A House bill to amend and reauthorize the Higher Education Act includes several new provisions to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It incorporates ideas introduced in an earlier bill by House Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) to offer loan interest forgiveness to students who teach or work in STEM fields after college, as well as provisions to encourage scholarships for STEM students and to help states improve science and math education. The bill, the College Access and Opportunity Act (H.R. 609), sponsored by House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner (R-OH), was passed by that committee on July 22. It is expected to go before the full House this fall.
During the committee's mark-up, committee members Howard McKeon (R-CA) and Vern Ehlers (R-MI) successfully offered an amendment that would authorize a total of $41 million in FY 2006 and "such sums as may be necessary" over the subsequent five years for the following provisions:
STUDENT LOAN RELIEF: Would authorize the Secretary of Education to provide up to $5,000 in relief of student loan interest for students receiving STEM degrees who teach or work in STEM fields for five years.
MATH AND SCIENCE HONORS SCHOLARSHIPS: Would authorize the Secretary of Education to make a grant for development of honors scholarships to be awarded to students pursuing a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in physical, life, or computer sciences, mathematics, and engineering, in return for five years of service in a position related to those fields.
MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION COORDINATING COUNCILS: Would authorize the Secretary of Education to award grants to states for establishing or enhancing councils spanning the academic, community and business sectors, for the purpose of coordinating and implementing reforms to science and math education and teacher recruitment and training efforts.
"We must do more now to encourage our young people to pursue careers in these fields," McKeon said in a committee press release. "I am pleased we have taken this important step today toward addressing this critical situation, and I am hopeful that we can find more ways to encourage students to enter careers in science and technology in the future." The press release also quoted Ehlers as saying, "This amendment addresses a crisis. As the committee recently heard from multiple witnesses, U.S. competitiveness depends on the quality of our science, technology, engineering and math workforce."
The provisions of the amendment were based on bipartisan contributions from a number of House members, including the Wolf loan interest forgiveness bill (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/061.html). Wolf has called on President Bush to triple federal basic R&D funding over the next decade, and has also played a key role in a national summit on technology and innovation to be held later this year. "America's dominance in science and innovation is slipping," Wolf said upon passage of the amendment. "Just look at three measuring sticks: patents awarded to American scientists; papers published by American scientists; and Nobel prizes won by American scientists. All three are down.... This is a very real and serious problem that must be addressed. Anything we can do, from providing interest free loans to offering more scholarships to bringing the best and brightest together to develop solutions is a step in the right direction."
The College Access and Opportunity Act also includes provisions authorizing competitive grants to states and to partnerships (among higher education institutions, schools of arts and sciences, high-need local education agencies, and possibly other entities) for the purpose of recruiting new teachers, reforming teacher preparation and certification requirements, and ensuring that current and future teachers are highly qualified. The bill would authorize $300 million for FY 2006 and "such sums as may be necessary" for the following five years, of which 45 percent would be available for state grants, 45 percent for partnership grants, and 10 percent for teacher recruitment grants.
No companion bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act has yet been introduced in the Senate, although Sen. John Warner (R-VA) has introduced a loan interest forgiveness bill. That bill (S. 765), which would forgive up to $10,000 in loan interest for students who work or teach in STEM fields for five years, has been referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.