Now is the time for a new National Defense Education Act
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The launch of Sputnik in 1957 shocked Americans and challenged its standing as the lone superpower, threatening to overtake the post-World War II technological advantages of the United States. In order to compete long-term with the Soviets, the United States responded boldly, passing the National Defense Education Act in 1958. The NDEA demonstrated the willingness of the federal government to invest in education at a national level by granting fellowships, creating the beginning of the federal student loan program, and appropriating education funding for K-12 STEM education, particularly mathematics. Those targeted investments contributed to technological advantages that the United States enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century. Now, new challenges confront the United States that will require strategic investments in education, much like those investments made over 65 years ago.

As digital skills become more integrated into our national security, America needs to adapt its education system to meet future demands. STEM-based skills, particularly those derived from mathematics, computer science, information science, data science, and statistics, are in demand and will present national security issues if not properly addressed now.

American students are not ensured equal access to the right tools nor equal access to equivalent quality of education that all need to succeed. Many groups are underrepresented in the STEM fields. These underrepresented groups, such as women, minorities, and those from low-income status leave STEM fields at higher rates. At the same time, minorities comprised 33 percent of STEM jobs in America from 2017-2019, while their share of the U.S. workforce as a whole was 37 percent. Those with other disadvantages (such as lower socioeconomic status) do worse on testing as well. We must take bold actions to ensure our education system benefits all students and allows us to stay on top as the world continues to delve further into technology.


For the past two years, I have served as a commissioner on the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Our goal is to provide a strategy for America to reverse the current trends that we see in which China has not only stated aims to surpass the United States in areas that include artificial intelligence, but in which it is putting forward tremendous effort, resources, and manpower that is resulting in a narrowing of the technological gaps the United States once held in those areas.

Our commission’s Final Report was delivered on March 1, 2021, and includes multiple recommendations on improving digital skills and education in both the government workforce and the American education system. One bold move that we propose is a second National Defense Education Act to address the inequities in our education system, and to improve America’s overall STEM capabilities and capacities.

An NDEA II would boost innovation, research and development, and promote digital skills throughout America. We included five components that would best address the issues we face: (1) funding for afterschool STEM programs; (2) funding for STEM K-12 teacher training; (3) funding for STEM summer learning programs; (4) increasing the number of fellowships and scholarships by the National Science Foundation; and, (5) including computational thinking and statistics to student testing. Each of these components addresses the lack of diversity in STEM and access to quality education. This bold move would effect generational change that will again require once-in-a-generation investment.

In order to compete with China, the United States must make bold, long-term investments. Maintaining the current trajectory of STEM education in America will not meet the demand for digital talent in government or the private sector, especially when faced with competing nations that have stated aims to surpass the United States in these areas. Investing in equitable education for all Americans will have far reaching economic and national security benefits. The contrast for the United States is stark: prepare for long-term global competition or risk obsolescence. Investing in education is a step in the right direction.

Mignon Clyburn is a commissioner at the NSCAI.