J Brauer | © Stone Garden Economics
A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal carried a front page column that should concern you. Here are some facts. Michigan State University has a graduate degree program in statistics. Of 153 recent applicants, seven were from the U.S., 123 from China, and the remainder from other countries. Nearly forty percent of all graduate students at MIT are foreigners. Over fifty percent of all physics Ph.D. students in the U.S. are foreigners. Sixty percent of the Ph.D. electrical engineering students at the University of Tennessee are from overseas. More than a quarter of all graduate science and engineering students at American universities are from abroad. Of the 11 U.S. residents who received Nobel prizes during the last three years, 8 are foreign-born. Some twenty percent of German Ph.D.’s leave Germany for other shores, mostly the U.S. More and more department chairs, deans, and university presidents are foreign-born. In a word, America’s graduate programs are increasingly run by the foreign-born for the foreign-born.
I am not going to rail against the foreign-born—after all, I am one of them myself. I am going to rail against American eduction. These numbers should make all of us think. First, though, this question: Why are science, engineering, and technology so important? Answer: Because they drive our material wellbeing (as well as our ability to afford and enjoy nonmaterial aspects of life). Unless it imports foreigners forever, a society that loses its indigenous pool of thinkers and tinkerers plays havoc with its future. It’s that simple.
Why then are there so few true-blooded Americans going for graduate degrees in the sciences? The primary reason is that there simply are not enough home-grown Americans willing and able to withstand the rigors of graduate school in the sciences. And why not? Because as compared to first or second-generation immigrants they do not do as well in college. And why don’t they? Because they do not do as well in K-12 primary and high-school education either. Yes, but why don’t they? Because, as compared to other countries, American K-12 education is lacking, i.e., parents, administrators, policymakers, and politicians are not pushing hard enough to make things better. (Notice, I did not say teachers. Nor did I say students: I firmly believe that students—young people—are inherently capable of performing very well at almost anything.)
What is it that the foreign-born students tend to do differently to distinguish them from an average American? For one thing, their parents tend to push them more, tend to admonish them to be more responsible for themselves, tend to more readily account to themselves for their own successes and their failures, and tend to redouble their efforts when faced with challenges. On average, they struggle more, they strive more, they want more.
I am no friend of many of George Bush’s proposed policies but competition, accountability, and responsibility not only in K-12 schools, but among parents, administrators, and policymakers, does sound true to me.
Let’s turn local. In Augusta there is talk of creating an industrial cluster centered around biotechnology startup companies. But where will the needed scientific, legal, and business labor pool come from? I do not believe that we can rely on drawing the highly-qualified, foreign-born or otherwise, to Augusta. We must educate and train locals. And that will be a tall order unless parents and the local educational infrastructure and general outlook toward education in the city changes much for the better.
There must be partnerships among educational institutions, vertically (from elementary school to university) and horizontally (among schools at each level). To be sure, there are some, and there must be more. There must be willingness and readiness to break administrative precedent. There must be a sense of utter urgency that education counts and that it can be had. Education must be made “cool,” even while it is made more demanding. There must be a sense that “My child is on the Honor Roll at ___” is not enough because to be merely better than the prevailing low average is not good enough. We must want excellence, work for it, reward it, fund it. We must be obsessed with it since the alternative is to remain mediocre. Which would you rather have for yourself—and for your children?
Above all, the policy environment must change. We know how to do science, we know how to do business, we know how to do the lawyering. But we do not know very well how to do and implement educaton policies that work. Perhaps the city (and surrounding areas) can make fruitful use of the summer break to think about changing things around. Think about stepping up. Think about levels, not degrees.
J Brauer is Professor of Economics, James M. Hull College of Business, Augusta State University, Augusta, Georgia, USA.
This column is to appear in the Augusta Business Chronicle (June 2001).