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Crossing the Language Barrier : For-Profit Schools Are Catching the Overflow of Public Programs : and Closing a Gap for the Non-English-Speaking Populace

February 08, 1988|KEITH BRADSHER | Times Staff Writer

After 22 years in the United States, Eulalia Marquez finds herself studying vocabulary lists--of English words.

Marquez is paying $475 to take 100 hours of group English language instruction at Academy Pacific, a for-profit Hollywood school. She wants to close a language gap between her and her American-raised sons and daughters. "I am the mother of eight children, and I want to go forward with them," the Los Angeles housewife explained in Spanish.

Given increased immigration to Southern California during the past decade, it might be expected that teaching English for profit would be a bonanza. But the typically low income of many immigrants, combined with the for-profit English industry's reputation for uneven teaching standards and high-pressure sales tactics, seems to have limited much of the market to foreign students seeking entrance to U.S. universities.

Nonetheless, after half a dozen years of depressed enrollments, companies that teach English for profit are enjoying a modest recovery. Revolution in Iran, the rising dollar, the collapse of several Latin American currencies and the general deterioration of oil-dependent countries' economies because of falling prices all reduced the number of foreign students coming to the United States in the early 1980s. Now a falling dollar is bringing them back, while overcrowded English courses in adult public schools may be pushing a few more recent immigrants into private sector schools.

"We are seeing an encouraging resurgence beginning last year," said Stanley F. Pickett, owner and president of American Language Academy, a Rockville, Md.-based chain of 11 for-profit schools.

Enrollment at the ELS Educational Services center in Santa Monica, for example, has risen 10% to 15% in each of the past two years, director Rodney D. Neese said. Culver City-based ELS is a 20-center chain and a subsidiary of San Francisco-based AIFS.

Students Turned Away

About 95% of the Santa Monica center's 1,000 to 1,300 customers last year were foreigners. "The dollar's weakening, of course, is helping us," Neese said. As each yen or deutschemark buys more U.S. currency, the cost of a U.S. education falls in terms of those currencies.

Private schools in Los Angeles that teach English as a second language are also benefiting from the overcrowding of free, public school English courses for adults. In the 1986-87 academic year, the Los Angeles Unified School District taught English to 208,520 adults and turned away 40,000 more, said Jim Figueroa, administrator for adult and occupational school operations. By December of the current academic year, about 25,000 adults were put on waiting lists, of which only 7,000 were admitted, he said. Average class size is 30.

The number of for-profit English schools in the United States peaked in the early 1980s with about 75 to 125 programs geared toward preparing foreigners for U.S. universities and 300 or more other tax-exempt programs owned and operated by universities and colleges, Pickett said. Now there are only 75 to 100 tax-paying schools in the higher education market and a couple of hundred owned and run by universities and colleges, he said.

Precise figures on the industry are hard to come by because it is virtually unregulated and has no trade association or trade publications. California does not inspect, accredit, or license for-profit English language schools, because they are not considered vocational schools, said Roy Steeves, assistant director of the Department of Education's private post-secondary education division.

Critics allege that many customers are poorly taught at private schools. "These people have teachers that have never stepped into an education course. . . . Out of a hundred schools, if you can find five that are great, good ethical institutions, I'd be shocked," said Fernando de la Pena, director of the nonprofit Cambria English Institute in downtown Los Angeles. The institute was run as a profit-making company until April, 1987, when it converted to tax-exempt status because it was losing money and already performing much of its work for free for area priests and seminarians.

Opportunity for Fraud

High-pressure sales pitches and exorbitant prices--as much as a $1,000 course entrance fee plus $10 an hour for instruction--characterize schools run by the unscrupulous, De la Pena said. One scam is to delay repeatedly the graduation of a student whose education is subsidized or paid for by the federal government. Another is to mislead the student into thinking that the school has obtained government grants on his or her behalf, when actually the student has signed his name to loans that must later be repaid, De la Pena said.

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