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U.S. Policy at Cross-Purposes: The State of the Nation’s STEM Agenda



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The need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals has garnered global attention during the past two decades due to the significant role that these fields play in encouraging innovation, productivity, economic growth and national security (Gordon, 2007). However, the United States (U.S.) has significantly lagged behind its global counterparts in the annual production of STEM degrees during this time frame (Granovskiy, 2018). In 2014, the U.S. accounted for 10% of the global share of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees compared to 25% for India, 22% for China and 12% for the European Union (National Science Board, 2018). Some analysts have argued that this suggests that the U.S. is losing its capacity to remain a global leader in technological innovation (CoSTEM, 2018). Meanwhile, educating individuals to become STEM professionals has not been an easy endeavor. While claims concerning the alleged shortfall of such individuals in the labor market have garnered mixed-reactions, colleges and universities nevertheless continue to face pressure to ensure a sufficient number of graduates with such capabilities (Granovskiy, 2018). In addition, it should be said, analysts have long argued that foreign-born workers have for just as long complemented U.S.-born individuals in meeting the country’s need for advanced expertise in the STEM fields (American Immigration Council, 2017).

An ongoing desire to meet labor demands, spur technological innovation and maintain global competitiveness has greatly influenced STEM policy initiatives in the U.S. The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science (COMPETES) Act of 2007, which focused on improving education to enhance United States competitiveness in such fields, was reauthorized in 2010. That statute called for development and coordination of a national STEM initiative. The COMPETES Act called on the National Science and Technology Council in the Executive Office of the President to establish a group to coordinate that effort and it did so by creating the Committee on Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in 2011 (CoSTEM) (Gonzalez, 2015). The Act also increased federal funding for STEM education programs and emphasized research at the undergraduate level to promote student interest in such careers. CoSTEM staff developed the first national strategic plan concerning STEM (2013-2018) in 2013 during the administration of President Barrack Obama and that effort focused on improving the STEM experience for undergraduate students and increasing the pipeline of skilled teachers in the K-12 system and number of STEM professionals graduating from colleges and universities. It also sought to ensure that groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields obtained access to such curricula. That blueprint extended into a different presidential administration with its mandate expiring in 2018. The Trump presidency developed the current national STEM strategic plan (2018-2023), which focuses on aspects of goals first articulated in the original 2013 federal STEM strategic plan.

With the updated plan now in place, it appears appropriate to assess the state of the national STEM education preparation initiative and to explore how that effort may be affected by recent Trump administration steps to prohibit the entry of foreign-born workers into the U.S. labor force. To address this concern, I employ the three principal aspirational goals set forth in the federal strategic plan concerning STEM as proxies for U.S. priorities for education in these fields. Thereafter, I provide a brief analysis of the debate concerning the long-alleged U.S. STEM workforce shortage and the role of foreign-born workers in ensuring an adequate number of STEM-prepared professionals. I also examine the administration’s recent ban on foreign-born workers and contend that it works at cross-purposes to previous policies, which had embraced the need for foreign-born workers to address national STEM priorities. I conclude by providing reasons why those STEM professionals continue to be significant to the U.S. despite the current administration’s stance to the contrary.

National STEM Needs

In accord with Congress’ perceived national imperatives when it first called for development of a national STEM strategy in 2007, the current U.S. STEM strategy focuses on: 1) building a strong foundation for STEM literacy; 2) increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in these fields; and 3) preparing the STEM workforce for the future (CoSTEM, 2018). These three national strategic goals have guided federal agency investments and collaboration and underpinned STEM-related education policies since the COMPETES law was enacted.  These priorities suggest an imperative need to address STEM literacy in schools from kindergarten through college, as such courses provide the knowledge on which a competent workforce in these important fields ultimately rests (Charette, 2013; Hira, 2010). Such requires not only assuring an adequate potential workforce of individuals who are STEM literate, but also promoting degree attainment in these fields. Foreign workers have brought these attributes to the U.S. workforce too, especially in the areas of technology and engineering, at an increasing rate in recent decades.

