Congressional efforts to provide prizes to colleges and universities that do best at retaining STEM students should increase.

STEM degrees could be increased significantly if more freshmen who intended to major in STEM graduated with a STEM degree. Congress should appropriate $66M a year to the National Science Foundation, for five years; this would be matched one to two by a major philanthropy, to be awarded as prizes funds to colleges and universities that have dramatically increased the rate at which their freshmen STEM students graduate with STEM degrees and that can demonstrably sustain that increase over five years. Awards would be offered in three tiers: $5M for small colleges, $10M for mid-size ones and $35M for large universities.

Congress should make efforts to enable STEM workers to remain working in downturns.

Keeping STEM workers employed during sectoral or national downturns is key to maintaining adequate STEM workers. Toward that end, Congress should establish a furlough program for STEM employees in cyclic industries, whereby such employees could spend up to 18 months at a university or federal laboratory at a one-half to two-thirds pay rate. The funding for this program could come either through direct appropriation, through a tax credit given to industry, or through explicit acquisition contract guidelines that allow flexibility by the contracting company to use acquisition dollars for employee education expenses after project termination or completion.

Congress can establish a national skills-based hiring system.

Moving to a more skills-based hiring system would make it easier for workers with STEM skills (but perhaps not with the “right” STEM degrees) to take STEM jobs. To do this Congress should appropriate funds for federal agencies to hold grant competitions in which professional societies or trade organizations would be asked to coordinate their industry sector’s move towards skills-based hiring. The grantee would spend one to two years crafting a skills-testing pyramid via engagement with the industry sector in question, ultimately arriving at a consensus skills pyramid. The grantee would have to achieve a certain percentage rate of skills-based hiring by its industry sector in order to receive follow-on funding in subsequent years.

Congress should create a H-1B Visa commission.

Absent significant expansion of H-1B visas for STEM workers, Congress should establish a commission to manage H-1B visas and instruct it to create an H-1B visa system whose fees (or caps) float with unemployment rate by subfield/occupation. Alternatively, Congress could give the task of deriving an H-1B visa fee (cap) formula to the Department of Labor.

The NIH and NSF should cooperate in creating new kinds of STEM colleges and universities.

Moving STEM undergraduate and graduate education towards a more interdisciplinary model would not only attract more students to STEM, but also improve the quality of STEM education. For truly transformative change to a more interactive, interdisciplinary model of STEM education, NSF and NIH should allocate grants of up to $10M/year for institutional transformation.

The National Science Foundation should create a national videogame-based STEM talent recruiting system.

To ensure the widest possible reach of this STEM talent identification program, the federal government, foundations and/or corporations should sponsor the creation of national science videogames, much as the military sponsored the creation of “America’s Army” videogame for recruiting purposes. The “high scorers” in these videogames and those who comment intelligently on associated forums could be added to the “America’s High School STEM Talent” database. The videogame would serve as both a national teaching tool and a recruiting tool. This can build upon current efforts to use prizes to spur developers to create STEM-based video games, such as the National STEM Video Game Challenge Developer Prize, Prize which challenges emerging and experienced game developers to design mobile games, including games for the mobile web, for young children (grades pre-K through 4) that teach key STEM concepts and foster an interest in STEM subject areas.

The Department of Education and National Science Foundation should create an in-person national STEM talent recruiting system.

The United States should move from a weak, potentially expensive, and socially inequitable system of STEM talent self-identification, to a thorough, effective, and more equitable system of directed STEM talent recruiting. Identifying, recruiting, and promoting STEM talent from our nation’s high schools should become a systematic national endeavor, similar to NCAA basketball recruiting. A key way to develop this system is to ensure that the hundreds of outreach coordinators managing the hundreds of federal agency high school outreach program sites begin to take on this role. Federal agencies should incentivize such a system by instituting annual reporting requirements on their outreach grants that require grantees to list every high school they have contacted and the names of students they have identified as “promising.” This list then serves as the recruiting resource/mailing list for all scholarship programs, enrichment opportunities, college degrees, and other opportunities offered by any philanthropy, educational institution, nonprofit or company working in STEM.

Congress ought to foster the expansion of “Dual-Credit” systems.

Dual-credit systems are those in which a high school student may take college courses, typically at a local community college, and receive high school and college credit simultaneously. Expansion of these programs can help more high school students take advanced STEM courses. Via the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress should allocate up to $25 million per year for five years to the Department of Education to encourage the spread of dual-credit systems generally. DOE would release the funding in the form of numerous, but small startup grants to school districts wishing to establish or expand dual-credit courses.

The Department of Education should create “Early College High Schools” with a STEM track.

Early College High Schools are schools that enable students to also enroll in community college classes during high school. The U.S. Department of Education should partner with the philanthropic foundations currently supporting such programs to incorporate a STEM track within them, or to launch new Early College High School Programs with a STEM focus – particularly in locations where low-income neighborhoods are fortuitously located adjacent to strong STEM colleges and universities.