February 7 2012

STEM and the President: Still Trying To Build a 1950s Economy

Libby Jacobson

President Obama must be frustrated. That is, frustrated with all the college grads who, despite a glut of evidence showing careers in science and engineering have a higher payoff than careers in (say) social psychology, still opted to spend billions worth of federally-guaranteed student loans on liberal arts degrees instead.

At today’s White House Science Fair which showcased impressive exhibits from students across the country, the President announced his new $100 million dollar plan to train 100,000 new science and math teachers as part of his agenda to strengthen STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. $80 million of that will be added onto the President’s 2013 budget request, and $22 million will come from the private sector.

All of this focus on STEM professions ties into the President’s goal, as laid out in last month's State of the Union address, to steer the economy into one that’s 1950s-inspired, high-tech and manufacturing-based. The president seems to envision an America where the plants are all powered by subsidized green energy, and one in which we can also subsidize away the threat of overseas labor markets. But in reality, iPads will not be assembled by American workers anytime soon.

The evidence has been clear for years how much money there is to be made in STEM fields. Even at a “budget-friendly” 4-year public university like the one I attended, charts that explain the starting salary premium for STEM majors are plastered on every wall - and STEM degrees from universities that don’t routinely make the US News “Top Colleges” list are still undeniably more lucrative than liberal arts degrees from same. Anyone who’s ever watched daytime TV has noticed that community colleges and training programs no longer tout their paralegal training programs as much as their degree programs in nursing, graphic arts, or computer engineering. And American universities are already producing scores of would-be innovators – but the “immigration regulatory limbo” just makes it difficult for them to stay in the country upon graduation.

Tech companies don’t need a $4-to-$1 matching fund from the (very heavily-indebted) government to get trained employees for factories that will never be built in America. Companies already put money into training tomorrow’s engineers via a multitude of scholarship programs. Trade schools and community colleges have been playing a valuable role for years in training students for high tech jobs, (though admittedly, some schools have better track records than others). And the country’s absurd and economically-backwards treatment of skilled foreigners prevents an untold number of high-tech, venture-backed start-ups from ever being founded. The President's goals may be laudable, but it's far from obvious that this new spending program is going to solve the problem of the high-tech worker shortage. The market is signaling its need for STEM professionals. Obama ought to instead focus on his own job and restore some fiscal sanity to the government's balance sheet.

IWF Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer wrote at The Hill this morning about Obama’s STEM agenda and its likely focus on women.

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