It’s estimated that more than five million English language learners, commonly called ELL or English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students, are in U.S. public schools today. And many of these students go on to attend college — some in online settings — which can inspire a unique set of challenges. However, these challenges can be overcome, and top among the keys to that success: taking full advantage of the range of valuable resources available, all focused on empowering them to achieve their college education goals.
This guide aims to be one of those valuable resources. Below you’ll learn more about the specific challenges to ELL success and find dozens of quality resources — including scholarships — offering concrete solutions to overcoming potential obstacles. You’ll also hear from a current ESL college student who shares his insights on how you, too, can make your college dreams come true.
Ready to gain access to a massive list of resources designed to help you achieve your goals? Keep reading!
ESL Student Challenges in Online College
Let’s face it: College is hard, whether you’re attending online or on campus. But if you’re an online ESL student attending college in a remote environment, you may face specific challenges — including isolation that can sometimes add to a feeling of disconnection. Before we can introduce resources and solutions, we must first gain an understanding of the most common challenges facing ELL students. Here’s a detailed look at six of these standout obstacles.
Language proficiency, or the ability to use language accurately and fluently to effective and practical results, is the underlying concern for all English language learners. It is what’s needed to successfully navigate all areas of the college experience, online or in person. Language proficiency requires much more than just a working command of English grammar. It must also include idioms, accents, slang, speech pace, and even sound detection.
Participation and Communication in Online Forums
Online forums play a significant role in the overall online college experience. They’re where students can interact with their instructors and fellow students to discuss course content. They’re also where online students can make their presence known within their student community. Because they take place in the written environment, however, online forums require a working proficiency in both formal and informal English language. Without that proficiency, many English learners struggle to participate.
Academic Reading and Writing
Academic reading and writing reflect the flip side of the informality you’ll find in many online forums. To succeed in these endeavors, you’ll need to comprehend the meaning and complexities of the formal language that often makes up the content of academic reading assignments. ESL college students must additionally possess a strong command of grammatically correct writing skills in order to successfully complete a variety of writing assignment types, such as essays, reports, and research papers.
Misunderstanding of Assignments or Expectations
You can’t successfully complete a college assignment without first having a clear understanding of exactly what the assignment requires you to do. A misunderstanding of an assignment’s instructions or expectations can result in one of two equally bad results. First, confusion in understanding instructions can lead to frustration, causing the student to give up on completing the assignment altogether. Second, a misinterpretation of an assignment’s instructions can end up with a student turning in work that misses the mark entirely.
Paying for college is a major concern for most students. But many ESL students can face much steeper barriers to funding than their non-English learner counterparts. You may face problems arising from a lack of familiarity with U.S. financial systems and past experiences with predatory lenders — like payday lending and check cashing services — or you may find that you have fewer job options. Undocumented students are additionally ineligible to receive federal- and state-sponsored scholarships, grants, and loans. The good news is that there’s a growing trend in financial aid assistance for ESL students provided by non-government sources and colleges themselves. More on that below.
Access to Support Services
ESL students may not be aware of the many academic, funding, and career support services typically available to all students at their college or university. Or if they are aware of those services, they may be hesitant to make use of them. Fortunately, many schools have established programs or resources designed specifically to support their English language learners. Examples include Providence College and Empire State University. ESL students are not limited to the services offered by their own school, however. We’ve listed below dozens of additional financial aid and other resources available to all English learners, regardless of where (or how) they attend college.
Financial Aid and Scholarships for ESL Students
As mentioned above, the challenge of finding financial resources for English learner college students can feel particularly daunting. But the good news: There are a growing number of financial-aid-specific resources that ESL students can tap into, many of which are exclusive to this community. To help get you started, here’s a look at the various financial aid options — including many scholarship opportunities — currently open to ESL students.
Financial Aid Options for ESL Students
Financial aid resources of all types — including scholarships, grants, fellowships and assistantships (for grad students), work study programs, loans, and more — are available to ESL college students. The key to finding the funding help you need is to get out there as soon as possible and see what’s available. Most colleges and universities are more than willing to help you in your financial aid search, so don’t hesitate to reach out to your school’s financial aid and ESL student support services programs. And for more tips on paying for your college education, visit this financial aid guide to paying for college.
