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New report finds adult ESOL programs offer powerful returns for students – if they can find seats

February 6, 2020

ROI of ESOL cover Read the full report

Boston – A new report from the Boston Foundation and the Latino Legacy Fund finds that vocationally-focused English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs can have an almost immediate payback for students. However, the number of ESOL seats of any kind for adults in Greater Boston falls woefully short of the need, with a serious shortage of programs that focus on ESOL training to enhance professional or job-related skills and opportunities.

The report, entitled The ROI of ESOLThe Economic and Social Return on Investment for ESOL Programs in Greater Boston, was written by a research team at The Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, and was publicly released today at the Boston Foundation. 

“The data demonstrate the tremendous impact ESOL can have for adult students, opening up a world of opportunities and providing almost immediate returns,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “But despite the fact that immigrants account for virtually all of the population increase powering Greater Boston’s renaissance, we are investing far too little in ESOL, particularly programs with a focus on English language skills for the workplace. This should not be seen as solely an education problem. It is an economic necessity.”

“At a time when Latinos and immigrant populations are often underrepresented in our major social and civic institutions, this report shows that investing in ESOL not only gives students access to higher paying jobs, it empowers them to contribute and strengthen the future of Greater Boston,” said Aixa Beauchamp, Co-Chair of the Latino Legacy Fund. “ESOL programs are an affordable and crucial investment in building a more just and equitable city and region.”

A wide range of programs, but far short of need

"This should not be seen as solely an education problem. It is an economic necessity."
-Paul S. Grogan

The research team, led by Alicia Sasser Modestino, began by compiling a landscape analysis of ESOL programs in Greater Boston. They found 116 programs with a capacity of approximately 11,600 students annually, serving a population of more than 240,000 working-age adults in Greater Boston with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). While foreign-born adults exist across the educational spectrum, their highest shares are of residents with less than a high school diploma or more than a college degree. Although the greatest need for ESOL services can be seen at the lower levels of educational attainment, this diversity can make it challenging to meet the needs of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) persons who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English. An estimated 63 percent of adults with less than a high school diploma in the city of Boston have Limited English Proficiency.

The report identified an ongoing shortage of ESOL programs in Greater Boston, where the overall need for ESOL opportunities far outstrips the supply by a ratio of 20:1. Equally concerning is the dearth of programs that focus on work-related English language education. Just 7% of the programs identified by the researchers in their landscape analysis could be classified as vocational or workplace-focused in nature. The majority were classified as general purpose, or more directly targeted toward citizenship.

“While the data show Greater Boston could certainly benefit from expanding the number of ESOL seats, the shortage is exacerbated by a serious misalignment between the type of ESOL services currently provided and the needs of a quarter million working-age LEP adults in the region who are often seeking better job opportunities,” said Sasser Modestino.

Signs of quality on which to build

The region’s ESOL programs, however, are roughly aligned with the areas that contain the largest population with the greatest need, efficiently and effectively matching the geographic spread of LEP individuals in Greater Boston, and their primary languages. Massachusetts, and Greater Boston in particular, differs from national averages in the percentage of LEP adults who speak Spanish – nationally Spanish-speakers make up nearly two-thirds of LEP individuals. In Greater Boston, the percentage is 36 percent. Greater Boston LEP individuals are nearly as likely to speak Indo-European languages (32 percent) or Asian/Pacific Islander languages (22 percent).

The data are also encouraging when it comes to program quality. Program operators speak highly of the qualifications of their certified and non-certified staff (while noting that retention can be difficult), and data show that more than half of students in ESOL courses achieved a “measurable skill gain,” defined as “progress toward achieving a credential or employment.” In addition, the percentage achieving at least one “Educational Functional Level” gain has risen from 33 percent to 51 percent since 2002, even as the cost per advancement has fallen from about $6,000 to just over $4,000. Educational Functional Levels rank adult students on six skill levels from beginning to advanced, and student progress on those levels is part of the accountability system for the state-administered, federally-funded adult education program.

The power of vocational ESOL programs

The researchers also found that among the vocational ESOL programs that were available, they provided measurable benefits for students. Using the limited data available, researchers found that 67 percent of unemployed students who enrolled in vocational ESOL programs were placed in jobs within six months of enrollment, versus about a third of participants overall in programs funded by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary Education.

Exploring data from one vocational ESOL program found that public funding in such programs could be expected to earn back their investment in students within 5 years, based on the estimated increase in tax payments from students garnering new jobs and/or higher incomes with their new language skills. Adding to the calculation that many students are able to move from state-provided health insurance through MassHealth to employer-sponsored health insurance with their new jobs accelerates the estimated break-even time to just 18 months.

“The data demonstrate that investments in adult ESOL programs, targeted toward workforce training, don’t just benefit the student,” said Juan Carlos Morales, Co-Chair of the Latino Legacy Fund. “They have a measurable, immediate economic benefits to our local economy and our local communities. Expanded ESOL programs would give a new generation of workers the chance at better jobs, access to insurance and banking, the opportunity to earn high school and postsecondary degrees, and the ability to bring their voices and perspectives to our civic life.”

Opportunities for expansion

The report ends with a call for strategic leadership and investment in six areas that could lead to the needed transformative changes in the ESOL system. The researchers recommend efforts to:

  1. Reduce the gap between the capacity of the system and the need for ESOL services;
  2. Improve working conditions for ESOL teachers such as more full-time work, greater employment stability, better benefits, higher earnings and more professional development to reduce turnover;
  3. Provide student supports such as childcare to increase continuous participation;
  4. Grow the number of vocational and workplace ESOL programs to help LEP workers meet their long-term goals of improving their earnings and career prospects;
  5. Connect the fragmented parts of the ESOL system to align funding streams, data and reporting systems, and other institutional structures and processes.; and
  6. Improve data collection and reporting on ESOL programs and outcomes.

“The benefits are evident,” said Grogan. “So is the need for investment. In a tight job market, we have the opportunity to build partnerships that will have a demonstrable impact on Greater Boston for decades to come. We just need the will to do it.”