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Will “sequestration” affect U.S. education, especially in the STEM fields?

Question submitted by Mariecor Ruediger, April 17, 2013

Answered by: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow

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American policymakers have long been concerned about the eroding U.S. advantage in educating science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students. With much of the assembly work for lucrative high-technology products having moved to Asia, future U.S. prosperity depends increasingly on innovating new products and techniques—innovation that requires training (or importing) a new generation of scientists and engineers. Yet American students do not perform well on international math and science assessments. And the U.S. lead in graduating top scientists and engineers is shrinking as other countries expand their university systems and invest in research and development.

The three agencies that account for most of the estimated $3 billion of federal STEM education funding—the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Health and Human Services—are each facing roughly a five percent budget cut as a result of sequestration. Specifically, these federal dollars support university undergraduate and graduate-level scholarships for students, and help pay to train elementary and high school math and science teachers. These programs will all face cuts, though the exact amount remains unclear.

While concern over STEM education has been focused on K-12 and on the university system, some of the biggest challenges are at the community college level. Some of the STEM occupations with the highest projected wage and job growth, such as medical technicians or turbine operators, often require only a certificate or two-year technical degree. Unfortunately the community colleges that traditionally provide these programs have long been neglected and underfunded, and federal training funds that flow to these institutions are also likely to be cut under the sequester.