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How immigration reform might also spur young Americans to study math, science

Measures in immigration reform legislation would channel fees from high-skilled visas into investments for American students to delve into science, technology, engineering, and math.

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The H-1B side of the equation, meanwhile, has produced some debate.

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Companies that want a boost in H-1B visas say the US is producing far too few STEM graduates of its own. A Microsoft study from this year, for example, found that the US is set to graduate 50,000 students with a bachelor’s degree in computer science over the next decade – when job openings requiring such a degree are expected to be more than double that figure.

The STEM fund would boost opportunities for students to get hooked on engineering, math, and science as career goals before they’re even thinking about college. At present, points out Saba of NMSI, that’s just not happening on a broad enough scale: Only 10 percent of American high-schoolers take an Advanced Placement course in math or science – a key predictor of future college study in STEM fields. (Among African-Americans and Hispanics, the rate is about 5 percent.)

A Congressional Research Service report from November said that “a broad consensus of business, academic, and policy leaders warn that the United States is on the verge of STEM workforce shortages.”

“One of our member companies says that it’s not that there is a small STEM pipeline,” says Beneva Schulte, executive director of inSPIRE STEM USA, an advocacy group pushing for the education fund that is backed by a slew of top technology and manufacturing giants. “There’s just none.”

But that broad consensus has notable detractors, including analysis by the liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that finds that H-1B workers may actually be contributing to a lack of interest among American students for STEM fields –particularly in information technology – by competing with new college graduates for entry-level jobs.

Three EPI researchers argued last month that because the H-1B program is mostly used to fill entry-level positions, a large supply of foreign-born workers has helped companies substitute cheaper young people for older workers and crowded out some US graduates. Adding roughly 100,000 more foreign workers per year (both through H-1B channels and through new, faster pathways to green cards for foreigners obtaining advanced STEM degrees at US universities), as the House and Senate bills would do, would further dampen wages and decrease the attraction of such fields for US workers, the researchers posit.

Whether or not the argument for more H-1Bs is sound, advocates of the education fund see the immigration debate as their best hope at getting the measure into law.

Fiscal pressure on federal and state governments (remember the “sequester”?) makes the argument for new programs, even in something like STEM education with vast bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, difficult without being attached to a must-pass measure.

But should it get done, advocates say the fund would give the US a vital infusion of investment in a place it is needed dearly.

“What is so important about the STEM fund is not" where the money is going specifically, says Ms. Schulte, “but the commitment as a country to the importance of this issue, and the importance of it going forward for the next 30 years.”

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