A future shortfall in Americans trained in science and engineering bodes ill not only for our economic well-being, but for our national security as well.  –  Arthur Herman, “America’s High-Tech STEM Crisis,” Forbes

International competitors are chipping away at America’s lead in hi-tech by educating legions of their citizens in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  The expertise gap threatens not only our economic engine of future products and services but the ability to develop and maintain our advanced defense systems.

The hardest pushing competitor, cited by Arthur Herman and just about every other informed observer, is China, which has arguably overtaken us and whose momentum is daunting, particularly because we appear to be treading water.

Some numerical reference points that compare STEM capabilities of the two nations are:

  1. Annual STEM Graduates: China graduated approximately 4 million students in 2019, 40% of which had STEM degrees or 1.6 million, while the United States awarded 331,000 degrees out of 1.8 million, or 18%. China is graduating five times the number of STEM students in this strategically vital area as the United States, resulting in this disparity.
  2. Patents: The World Intellectual Property Organization indicates China has passed us for the first time in 2019 by obtaining 60,000 patents versus our 58,000. It is unlikely that we will retake the lead, given that they have achieved a 200 fold increase since 2000.
  3. Research Spending: In 2016, China was spending $410 Billion while we were at $511 billion, but their rate of increase was 18% annually versus 4% for the U.S., leading the Wall Street Journal to conclude that we have already surrendered our lead. This scale-up is possible because of their homegrown talent.
  4. Innovations: China has set a strategic goal of moving from merely manufacturing excellent products to setting standards for designing and delivering at the cutting edge. Their strategic plan Made in China 2025 identifies ten high-tech industries that they seek to dominate, such as electric vehicles (where they are well on the way using entities such as their brand, Volvo), biomedicines, and Artificial Intelligence. As Vladimir Putin has said, “whoever wins the race in Artificial Intelligence will rule the world.” China has heard him.
  5. Cyberwarfare: China has developed an elite force of hackers – we have our own – and has used them to penetrate governments and strategic businesses worldwide, stealing both state and commercial secrets. Their rapid advances in Drone aircraft have been attributed to successful hacking of U.S. designs.

China is graduating five times more of STEM majors and is energetically deploying them across their economy as well as in national security.  To compete in this century means to master the technologies that are the thrusts of the Made in China plan.

It will be virtually impossible to match the annual Chinese scale of 1.6 million STEM graduates, given that we are less than a quarter of their 1.4 billion population. A realistic goal will be to increase the percentage of students majoring in STEM from our current low number of 18% to 40%, matching the Chinese rate. Realizing this goal would result in almost 400,000 additional graduates but perhaps, more importantly, better prepare students to be successful in a much more demanding employment marketplace. Also, they will have higher incomes to pay back their student loans. Obviously, education is key.

Where Have We Fallen Behind?

Where we were once the world leaders in establishing universal education at all levels, we are now sagging badly.

 High School

At the K thru 12 Level, as indicated by PISA rankings, our performance on the PISA (Programme for the International Assessment of Student Achievement) rankings for science and math are solidly in the middle of the pack and lag China badly. Worse yet, U.S. scores have not improved in 20 years, with the math score dropping from 483 in 2000 to 478 in 2018. Science has gained from 489 to 502 over the same period, but neither performance shows the benefit of massive investments such as the No Child Left Behind Legislation and the Common Core. It is heartening to note that states that have emphasized education, such as Massachusetts, have consistently ranked among the global leaders – showing it can be done

College & University (4-year degree)

We continue to have many of the world’s most admired universities that focus on STEM. Still, it is shocking to see that U.S. News and World Report rates six Chinese engineering schools in the top ten versus three American (#2 MIT, #7 Cal-Berkeley, #8 Stanford).  Tsinghua University in Beijing is rated #1. It is not surprising that U.S. News is unloved by many colleges for its rating scheme.

Equally important is that tuition for Tsinghua is $3650 while at MIT, it is $54,000, excluding room and board for both. While MIT offers generous scholarships, the high “sticker price” intimidates many low to moderate-income families from even applying. Those less affluent students who do attend may feel overwhelmed by classes filled with students from better high schools and more affluent families. The median family income at Harvard is $168,000, with two-thirds drawn from the top 20%. This profile holds true at most of America’s elite schools.

