New analysis sheds light on young adult English learners

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, October 13, 2016

A newly released data analysis is providing a surprising window on young adults who are English learners. The analysis has important implications for adult education and workforce development providers and policymakers.

Titled Older Adolescent and Young Adult English Learners: A Study of Demographics, Policies, and Programs, the report was published by the US Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), and written by RTI International. It focuses on young people ages 14-21 who are English learners, including both immigrants and US-born youth. It is based on data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Key findings from the OCTAE report:

  • There are approximately 1.5 million English learners (ELs) ages 14-21 in the United States, including 675,000 who are at the older end of that age range (ages 19-21).
  • A startlingly high percentage of these ELs — 43% — were born in the United States. Another 8% are naturalized US citizens, and the remainder are noncitizens. (The dataset used for the analysis does not break down information on the specific type of immigration status that noncitizens have.)
  • Young adult English learners are less likely than their non-EL counterparts to be enrolled in school. More than half (56%) of English learners ages 19-21 are not enrolled in either secondary or postsecondary education, compared to 40% of non-ELs. 
  • More worryingly, a full 40% of English learners ages 19-21 who are not enrolled in school also lack a high school diploma or equivalent. In contrast, only 14% of their non-EL counterparts lack a high school credential.
  • However, many English learners ages 19-21 who are not enrolled in school are holding down jobs. Fully 45% of this group are working full time, and another 15% are working part time. In contrast, non-ELs are less likely to be employed, and also less likely to be full-time workers: 35% are working full time and 23% part time.

From National Skills Coalition’s perspective, each of the above findings has important implications for adult education and skills policy and practice.

First, the sheer size of this adolescent/young adult population is notable, particularly since public discussion of English learners tends to focus either on younger, elementary-school age students or older adults. Second, the data on the number of native-born US citizens who are English learners suggests an area of potential concern, as it implies that a substantial number of young people may have completed both elementary and middle school in the US without becoming proficient in English.*

Third, the findings on school enrollment emphasize the importance of federal investment to support young adults’ English language acquisition and educational attainment beyond their engagement in the K-12 school system.

A major avenue for such investment is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which serves a total of 1.5 million US-born and immigrant individuals each year through adult basic education, high school equivalency, and English language classes.

Some of the individuals served by WIOA are likely represented among the English learners profiled in the OCTAE data analysis. In particular, separate data from the National Reporting System shows that 15% of participants (104,000 people) in WIOA-funded English language classes are between the ages of 16-24.

Adult education classes can provide an important on-ramp to further education and/or employment opportunities for young adult English learners. However, WIOA services are not funded at the full authorized levels, and there is greater demand for adult education services than can be met with current funding. National Skills Coalition has called for increased federal funding for adult education.

Another federal policy that can support education and training, including English language acquisition, is SNAP Employment and Training. National Skills Coalition has published numerous resources on SNAP E&T, and profiled a Seattle program that is funded in part by this source in our recent Upskilling the New American Workforce report.

The high number of young adults in the OCTAE data analysis who do not have a high school credential is also of concern given that some of these young people are likely to be undocumented, and may be eligible for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which requires applicants to be “in school.” Young people who are enrolled in eligible adult education programs can satisfy this enrollment requirement, but as described above, there are insufficient class slots available to meet the demand.

Finally, the OCTAE report findings on employment present a mixed picture. While the relatively high rates of employment for English learners suggest that they are finding their way into the job market, it is not clear that they have access to the training and credentials that will allow them to earn higher wages over time.

For this reason, it is important to support policies that can help young adults who are already in the workforce to continue building their skills and earn industry-recognized credentials. This can be done by making federal financial aid more accessible to working learners, and building stronger connections between Perkins Career and Technical Education programs and adult education programs, among other strategies.

*Without further analysis, it is not possible to know how many of these young people may have been educated in Puerto Rico, a US territory that has a bilingual K-12 education system. It is unlikely that any substantial percentage were born in the US and then raised abroad before returning as teenagers, which would be another potential explanation for why US-born adolescents are English learners.