September 5, 2023

Learning the language

Blake Heller discusses the impact of adult English language training programs on immigrant earnings and civic engagement.

Source: monkeybusinessimages

The bulk of education research focuses on the benefits of the traditional K–12 and higher education systems, while non-traditional programs are relatively understudied. But economists are starting to shine a light on the large returns to investing in adult education.

In a paper in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, authors Blake H. Heller and Kirsten Slungaard Mumma found large earnings gains and more civic engagement among immigrants who participated in an adult program teaching English as a second language (ESL). The benefits of these programs also led to a sizable return for taxpayers.

Heller suggests that, in spite of the polarized space of immigration politics, ESL programs are likely to find traction on both sides of the political aisle because they combine the appeal of people working hard to improve themselves with a social safety net appeal. He recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the need for more research on adult education and the benefits of English language programs.

The edited highlights of that conversation are below, and the full interview can be heard using the podcast player.


Tyler Smith: How did you become interested in studying adult English language programs?

Blake Heller: My interest in this field came from feeling like this was a neglected part of public education. We spend close to $2 billion a year supporting adult education programs that operate in all 50 states and many US territories. But the literature on adult education is just really thin. There was a flurry of research studying the GED in the early 1990s and extending a little bit into the 2000s, but not much research in terms of thinking about adult education as an engine for workforce development and for helping immigrants integrate into society, unlocking latent skills that they have from their training in their native countries. I think adult education offers a real opportunity, which right now is not necessarily untapped because the programs are operating, but unrecognized.

Smith: Can you describe the program you studied a little bit and tell me anything that maybe sets it apart from similar programs? Or is this a pretty typical program?

Heller: I'd say there are two things that set Framingham Adult ESL apart. One is it's one of the larger programs in the state. Framingham is a relatively large town in Massachusetts and they're kind of the only game in town, so they draw a large part of the community. The other side is that the immigrant community in Framingham is of mostly Brazilian nationality. But other than that, in terms of funding, in terms of the way the program is structured, Framingham Adult ESL is a pretty representative program. They're close to the median in terms of expenditure per student and in terms of time commitment. This isn't an intensive language training program. They're not doing 20 hours when everyone else does six hours a week. They're close to the median in terms of all those different measures, which I think—in terms of external validity, in terms of understanding and predicting whether or not our results would generalize to other contexts where people are thinking about providing or expanding language training services for adult immigrants—is a pretty good argument that Framingham is somewhat representative.

Smith: What outcomes did you look at? Maybe you can tell me a little bit about why you chose them as well.

Heller: When you think about why people are pursuing language training as adults, or any sort of education, we generally think that the motivation is going to be career driven. You're trying to upskill to improve your job prospects. So it was important to us to make sure we were able to connect the lottery for admission to the Framingham Adult ESL program to labor force outcomes. So our primary outcomes of interest are these reported earnings outcomes. But we also thought, based on other literature, that building language skills might contribute to other dimensions of immigrant integration. Those things are really hard to measure outside of tracking down ten years of participants and surveying them. We have a retrospective survey, so we didn't have the benefit of enrolling people as they enrolled in the education program. We're looking at administrative data that's about ten years backward looking. This has the great advantage of these people having been out of the program for up to ten years. We were able to look at earnings impacts that go pretty far out. But it has the downside of being hard for us to think about tracking these folks in anywhere but administrative data. The resources we were able to look at were post-secondary enrollment records and other adult education records from the state of Massachusetts. We found very little movement on those dimensions. That's why they're not included in the paper.

Smith: It seems like you're making a pretty simple comparison here. You're comparing people who randomly got into this program through a lottery to people who didn't. What did you find when you made this comparison?

Heller: That’s right. So, every semester, there's a lottery. It's often held in one of the middle schools in Framingham. They pull names out of a hat, and sometimes it's broadcast over Facebook; it's a very simple, transparent process by which people are chosen to enroll in the program. This is a natural experiment that functionally creates a treatment of being offered a chance to enroll versus a control condition, which would be not being offered the chance to enroll in a given semester. We compare the folks who on their first lottery pull the winning ticket to those who didn't. 

What we find is that the folks who were offered the chance to enroll on their first chance are much more likely to participate in the program. That's the first important outcome. There's a strong relationship between the outcome of the lottery and actual participation in the program. We use that as an instrument for actual participation. What we find is that the people that win that enrollment lottery are much more likely to register to vote, about nine percentage points; they're much more likely to actually vote, about eight percentage points; and they earn a lot more money. We find that in the reported earnings data, it's about a $2,400 per year benefit in terms of increased reported earnings over the ten years following that lottery for the people that win a seat in their first lottery.

In an immigration policy space that's so polarized and controversy laden, adult English language training is a space where we can find consensus. . . . In an era when so many other immigration policy discussions have stalled, this is a space where we might find traction.

Logan Lee

Smith: Do you think governments should be doing more to expand these English language training programs? Or are there some things to think about more.

Heller: In a world of scarce resources, policymakers are always faced with difficult trade-offs in terms of where to invest, which communities to direct dollars to, whether to take a short-run or a long-run view. I think one of the barriers to expansion of these types of programs is that they take time to pay off. You don't improve someone's English in one visit or in one day. It can take months or years for people to build the requisite skills to actually see these earnings and employment or civic engagement effects. It requires a kind of long view and patience among policymakers. I think our paper provides some compelling evidence that says in places where you're seeing this excess demand for programs, there's an argument for trying to expand the scope and the reach so that more immigrants are getting access to language training who want it.

I also think a compelling argument for thinking about this as a lever for investing in immigrant communities is that in an immigration policy space that's so polarized and controversy laden, adult English language training is a space where we can find consensus. If you're from the political right and you're wary of so-called government handouts, or if you're from the political left and you're wary of forcing immigrants to assimilate, adult ESL is a voluntary program that is in demand within many immigrant communities and it's got this bootstrap appeal of people working hard to improve themselves. It's also got this social safety net appeal, where we're providing this resource and we're investing in immigrant communities. I think for that reason, in an era when so many other immigration policy discussions have stalled, this is a space where we might find traction.

Immigrant Integration in the United States: The Role of Adult English Language Training” appears in the August 2023 issue of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. Music in the audio is by Podington Bear.