U.S Graduate Schools

Perhaps most relevant is that Chinese students represent 50% of graduate-level students in Computer Science and other engineering disciplines in U.S. Universities. By comparison, American students represent only 20% of this group. This is shocking in itself but has more strategic implications, as we will continue to be unable to meet the internal demand for STEM professors and teachers, and scientists.

How Do We Close The Gap?

Close the Gap: High Schools

There is a great disparity between the caliber of education in America’s wealthy zip codes and in low to moderate-income areas. Efforts to close the STEM gap, arguably the most challenging of high school curricula, should address this gap. A simple and telling measure of this is the percent of students taking advanced placement courses in STEM, typically more than half in upper-tier high schools versus virtually zero in low-income areas. Other steps include:

  1. Computer-Based Education – Ready or not, Covid-19 has plunged the country and the world into remote learning. This forced immersion highlights issues such as the digital divide – now defined as access to the prerequisite broadband networks – as well as some innovations that should become mainstream. Primary among these should be a solid grounding in the use of computers. Only 45% of high schools offer computer science courses, even though 90% of parents would like to see their kids take them.
  2. Address Teacher Shortages – teacher shortages are chronic and have been exacerbated by the Coronavirus crisis, which has forced a large number to leave the profession. STEM teachers were already in short supply, leading the Obama administration to launch an initiative to develop 100,000 STEM teachers in ten years, completing in 2021. Progress towards this goal needs reevaluation because of the pandemic. We may be back to the starting point. Shortages occur most frequently in poor neighborhoods and among students of color.
  3. Increase STEM Magnet Schools – S. News and World Report identifies 250 magnet schools for STEM education. These schools typically have rich curricula and great success in moving kids on to college. They are scattered around the country and are very much in demand. The nation’s highest-ranked school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA, has an acceptance rate of 17%, a number that approaches the Ivy League. The Bronx High School of Science in New York City is even more exclusive – it accepts only 3% of its 30,000 applicants. While it is hard to get an accurate count of the number of STEM-focused schools, it is clear that there are not enough of them. The country would benefit by increasing both the enrollment at existing schools as well as creating new schools. We should also explore the on-line delivery of enhanced STEM curricula through existing schools.

Close the Gap: Colleges & Universities (4-year degree)

 If we accept the urgent need to increase our STEM professionals, the investment having the most immediate payback is at the undergraduate level. Currently, only 18% of college students choose STEM degrees. Raising the rate to 40% will create almost 400,000 additional majors, which more than doubles our current total. Tactics that will help accomplish this goal include:

  1. Bridge the gender gap – one of the most demanding STEM tracks is medicine, involving rigorous science courses at the undergraduate level and ability demonstrated through excellent grades and MCATS. Women now outperform men in this grueling regimen, obtaining slightly over half of the medical degrees. If women achieve on par with men in medicine, they can very likely compete at a similar level in all STEM fields – where men currently dominate by 64%. Given that women now obtain 57% of bachelor’s degrees, increasing the number of women stem majors to equal that of males would create an additional 160,000 graduates in 2016. The gender gap has been a recognized problem in Computer Science for decades, but one that I have personally seen solved at scale multiple times in my career. 
  2. Reduce tuitions for STEM degrees – America’s 131 research universities at the highest (R1) level charge annual tuitions (excluding room and board) ranging from $3000 to $50,000. China, by comparison, charges $1200 while leading OECD countries like Germany are free. Our schools will argue that they” discount” tuitions substantially but typically accept almost half their students from full-paying, upper-income families and have sticker prices that intimidate those with lower incomes. One remedy to encourage rapid growth in our STEM majors would be substantially lower tuition for their degrees versus those considered less vital for the country’s security and economy – with apologies to English Literature majors like myself.
  3. Reduce Freshman Year Fall-out: Some STEM majors are notoriously challenging in Freshman year, including engineering and pre-med. While this rigor may seem desirable, it frequently rewards those who benefitted from superior high school educations. Providing a better transition will avoid the estimated 50% attrition in STEM fields. As Irving Ives or Cornell University states, “Reducing the dropout rate from STEM field majors may well be the single most efficient way to increase the supply of college graduates with STEM degrees.” If dropout rates were cut in half, the increase in annual graduates could be 165,000.
  4. Expand the number of seats at America’s R1 universities – a relatively quick method to create new slots for American students is to increase the class size for incoming freshmen. This strategy has worked several times: through the GI Bill following WWII, after Sputnik in concert with our space program, and the admission of women to formerly all-male schools like Yale and Dartmouth. Today’s acceptance rates for the Ivy Leagues have dropped by half to an average of 8% from just a dozen years ago, meaning many qualified applicants are rejected.  Increasing seats for U.S. students ensures more American students will attend to compensate for the massive growth in international students – one fifth at some leading schools.

