Legislators laid out ambitious plans for economic recovery — here's what they missed
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Over the next several months, elected officials and policymakers will continue to chart our country’s path to national economic recovery. Investing in cutting edge technology and growing the next generation of health and science leaders have already emerged as critical bipartisan priorities. Spurred by increased commercial and military competition with other global superpowers, legislators have overlooked certain ideological differences to vitalize the American workforce in relevant industries. 

Higher education institutions and specifically, an education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) will be critical in securing American technological ambitions. As one of the most cost-effective and value-driven paths for students, a STEM education at a public university will prove to be a cornerstone of accelerating economic recovery and bolstering global competitiveness. In the post-COVID future, public STEM universities will be crucial in creating the next generation of leaders and preparing us for the next pandemic. 

It’s well known that public higher education institutions can unlock countless economic and professional benefits for students, especially those from underserved or underrepresented backgrounds. The affordability of an education at a public institution removes a significant barrier to entry and allows graduates to earn a faster return on their educational investment. Public four-year colleges and universities contribute significantly to upward mobility for students, and the completion of a four-year college degree pays off proportionately more among groups with less advantageous inherited demographic characteristics. The benefits of higher education at a public institution are indisputable and in turn, institutions surely merit increased public investment.

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When combined with the fact that STEM degree holders enjoy higher earnings than non-STEM counterparts, attaining a STEM degree at a public institution is an excellent choice for many students who want to achieve upward economic mobility, and is an important avenue for accelerating the economy. A public STEM education can be one of the most cost-effective and value-driven paths for students, and STEM occupations have been projected to grow by 8.9 percent from 2014 to 2024. Accordingly, public STEM universities provide a sustainable and cost-effective pipeline of developing students into future researchers on the frontiers of science. 

National competitiveness in science, research, innovation, and manufacturing has increasingly become an important legislative priority. U.S. lawmakers have made significant bipartisan efforts to pass legislation focusing on domestic leadership in STEM and securing global competitiveness as a technological powerhouse. Most recently, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, a $250 billion bill to invest in the research and development of critical technologies and to close gaps in domestic manufacturing. 

 

Conversations around these legislative priorities should spotlight how public STEM programs will make the difference between achieving those aims or falling short. For American investment into STEM fields to bear fruit, it requires immediate attention into developing a well-prepared labor force, starting in the classroom. Direct investment into public STEM schools, especially programs that bring economically disadvantaged high school students into the STEM pipeline, can translate to increased access and retention rates of students, close gaps in educational opportunities, and result in more skilled graduates familiar with technologies crucial to American workforce advancement. We have seen precisely those results at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Additionally, since the start of the pandemic, the contributions of STEM graduates have been invaluable in combating COVID-19. Research at record-breaking pace fueled the development of COVID-19 diagnostic tests, vaccines, and now antiviral pills. As technological tools helped expand our understanding of the virus, public institutions have been part of the groundbreaking research. In a recent study, a team of researchers, including colleagues from New Jersey Institute of Technology, successfully built models to track the movement of COVID-19 particles in supermarkets. Thanks to the research, we gained insight into how the virus spreads. It’s clear that investment into STEM graduates at public institutions demonstrably drives innovation and helps prepare us for global crises.

As we enter a post-COVID future, now is the critical moment to invest in public universities and public STEM graduates. A more resilient science infrastructure is critical for economic recovery and necessary for the next pandemic: public STEM universities are well-prepared to lead us there. 

Joel S. Bloom is President of New Jersey Institute of Technology.