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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, confers with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, right, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., left, as the Senate Judiciary Committee meets to address immigration reform on Capitol Hill. Sen. Hatch's amendment would provide for more STEM teachers for K-12, encourage an emphasis on computer science, and improve community-college and worker-training programs.

Tucked into immigration reform legislation in both chambers of Congress are little-noticed measures that could pump hundreds of millions of dollars into cultivating a new generation of American students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM). Such a move could help shore up what much of corporate America and many lawmakers see as a glaring deficiency in the nation’s long-term economic competitiveness.

The bills offer at least $200 million per year (but perhaps as much as $700 million, advocates say) by channeling fees from high-skilled visas into investments in STEM education and job training.

Specifically, legislators would increase the fee that employers pay to sponsor high-skilled temporary workers (visas known as H-1Bs) and direct $1,000 of that bump toward a special “STEM fund.” The fund would also be supported by an additional $1,000 cost to employers looking to sponsor H-1B workers for permanent residence in the United States.

While some argue that it may be counterproductive to boost H-1B visas, few disagree with the premise of more STEM education. Lawmakers and advocates say this funding plan forces companies that decry a shortage of US-born STEM workers to put their money where their mouth is.

It allows the US to “look at the short-term job openings and the short-term needs, but use that as a mechanism to generate funding to address the long-term issue,” says Peter Zamora, director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a group of top state education policymakers. “That’s what’s going to make it sustainable.”

The Senate is scheduled to take up comprehensive immigration reform, including this provision, next week, when lawmakers will begin the process of amending the bill on the Senate floor. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has vowed to pass the bill before adjourning for the Fourth of July holiday.

The idea for the fund has been heavily influenced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, whose bipartisan bill aimed at reforming high-skilled immigration was added to the Senate’s comprehensive measure during the Judiciary Committee’s amendment process.

Senator Hatch’s amendment, which serves as the basis for the House provision as well, would send 95 percent of the funding to state governments to recruit more STEM teachers for K-12, encourage an emphasis on computer science, and improve community-college and worker-training programs, among other initiatives.

To be sure, the federal government provides more support for basic research into STEM fields than even the largest-possible STEM fund could put forward. Currently, the National Science Foundation offers nearly $6 billion for advanced research, about a quarter of all federal funding for such research.

But with that money largely funding advanced research at institutions of higher learning, the STEM fund could be “game-changing money” for K-12, especially if the fund is at the higher end of estimates, says Dave Saba, chief operating officer of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). He notes that groups like his match state funds with private dollars, leveraging public investment even further.

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

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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