it is used in real academic environments.

The TOEFL test is backed by science-based research and rigorous anti-bias measures to provide the most comprehensive, precise and fair measure of an applicant’s ability to communicate using academic English. Diluting such measures of quality, such as using less rigorous assessments that fail to take the proper security, validity and reliability standards into account, could adversely affect student performance and institutional reputation. Professors, teaching assistants and peer advisors will provide lectures, assignments and mentorship to students, but the inability to communicate in these settings will leave students overwhelmed, falling behind and missing out on the opportunity to showcase their full potential. Communicating effectively in all facets of the English language within the academic context is a critical and foundational step to being successful and provides a level of confidence for institutions and students alike; therefore, a trustworthy and reliable test that measures such academic proficiency is essential.

Institutions owe it to themselves, their professors, their alumni and their incoming students to continue to place quality at the forefront of their decisions, not only through ELAs but through the wide-ranging admissions process. Despite increased competition from destination countries around the world and current events contributing to the overarching geopolitical climate, the reputation for quality in U.S. higher education remains steadfast. This reputation can continue as such only if institutions double down on their commitment to enrolling the most talented, diverse student bodies — a move that comes from an investment in the quality admissions standards that continue to yield positive results.