As the space program’s goals got pulled back by politicians trying to “save” money, and a post-Apollo generation came of age, the impetus of STEM declined with it. Among top-performing high school students in 1992, just 29% went on to major in STEM subjects in college—far lower than in other developed nations. By the year 2000, the proportion of American STEM majors had dropped to 14%. By 2011, only 30% of high school seniors could even meet college enrollment standards in science. (More than half met reading standards.) An October 2013 survey of more than 150,000 people aged 16 to 65 conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked the U.S. 21st out of 23 countries in math and 17th out of 19 in problem solving.
“The lack of interest in STEM subjects was reflected in America’s high school teachers. Even those willing to teach STEM were increasingly unqualified to teach the subjects. By 2000, 31% of math students were taught by a teacher without a mathematics degree or certification. Two-thirds of physics teachers lacked a background in physics, and 79% of Earth and space science teachers taught without certification. In 2010, the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology declared a crisis, urging the federal government to launch 200 new STEM-focused high schools and 800 STEM elementary and middle schools by 2020—leaving a massive chicken-and-egg problem: the lack of STEM teachers to staff these schools.
And yet, even while our students turn away from STEM, America continues to lead the world in research universities. Eight out of the top 10 schools on the Academic Ranking of World Universities are in America, including the top four. Of the top 50 universities worldwide, 33 are American. At least we can be assured that our older students can avail themselves of a first-class STEM education. Except that they’re not, for the most part. The biggest consumers of American universities’ postgraduate STEM are non-Americans. The trend is driven in part by the rising affluent class in China and large scholarships offered to students in oil-rich Gulf states who can get into American universities. Public universities are also recruiting students from abroad to take advantage of the higher tuition rates international students pay. In 2015, 1.13 million foreign students studied in the United States at every school level, a 14% increase from 2014, a 50% increase from 2010, and an 85% increase from 2005. Of these students, 331,371, or 29%, are Chinese. Nearly 81,000 are Saudi Arabian, up from 5,000 in 2000.
Of these 1.13 million foreign students, 974,926 are attending U.S. colleges and universities. In the 2014-2015 school year, international students in American universities had the highest rate of growth in 35 years. The United States hosts more international college and university students than any other country in the world, almost double the number hosted by second-place Britain.
Most of these foreign students are not here for French poetry. Even though the roughly 975,000 international college students only make up about 4.8% of the total number of college students, more than half of advanced STEM degrees from American universities are earned by international students.
This is worth repeating: one out of 20 students in American colleges is a citizen of another country; more than half of all master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s in STEM subjects go to foreign citizens. Non-Americans earn 57% of engineering doctoral degrees, 53% of computer and information sciences doctoral degrees, 50% of mathematics and statistics doctoral degrees, 49% of engineering-tech and engineering-related doctoral degrees, and 40% of doctorates in physical sciences and science technologies.
We should be proud of our ability to educate the world. But what kind of power are we giving to other nations? When we decline to a post-Apollo attitude toward STEM, what’s the eventual cost?