U.S. Higher Ed Fails for Future Technologists

Now that the U.S. Congress is in session, we are once again seeing a push by the major technology companies to get an expansion to the H-1B visa program. As always, we are hearing the same complaint that America isn't producing enough qualified engineers and computer scientists to fill the needs of major American companies. In the past I argued that it seemed crazy to say that there aren't enough technology workers available, when every one of us knows a few highly skilled technology workers who are either unemployed or underemployed. But I do agree with the technology companies on one point. America isn't producing enough new qualified technology workers. And the main culprit is our failing higher education system. I personally know a young man who is currently working toward an accelerated bachelor's and master's degree in engineering. An honors student in high school, he is currently in his sophomore year at a state school where he is maintaining grades consistently above a 3.5 average. So far, so good. Sounds like a perfect future candidate for those desperate tech firms. But this year he seriously considered dropping out of the program and may face a similar decision next year. What's the problem? As a middle-class kid living at home with his single mom, he can barely afford to continue at the state college he is attending.

H1-B VisasNow that the U.S. Congress is in session, we are once again seeing a push by the major technology companies to get an expansion to the H-1B visa program. As always, we are hearing the same complaint that America isn't producing enough qualified engineers and computer scientists to fill the needs of major American companies.

In the past I argued that it seemed crazy to say that there aren't enough technology workers available, when every one of us knows a few highly skilled technology workers who are either unemployed or underemployed.

But I do agree with the technology companies on one point. America isn't producing enough new qualified technology workers. And the main culprit is our failing higher education system.

I personally know a young man who is currently working toward an accelerated bachelor's and master's degree in engineering. An honors student in high school, he is currently in his sophomore year at a state school where he is maintaining grades consistently above a 3.5 average.

So far, so good. Sounds like a perfect future candidate for those desperate tech firms. But this year he seriously considered dropping out of the program and may face a similar decision next year.

What's the problem? As a middle-class kid living at home with his single mom, he can barely afford to continue at the state college he is attending.

Sure, as an honors student he received a decent number of scholarships. And he gets a good amount of student loans. But the scary thing now is that even at a state school, this young man is facing a bill well over $12,000 per semester. With the scholarships barely making a dent in this bill, by the time he gets his master's he could be facing a student loan debt over $100,000.

This boggles the mind. Twenty years ago I attended a private university for much less than this. And at that time friends of mine attending these same state schools paid very little per semester and left college with almost no student loan debt.

How could things have changed so much? The state school system was supposed to be the path to success for the middle class. Now they can't afford to attend without mortgaging their future. It would be one thing if salaries had grown similarly, but a kid getting out of college today isn't making that much more in initial salary than those who graduated in 1990.

And, oh yeah, it doesn't escape the notice of this young man that a majority of his professors come from overseas, where in the vast majority of cases they attended college for free. Can you believe that we are raising a generation of bright kids who sit around wishing they had been born in another country so they could get an education in the field that they love?

I look at the amount of money that some of these technology firms are putting into pushing to get H-1B visas expanded (and to expand their own presence in other countries) and I wonder what that money could do if it were redirected to help the future technologists of America.

How many kids who are now thinking about leaving could finally get their degrees without the fear of crushing debt? How many future technologists who have given up on even attending college could feel safer making the decision to get a science degree?

In a recent statement in support of expanding H-1B visas, Roger Cochetti of the Computing Technology Industry Association said, "It's all part of keeping America competitive."

Well, I'm sorry, but when it comes to keeping America competitive, the key battle isn't in letting in more smart people from other countries; it's in making sure that the future smart people from here don't end up getting left behind.