Taken together, it should not be hard to increase STEM graduates to 40% of all degrees, up from the current 18%. The result is an annual increase of 390,000 people equipped to get better jobs with more meaningful impact.

Close the Gap: Graduate Schools

American graduate schools are admired globally, so much so that international students now comprise almost 80% of our grad student population in critical STEM disciplines, including Electrical and Petroleum Engineering and Computer Science. One-third of these students come from China, and there has been some evidence of espionage activities. While many will choose to stay in the U.S., obtaining a Green Card and perhaps citizenship, it is not universal.  A further implication of this huge imbalance is the inability to address the teacher shortage at both college and high school levels.

So what will all this cost?

Given that China graduates almost as many STEM majors as we do students of any major (1.6 million versus 1.8 million) a realistic goal would be to reach 720,000 STEM graduates in the U.S. This number is derived from the target rate of 40%.

Approximate annual cost estimates to develop these additional STEM majors include:

  1. Tuition Subsidies at public R1 universities at $10,000 per year (average tuition of $20,000 would be discounted 50%) multiplied by 2.8 million students equals $28.8 Billion.
  2. Develop 100,000 additional STEM teachers for grades K through 12 by providing them the same $10,000 tuition subsidy. The goal can be reached over twelve years at an annual cost of $400 million.
  3. Create 100 more STEM Magnet Schools ($45 million for a 1000 student facility), phased in over a decade at an assumed run rate of $450 million.
  4. Create a virtual STEM Academy for on-line distribution of superior courseware through an alliance with Khan Academy (annual budget for course offerings that include a strong emphasis on math and science but go beyond into the humanities in 2019 was $49.7 million). The cost to extend their STEM curricula and promote and roll-out to 50,000 schools over five years could is estimated to be $30 million annually. Local costs for network operations and student devices would be separate and incremental.

The total annual cost is approximately $30 billion, excluding other offsets and the slower ramping up that inevitably accompanies major initiatives.


  • Preservation of our slim lead in the most attractive enterprises, such as digital businesses, pharmaceuticals, robotics, and electric vehicles
  • Potential breakthroughs in life-enhancing innovations in areas such as medicine and the environment
  • Enhanced ability to “re-shore” strategic industries lost to China, bringing back 2 million of the 7 million jobs lost since 2000
  • Better ratio of “tooth to tail” in our massive military budget by investing in more effective weapon systems and enhanced defenses from cyberattacks
  • Better career and income opportunities for our citizens placed in a global competition for the best jobs.
  • A more effective replacement initiative for all the scientists and doctors (46% of whom are 55 and older) slated to retire over the next decade.

How to Fund: Sputnik 2.0

 The launch of Sputnik by the USSR in 1957 shocked the United States into a rapid build-up of our aerospace capabilities and – in a far-sighted initiative – to improve students’ educational levels in High Schools and College, particularly in science and math. Sputnik added prestige to the USSR at a time when we were in a global struggle to win the newly independent, unaligned countries to our free enterprise, democratic model of governance versus communism. More ominously, it demonstrated a destabilization in the arms race because missiles capable of carrying satellites into space could also deliver nuclear bombs to American cities.

The need to radically upgrade education was couched in terms of national defense and security to win funding in congress. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 included these areas of investment:

  • Student Loan Program –when tuitions were less than 10% of today
  • Graduate School Fellowships in STEM
  • Guidance Counsellor training to identify and develop gifted students
  • Educational Technology including film and television
  • Vocational Training to upgrade advanced manufacturing
  • Improved Data Collection for performance monitoring

Ultimately $1 billion ($9 billion today) was invested in these programs, resulting in winning the race to the Moon, the Cold War, the doubling of college graduates, and commercial technology leadership.

It is time to initiate a second Sputnik-class program to preserve our slim advantage in science and technology, or perhaps more accurately, to prevent falling irretrievably behind. We need to marshal the spirit and resolve that our leaders demonstrated sixty years ago.


Sputnik 2.0 – Reclaiming STEM Leadership

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