- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009



The United States‘ status as the undisputed leader in producing the best minds in the world is in jeopardy. The new Obama administration must make graduate education one of its top priorities to prepare the talent we need. We cannot wait.

The future of the country depends on making a renewed commitment to graduate education to produce the future innovators, discoverers and leaders necessary to address current and future problems.

Amid the chaos of the financial markets this issue received little attention in the recent presidential campaigns. It is not a jazzy subject that grabs headlines, yet if not addressed will have dire consequences for this country.

For example, nearly 150,000 doctorates in science and engineering were awarded worldwide in 2004, and more than 80 percent of these were awarded outside of the United States. The share of American citizens receiving doctorates in sciences and engineering, as a proportion of all doctorates awarded in the U.S., has dropped by 22 percent over the last 30 years. Less than 10 percent of residents in this country possess master’s or doctoral degrees.

President-elect Barack Obama persuasively argued in the final presidential debate that a robust education system is central to our economic future and national security. America’s graduate schools produce the people with the advanced knowledge, skills and abilities essential to guaranteeing the country’s economic and social prosperity. They produce the breakthrough thinkers, pushing the boundaries of their fields.

Since World War II, our graduate schools have been the best in the world. A preponderance of leaders in business, research, technology, science, government, the arts and humanities have been trained in here. Fifty-six of 91 Nobel Prize winners between 1997 and 2007 in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine and economics received their graduate degrees in the United States.

Other countries now recognize that graduate education cultivates the human talent vital to the economic competitiveness. Great Britain has traditionally been a significant rival to the United States in graduate education, but now other European Union countries and regions of the world are gaining ground.

In sciences and engineering, we have maintained our competitiveness by attracting top international students. These international students, who in 2007-08 comprised 16 percent of students seeking advanced degrees in this country, have buttressed the reputation of American universities as world-class institutions. Often these international students find teaching or research positions at some of the most prestigious schools in the United States, and those who return home maintain the excellent reputations of our graduate schools.

How well-positioned are we to produce the knowledge creation work force of the future? Not well. There is a leak in the domestic science and engineering pipeline. The percentage of American students pursuing graduate study in these fields is declining, partly due to student financial considerations.

This decline will result in fewer discoveries by scientists within the United States. And a decline in the technology development and innovation on which we depend for economic success. Among Hispanics and African-Americans, the pipeline is almost empty (each group makes up less than 10 percent of graduate enrollment and less than 5 percent of new doctorates.)

The number of international students who compensated for declining domestic enrollment has not returned to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels. Given increasing investments in graduate education in other countries, paired with negative international perceptions of the United States, these numbers are not likely to increase unless the new administration takes action.

The nation needs a new policy along the lines of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), enacted more than 50 years ago, that supported education at all levels and funded more than 27,000 doctoral fellowships across all fields. The NDEA fellows completed their degrees faster than nonfellows and have been leaders in American scholarship, scientific discovery and business innovation for the last five decades.

But the NDEA-era generation is retiring. Based on current graduate school matriculation rates among American students, especially in science and engineering fields, we cannot replace them.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama expressed support for expanding access to higher education and for increasing graduate fellowships at the National Science Foundation. Maintaining and increasing support for graduate study at the NSF is critical to developing future scientists who can sustain our innovative capacity. Equally important is support for graduate study at other federal agencies, including the Departments of Energy, Education, Defense, Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health.

The America COMPETES Act specifically authorizes support for graduate fellowship programs at the NSF, the Department of Energy and the Department of Education and the Obama administration should support full funding for these programs.

Going beyond these important incremental steps, we must also begin a conversation about the possibility for a National Defense Education Act for the 21st century, a bold measure that would mobilize young people across America to consider development of their own intellectual talent as a way of giving back to their country.

The new administration should also support a system that welcomes immigrants with advanced education and skills. U.S. competitiveness and innovation would be enhanced by establishing a new visa category for students attending an accredited graduate program in mathematics, engineering, information technology or natural sciences for purposes of obtaining an advanced degree. This visa could also facilitate U.S. residency for those who wish to pursue employment.

The historic partnership between higher education and government has produced much of the economic success we have experienced over the last 60 years. Like all partnerships, this one must be nourished and cared for if it is to continue to thrive. Federal support for graduate education and research must be sustained. Corporate leaders must be engaged in the process of encouraging the development of talent and supporting the enterprise as appropriate.

For this reason, we urge the Obama administration to organize a National Summit on Investing in Human Capital and Talent in the 21st Century. This summit would include leaders from the three major sectors of government, industry and higher education and explicitly would address the role of graduate education in preparing the highly skilled talent necessary to maintain our innovation, competitiveness and national security.

Debra W. Stewart is president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

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