What can state and local leaders do for immigrants and their communities right now?

When Tran arrived in the United States in 2009 with her four-year-old son, she spoke only basic English and struggled to understand unfamiliar American accents. Despite holding a bachelor’s degree from her native Vietnam, she found limited work opportunities without being fluent in English. When her oldest son began Kindergarten and was identified for English Language Learner services, a teacher recommended that Tran apply to Framingham Adult ESL plus, a local adult education program where she could build her own English language skills.

Tran was lucky to get a spot in the program, which regularly receives about four new applications for every open seat. Spaces in English language training classes at public adult education programs nationwide are often limited by growing demand and dwindling public support. Since 1990, the limited English proficient population in the United States has nearly doubled, but federal support for adult education has fallen by 20% in real dollars.

In Massachusetts, where Tran lives, there were 17,000 applicants on waitlists for ESOL services in 2017, and waitlists for many programs can take months or even years to clear. The United States is currently home to more than 25 million residents with limited English skills, representing over 8% of the population. And this number grows every year, adding to the nation’s need for English language services.

Public adult education programs provide no-cost English language training to adult learners nationwide through English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes. English language skills are the first rung on the ladder to unlocking education, training, and employment for many foreign-born residents. Most entry-level occupations require some degree of English proficiency, and those with higher English proficiency requirements typically pay higher incomes.

Recently, three independent studies have shown compelling evidence that immigrants who get access to English language classes report higher earnings, are less likely to rely on public assistance, and are more likely to register to vote. This evidence is important as policymakers consider how to support integration and economic success among immigrant communities. The lesson from research on language training is simple: Helping immigrants learn English is a win-win.

Our study uses a randomized enrollment lottery for Framingham Adult ESL plus. The program provided English training to adults, requiring about six hours a week. We find that increased tax revenue from participants’ higher earnings more than covers program costs over their working lives. In fact, the long-run return from the program is six percent. Every dollar is paid back—with extra!

Another study by researchers at the Economic Mobility Corporation finds similar results in a Boston-based program, English for Advancement. Participation in the program showed large earnings increases in the two years after enrollment. The gain in earnings was particularly large for people who had U.S. work experience but were unemployed when they enrolled. 

English for Advancement helped immigrant workers with training and skills use them in the US. Alketa Briskaj was a nurse in Albania for 20 years before coming to the US in 2015. At first, she worked as a pizzamaker. But because of this English-language program, she was able to reenter the medical profession by earning a certification. She credits the program saying, “My English was not good. And it’s still not good. But I feel comfortable to talk to people. It’s completely different from the beginning. I feel really happy.” 

In a third study, a return-on-investment analysis conducted by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, two-thirds of previously unemployed participants had a job six months after enrollment in a vocational ESOL program. The average annual wages for participants exceeded $20,000. Moreover, participants who were employed at the time of program enrollment increased their annual earnings by $5,100 after six months, and 16 percent of participants gained health insurance through their employer, reducing reliance on public health subsidies. 

These labor market impacts likely reflect only a fraction of the full benefits of ESOL services. Research on language skills suggests that English language fluency can improve immigrant outcomes in other less tangible ways, such as promoting social connection, improving health, and generating positive spillovers for children

After building her English skills in adult ESOL classes, Tran enrolled in community college and started working as a certified nursing assistant while completing her nursing degree. She credits her participation in adult ESOL classes as a key part of her success building a new life in this country and sees her educational journey as a model for her sons to follow: “I always tell them. You never stop studying. Never stop. Take the next step for your education, because education is everything." 

Investing in services that help immigrants gain English proficiency creates big benefits for participants and taxpayers. Immigrants become more capable of determining their own future, and the public investment more than pays off. Furthermore, the turn to virtual instruction has created new opportunities for ESOL programs to expand their reach and permanently overcome barriers such as a lack of classroom space, transportation, and availability of childcare. 

As the country continues working to promote a broad and inclusive post-pandemic recovery, we must remember to include the immigrants who choose to join our communities and contribute to our economy.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.