It’s also important to recognize here the unique challenges facing college students with undocumented status in obtaining help to pay for their education. There’s good news on that front as well: It’s estimated that more than 400,000 undocumented students are attending U.S. colleges and universities today, which means they’ve been able to secure the funding they need for college — so it certainly can be done. To find out more about financial aid and other valuable resources for undocumented college students, be sure to check out this guide to college resources for undocumented students.
Scholarships for ESL College Students
Below are descriptions of five scholarships currently available either exclusively for or inclusive of English language learners. Most are offered to students in specific states or regions, or at specific colleges, but act as examples of the types of scholarship opportunities ESL students will find in their scholarship searches. For information on more scholarships that ESL students may be interested in, be sure to visit OnlineColleges.me’s 50 College Scholarships You Can Apply for Now and 50 College Scholarships for Latino and Hispanic Students.
- Amount of Scholarship: $500 to $2,000
- Description & Eligibility: ELL Foundation Scholarships are open to English language learners, regardless of immigration status, who are residents of the Greater Cincinnati area and currently enrolled in (or have applied and been accepted to) an undergraduate program at a four-year college or university or a two-year community college. Some of the other application requirements include a minimum cumulative 2.5 GPA on high school/college coursework (or minimum GED standard average score of 650), completion of five hours or more of community service with a local nonprofit agency, an application essay, and at least one letter of recommendation. More information can be found on their website.
- Deadline: December 1, 2023
- Amount of Scholarship: $2,000
- Description & Eligibility: Sponsored by the New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages/New Jersey Bilingual Educators (NJTESOL/NJBE), this scholarship is open to both full-time and part-time students taking ESL classes at a New Jersey college and planning to continue attending a New Jersey college or university. Must additionally possess a cumulative GPA of 2.5 or higher. Application materials include a current NJ transcript with ESL and/or bilingual classes highlighted, a teacher recommendation, and both a biographical statement and essay (500 words or less) on a given theme. Apply by filling out the application on the scholarship program’s webpage.
- Deadline: March 17, 2024 (projected)
- Amount of Scholarship: Varies
- Description & Eligibility: International Doorway is a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting international students with U.S.-based colleges and universities to pursue their advanced education goals. Its Academic Scholarship program allows ESL students, through a single application process, to be matched with scholarship opportunities at over 200 colleges and universities. Application fees can be steep, but scholarships typically cover tuition costs and more (up to 100%). And program participants can receive a full application refund if they are unable to obtain any of the scholarships offered. Application submittals include high school transcripts, letters of recommendation, completion of an essay (maximum two pages), and resume describing academic and extracurricular activities. Application is made using this online application.
- Deadline: Applications are accepted on an ongoing basis.
- Amount of Scholarship: Varies
- Description & Eligibility: This scholarship program provides funding for both new and continuing students who are enrolled either part time or full time in the MELP Intensive English Program (IEP) at the University of Minnesota. Awards are made to students who demonstrate strong academic performance in the Minnesota English Language Program and a clear vision of how the program will positively contribute to their academic and/or career goals. Full-time awardees new to the program receive full tuition for two consecutive terms. Full-time continuing awardees receive tuition for one term. New or continuing part-time awardees receive 50% tuition for a 10-hour per week course or full tuition for 4 to 6 hour per week course. To apply, complete either the full-time or part-time application online.
- Deadline: May 1 (Fall Term); October 15 (Spring Term); March 1 (Summer Term)
- Amount of Scholarship: $1,000 to $2,000 annually (renewable for two to four years)
- Description & Eligibility: Sponsored by the Seattle Foundation, the Nora Stone Smith Scholarship program’s mission is to provide financial support to ESL/ELL students in pursuing a college education at a four-year public or private university or two-year public community or technical college. The scholarship is open to Washington State residents, regardless of citizenship status, who are current college freshmen, graduating high school seniors, or have graduated with a high school diploma within the past year. Applicants must also have participated in an ESL/ELL program at some time in their lives and demonstrate financial need. Application is made through a SurveyMonkey individual application account. Submittals include transcripts, two letters of recommendation, a 300-to-550-word essay, and statement of financial need.
