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How U.S. Higher Education Failed U.S. Workforce Needs

U.S. Higher Education's Shame

by Kenneth Rudich

I think it’s possible to pinpoint exactly when the strength of the U.S. workforce started to unravel, and that the origin dates back to a time when the future outlook for it was nowhere near as bleak as it is today.

Furthermore, it’s my assertion the U.S. Higher Education System had a significant hand in letting it happen.

Permit me to explain.

an unlikely origin

The unraveling began just prior to the Internet becoming popularly known as the World Wide Web.  At that time, the U. S. was developing a reputation that other countries came to regard as disturbing.  For the majority of them, it was a genuine cause for concern.

The reputation to which I am referring was called the “The American Brain Drain.”

innovation galore

No place better symbolized this countrywide trend than Silicon Valley California, where a very visible technological revolution was underway.  High Tech start-ups dotted the landscape, and they were generating staggering profits with newfangled products.  It was the epicenter of technological innovation.

One key facet of the brain drain was that these companies were able to attract the best and brightest scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians – STEM for short — that could be found anywhere in the world.

This gave birth to a second key facet.  Insofar as many of these talented people were the product of an American university, gifted students from developing countries started coming to the States in droves to attend its renowned academic institutions.

Many of the foreign countries that sent these students were only happy to sponsor them because they were studying in STEM areas.  The idea was that they’d return home after graduation – after having received the best education they could possibly get – well-prepared to jumpstart their homeland economy.  They had pinned their hopes on these American-trained students to become their economic engine of the future.

Only it often didn’t work out that way.  Instead, a large number remained in the states after graduation to take advantage of the high flying career opportunities that only a developed nation like the U.S. could offer.  The resources back home weren’t nearly as tempting, nor were the potential rewards in the face of success.

So they stayed.  And as they did, other less developed nations across the globe slowly became awakened to a glum reality – namely, the United States was draining them of their best and brightest.

a trojan horse in the making

To be sure, the U.S. initially benefited from this.

With foreign student enrollment at American universities rapidly rising, the coffers of these institutions grew right along with it.  Money fueled research, research fueled an elite image, and an elite image fueled enrollments.  For a while, it was a perpetual motion machine.

And since many of the foreign students stayed after graduation, the U.S. economy was humming along just fine on the backs of the product the academy produced.  No matter how you looked at it, the United States was riding a gravy train.

Or was it?

the world became flat

By the time the American people realized the world was “flat,” it was already too late to reverse what that meant.  The information age had arrived, as had the World Wide Web.  Modern transportation provided an unparalleled means for moving people and goods.  Individuals and corporations could crisscross the globe in so many different ways and with effortless ease.  Outsourcing entered the vocabulary, and it occupied a significant place in almost everyone’s life.

The hesitation that once curbed foreign students from returning home after graduation no longer existed.  Now they could ply their newly acquired knowledge back home just as well as anywhere else.

So home they went — to start new businesses, to launch their own research universities, to essentially buoy their own nation’s economy instead of another’s.  They were finally becoming the economic catalysts they were intended to be.

the trojan horse’s belly 

What came out of U.S. Higher Education’s belly, with the foreigners removed from the equation, were entire generations of underachieving American students in science, technology, engineering and math.

So now the U.S. leadership is gravely concerned about the country’s ability to continue down a path of prosperity, owing to a distinct shortage of American students who are adequately prepared to drive it.

Now let me be clear: this writing is not an indictment against an open higher education system that readily admits foreign students.  I can live with that.  No problem.

It is, however, a sharp rebuke for – and an enormous degree of disappointment in – a U.S. Higher Education System that did a tremendous disservice to its homeland.

After all, higher education sits at the outcome end of the education pipeline, a place where enrollment numbers are easily accessible and regularly monitored.  On top of that, it can readily see who’s occupying the seats in its STEM classes – and conversely, who isn’t.

This begs the question: how could it not have known that American student enrollment in key STEM areas was in serious decline while foreign student enrollment was climbing?

Who else would’ve been better positioned to observe such a trend?

Who else would’ve been better positioned to be proactive about raising a red flag when the lopsided numbers first began to emerge some decades ago already?  And I mean ceaselessly waving that flag, given how much was at stake.

It’s hard to say which was lacking more – the foresight to see it coming, or the certitude to make sure something was being done about it well before now.

Or worse yet, did it take notice and simply not care (precisely because the money was pouring in)?

No matter how you slice it, U.S. Higher Education lacked the very integrity upon which its good reputation was originally built.  Indeed, the problem ultimately had to be unveiled by circumstance rather than it.

Let’s face it: this was a collective and colossal failure of the entire U.S. Education System – but especially higher education.  It’s too late to suddenly say to the American people, “Oh, by the way, we have an alarming shortage of American students performing well in STEM areas.”  Where were you when you were needed most?

better late than never

True, it’s better late than never.  But even if this issue is addressed now (as in immediately), the STEM education gap will continue to grow for years to come before any form of reversal can begin to replace it.  Just like getting here didn’t happen overnight, it’s not the type of thing that can be changed overnight.

“The American Brain Drain” has taken an unsettling twist.  So much for the stewardship of the brain trust that was errantly trusted to keep this from happening.


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