GAO Examines Federal STEM Education, Employment Efforts

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Publication date: 
3 February 2006

A major topic of conversation in Washington science policy circles these days is how to maintain the U.S. competitive position in the global marketplace. In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Bush proposed an "American Competitiveness Initiative" to foster American innovation and global leadership (see FYIs #16, 17, and 18). Substantial portions of the President's initiative are based on recent reports urging the federal government to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in K-12 and beyond, encourage more students - and a more diverse group of students - to pursue careers in STEM fields, and ensure that the U.S. continues to attract talented STEM students and workers from around the world. However, numerous federal programs already in existence have these same or similar objectives, and "little is known about the extent to which most STEM programs are achieving their desired results," according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report.

In the fall of 2005, GAO released a study investigating how many programs currently exist, where they are located, what their goals are, and whether their effectiveness has been evaluated. The GAO report, "Higher Education: Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Programs and Related Trends," looks at civilian, but not military, programs within the federal government "designed to increase the numbers of students and graduates or improve educational programs in STEM fields." In fiscal year 2004, it found that 207 such programs existed, in 13 civilian federal agencies. The cost for these programs in FY 2004 was approximately $2.8 billion. NIH and NSF were the biggest sponsors of such programs, followed by NASA and the Department of Education. NIH spent $998 million on such programs in FY 2004, NSF spent $997 million, NASA spent $231 million, and the Education Department spent $221 million.

It is "uncertain whether the number of STEM graduates will be sufficient to meet future academic and employment needs and help the country maintain its technological competitive advantage," the report states. However, it warns, "before making changes, it is important to know the extent to which existing STEM education programs are appropriately targeted and making the best use of available federal resources."

The report notes that most of the programs had multiple goals and were targeted toward multiple groups. It found that only about half had undergone evaluation or were undergoing evaluation at the time of the study. The report does not make assessments of any of the programs itself, nor assess the validity of the program evaluations, but it finds that of the evaluations conducted, most "reported that the programs met their objectives or goals."

Reviewing changes in STEM education and workforce demographics over the last decade, the report finds that while "the total numbers of students, graduates, and employees in STEM fields increased, changes in the numbers and percentages of women, minorities, and international students varied during the periods reviewed." It looks in more detail at the numbers for various demographic groups in the student and S&T workforce populations. It finds that while the "total number of graduates in STEM fields increased by 8 percent from the 1994-1995 academic year to the 2002-2003 academic year...graduates in non-STEM fields increased 30 percent."

Based on comments by education experts and university officials, and on prior studies, the report highlights several major factors that influence students' decisions about STEM fields and occupations. These include "teacher quality at the kindergarten through 12th grade levels and students' high school preparation in mathematics and science courses.... In addition, university officials, students, and studies identified mentoring as a key factor for women and minorities." International students' decisions, the report says, "are influenced by yet other factors, including more stringent visa requirements and increased educational opportunities outside the United States." To encourage greater participation in STEM fields, the report continues, university officials and students "offered suggestions that focused on four areas: teacher quality, mathematics and science preparation and courses, outreach to underrepresented groups, and the federal role in STEM education."

As reported in previous FYIs, the President's proposed American Competitiveness Initiative would include, among other components, strengthening science and math education, improving teacher education and preparation, producing more students with STEM degrees, encouraging foreign students to study at U.S. universities, and doubling over 10 years the research budgets of NSF, DOE's Office of Science, and NIST. It is not yet known how congressional appropriators will respond to the Initiative.

The GAO report is available in pdf format on the GAO web site at; type in the report number (GAO-06-114) in the upper right-hand box.