- Deadline: April 15, 2024 (projected)
Additional Resources for ESL College Students
It’s important to know that as an English language learner, you’re not alone in pursuing your college education dream. There are tons of valuable resources out there that are focused on supporting the success of ESL/ELL students, including the 25 online resources listed below. And be sure to visit OCM’s main resources hub for links to 50 more great online resources for college students.
This website provides a clearinghouse of great resources for English language learners on all proficiency levels. Areas covered include grammar, vocabulary, reading, listening, test prep, and more. Apps for both Android and Apple devices can be downloaded from the site as well.
Here you’ll find tons of great free online courses covering all aspects of English language for ESL students. Language-specific course areas include grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, writing, and English for work. Other course subjects include songs, life in the USA, and life in the UK.
The title of this site is itself interesting, but what visitors will find here is possibly the most comprehensive site offering support resources for ESL students anywhere. Visitors can access literally thousands of resources, including anagrams, quizzes and word games, puzzles, slang expressions, proverbs, a random-sentence generator, and much, much more.
This website features information and activities for English language learners on all levels with the purpose of improving English skills and helping learners succeed in school. You’ll find access to IST’s ESL Coursebook with excellent exercises in vocabulary, grammar, and study skills aimed mostly at beginning English learners.
Here’s a series of courses designed for ESL students on all academic and English proficiency levels. Offered through the Udemy learning and teaching platform, course topics include English language, conversation, pronunciation, vocabulary skills, business English, listening skills, and many more. Most courses charge a nominal fee.
This YouTube channel from the Voice of American offers dozens of videos designed to support
English language learners in developing their language skills. Videos are available in a wide range of topics, including U.S. and international news, science and technology, arts and culture, health and lifestyle, and more.
This page is part of the larger ESLAmerica.us website that offers descriptions of and links to a variety of resources (many of which are YouTube videos) for ESL writers. Grouped by level: beginning, intermediate, and advanced writing.
A comprehensive writing lab website from Excelsior University, the focus here is on improving English writing skills in academic and professional settings. Section title examples include “The Writing Process,” “Research,” “Citation & Documentation,” and “Academic Writing 101.”
This is the online-accessible version of the textbook used in the course of the same name offered by Portland Community College. Unit titles include “Elements of Paragraphs and Essays,” “Telling a Compelling Story,” “It’s a Process,” and “Exactly the Same or Totally Different.”
Here you’ll find part of Purdue University’s larger Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) that offers comprehensive support to writers in all areas of writing and on all levels of writing proficiency. The ESL Students section provides a full range of resources for proper writing on the college level.
Brought to you by Cambridge University, Write & Improve is a free online tool designed to help anyone improve their English writing skills. Users select from hundreds of writing “tasks” at all proficiency levels and receive instant feedback on their work.
Reading Comprehension Resources
This site offers novels, short stories, and hundreds of other recorded resources to which ELS students can read along and improve their English reading comprehension. This resource is especially good for intermediate and advanced English language learners.
Sponsored by Bow Valley College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, this website offers short-length recorded stories with accompanying text for ESL students looking for quick tools for reading comprehension improvement. There are seven reading levels, but this resource is probably best for beginning to intermediate English learners.
Created by Seminole State College of Florida, this site allows visitors to access several reading comprehension practice tests on six comprehension levels. Tests are presented in a Microsoft PowerPoint format.
This YouTube channel features hundreds of videos of speeches, news reports, history lessons, songs, and much more, all allowing viewers to read along with the text of the content. Words are highlighted as you hear them.
This is a robust website full of useful academic study resources for college-level English language learners, including books and print resources, research databases, tips for citing sources, and more. It’s designed for ESL students at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina, but most site content can be accessed by ESL students everywhere.
