Here today, gone tomorrow, but educated

Two recently published articles have great bearing on the future of American technological and scientific research. One says something very promising about our young people. The other is far more distressing.

The first of these was a one paragraph nod in the Commercial to area students who competed in the Central Arkansas Regional Science Olympics on Friday. The event drew participants from Pine Bluff, Stuttgart, Sheridan and Little Rock school districts, among others.

Competitions such as these signal a healthy interest in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum. It is worthy of note that the three students shown in the accompanying photograph were all young women. Seems that STEM is no longer the purview of men that it once was. This can only be good. If nationwide trends in graduate program enrollment are correct, these young ladies are hardly alone in their STEM education.

We need to do everything we can to encourage, fund and otherwise support their success. The second article tells exactly why.

As reported by the Associated Press on Monday, the U.S. House passed H.R. 6429, the STEM Jobs Act, a bill to prioritize the legal immigration status for foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) degrees. The bipartisan legislation passed on a vote of 245-135.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R- PA), a cosponsor of the bill, said of the measure: “It’s senseless to have someone come to the U.S. for an advanced education, then deny them the opportunity to join American businesses and help fill key high-skill job shortages, which is critical to expanding employment opportunities for more American workers.”

Thompson contextualized his support by stating: “We should welcome talented young minds to help fuel new innovations, create new businesses and work opportunities, rather than equip foreign competitors with graduates trained in our world class universities. Passage of H.R. 6429 will create additional pathways for STEM graduates to fulfill our workforce needs and serve as a catalyst for job expansion for domestic workers in the high-tech industry.”

In other words, we’ve done such a poor job of promoting and supporting STEM hiring that we as a nation must now recruit from abroad to fill vacancies in those industries. By Thompson’s own — probably inadvertent admission — the only way we can catch up to the outpacing foreign competition is to steal their graduates, which incidentally are often graduates of American universities who went back to their homelands to work.

The problem isn’t that we can’t train world-class scientists and engineers; it’s that we can’t keep them here once they’ve gotten the training. Part of this may be attributable to university admissions that are often more open to foreign students than ones grown at home. Just to clarify, we’re not talking about people in the U.S. illegally. We’re talking about folks who we have welcomed with open arms and pocketbooks.

While some might deride this line of argument as xenophobic, it is more about wise resource allocation. If we held undergraduate education to the standards it should be — instead of backsliding into droves of “13th grade” remedial courses — then perhaps we wouldn’t have this problem.

When we allow our undergraduate curriculum to become so watered-down in the name of creating greater opportunity, we undermine our graduates’ futures. Hanging our hat on the idea that everyone should go to college is a recipe for failure. Everyone should be afforded an equal opportunity to college admissions, but the admissions themselves should be extremely competitive. Until such time as we are willing to make that distinction, and its incumbent hard choices, we had better steel ourselves to the flood of here today, gone tomorrow foreign students — because that’s what we’re really good at making.