This webpage offers information and advice geared specifically to improving the academic research skills of college-level English language learners. It’s part of the St. Louis Community College Libraries larger ESL/English for Non-native Speakers website.
This 100% free virtual community site of over one million students located throughout the world allows for connection, interaction, and learning together in study groups. Users can join established groups or create new groups of their own.
This fun website was created by a retired teacher as an online meeting place for ESL and EFL students and teachers around the world. Visitors to the site can access tons of quality resources (grammar, idioms, slang, quizzes, etc.) and forums, as well as Dave’s own blog.
Here’s another excellent and fun website for anyone looking to learn English while connecting with other English language learners. Visitors can access a number of chat rooms and forums, along with tons of free resources for improving their language skills.
Providing written transcripts in English of the dialogue in several dozen popular movies allows English language learners to immerse themselves in their language use to better comprehend spoken English.
This Educational Testing Service (ETS) site offers a variety of resources associated with preparing for and taking the TOEFL. Included are practice exams, a description of what to expect when taking the exam, links to additional test prep resources, and more.
A program of the Organization of American States, the Rowe Fund offers interest-free loans (up to $15,000) to international students from the Caribbean and Latin America who are in the last two years of a graduate or undergraduate program at an accredited U.S. college or university.
Recognizing that math skills often go unaddressed for many English language learners, Wiregrass Georgia Technical College offers this brief but valuable webpage linking resources designed to improve math literacy for adult ESL students.
Public speaking anxiety is common to almost all of us but can be particularly stressful for those making a presentation in a non-native language. This highly informative article offers quality information and advice to non-native English speakers for preparing effective oral presentations in English.
ESL Success Story: Interview with an ESL College Graduate
Ngae Loetchanwiwat is second-year Aerospace Engineering master’s student at the Florida Institute of Technology. Ngae completed his undergraduate degree at the Royal Thai Air Force Academy, served in the Royal Thai Air Force, and received a scholarship to pursue his master’s degree in the United States. He has a keen interest in applying AI for aircraft and space vehicle control.
What were your reasons for pursuing higher education in an English-speaking environment?
I pursued higher education in an English-speaking environment because I wanted to learn about aerospace technology and space, in which the United States is widely recognized as a global leader. Additionally, most of the textbooks and research in this field are predominantly in the English language.
Did you face any language-related challenges in your coursework? If so, how did you address those challenges?
When I first arrived here, I faced significant language-related challenges, such as adapting to the language. During my studies in my home country, I had a limited English language background, and I didn’t have many opportunities to use English. I had to put in a lot of effort to learn in my chosen courses. For instance, when I encountered difficulties in listening during class, if there was a part I didn’t understand, I would go back and read the textbook or additional material on the topic because my reading skills were stronger than my listening, speaking, or writing skills. Additionally, I had to rewatch recorded class sessions in which I could enable subtitles. This allowed me to better understand the spoken content.
Were there any specific courses or professors who had a significant impact on your language development and academic success?
In my first year, I enrolled in the English Language Studies (ELS) course with Professor Caza, who had a significant impact on my language development and academic success. She played a crucial role in improving my English language skills, including speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The assignments I received in her class were beneficial and motivated me to focus more on studying English.
What study techniques or strategies did you find most effective in improving your English language skills while in college?
Personally, I am a person who rarely watches movies or series. I choose to talk with friends, read textbooks or articles, and listen to various instructional videos on YouTube about content that interests me more.
How did you handle assignments, exams, and projects that required advanced English skills considering that English is not your first language?
It’s undeniable that I had to spend more time working on assignments or projects than students who are native English speakers. Technology such as language translation tools played a significant role in assisting me during these tasks. Sometimes I had to rely on these technologies to guide me in writing reports. Additionally, before presenting my projects, I would thoroughly prepare by familiarizing myself with the necessary vocabulary in advance. This extra preparation helped me feel more confident in handling assignments, exams, and projects that required advanced English skills.