As noted above, national policy has also embraced a need to broaden participation and increase access among underserved and underrepresented groups in STEM. According to Ivory (2018), while there have been gains among members of marginalized groups in STEM enrollment and degree attainment, the goal of full inclusion in these fields has remained elusive. Blacks and Hispanics remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce compared to their presence in other fields (Graf et al., 2018), for example, and women’s presence has declined in STEM field-clusters despite their gains in the overall workforce (Blackburn, 2017). Increasing access and broadening demographic participation is critical to preparing the future STEM workforce; that is, the U.S. needs annually to graduate a sufficient number of individuals with the expertise required to fulfill labor demands and to do so across its many population groups. STEM jobs are on the increase and individuals with the required expertise for such positions are relatively limited, which could make it quite difficult to ensure U.S. adequacy, let alone, growth, in these fields (Moseley, 2019). The need for STEM prepared professionals highlighted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, suggests how important an adequate workforce with such capacities can be to the nation. More generally, as CoSTEM has emphasized, a well-equipped and “diverse talent pool of STEM-literate Americans prepared for the jobs of the future will be essential for maintaining the national innovation base that supports key sectors of the economy” (CoSTEM, 2018, p. 6).

STEM Workforce and Foreign-born Workers                                                                            

One concern that has generated considerable and continuing debate related to ensuring a sufficient number of STEM prepared professionals in the U.S. is the role of foreign-born workers in helping attain that outcome. As of 2011, 20% of all U.S. jobs required STEM experts (Rothwell, 2013). The Department of Labor has projected that employment in these fields will rise at an annualized rate of 8.8% until 2028 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). Meanwhile, there were 8.6 million STEM jobs available in the U.S. in 2015 (Fayer et al, 2017) and 2.4 million such positions were unfilled at some point in 2018 (Moseley, 2019).

In addition, and more precisely, an insufficient number of native U.S.-born STEM professionals and the lack of access to those fields among historically underrepresented minorities have been structural impediments to insuring such a workforce in the past. As outlined above, to address these concerns, the U.S. has sought to increase access to STEM education (CoSTEM, 2018; Granoyskiy, 2018). Nonetheless, the insufficient supply of adequately prepared native-born workers in these fields has led companies requiring individuals with such capacities to pursue foreign educated individuals (Hira, 2010). Table 1 showcases the growth of that workforce in the United States from 1990 to 2015. 

Table 1

       U.S.  Foreign-born STEM Workforce (1990-2015)


Narrow STEM Definition

STEM + Health and Social Science


Foreign-born STEM workforce

Foreign-born share of STEM workforce

Foreign-born STEM workforce

Foreign-born share of STEM workforce





















Source: American Immigration Council

Table 1 demonstrates that foreign-born workers constitute a strong presence in the STEM fields (Picot & Hou, 2019; Hanson & Slaughter, 2016). Moreover, as a group, these individuals are completing advanced STEM degrees at a higher rate than native U.S. citizens (American Immigration Council, 2017). For example, in 2013, among scientists and engineers in the U.S., the foreign-born population accounted for 32% of individuals attaining master’s degrees and 9% of those completing doctoral degrees while their U.S.-born counterparts accounted for 29% of master’s degrees and 4% of doctoral degrees (Lan et al., 2015). Foreign-born workers not only increase the representation of STEM professionals in the U.S. workforce, but they also provide valuable contributions by bringing unique perspectives and previous experience and knowledge. This role for foreign-born workers has been made possible in the past through a legal framework and policies allowing temporary migration/immigration, including the H1-B visa and Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs.

However, despite the significant contributions of foreign educated individuals to the U.S. as residents and economically, recent Presidential Proclamations (P.P. 10014 & 10052) have sought to prevent the entry of foreign-born workers into the American the workforce (2020).  Among other things, the President banned the issuance of H-1B and L visas to foreign-born workers. While OPT has not been suspended, the administration has raised the idea of ending it. In any case, the pace of administrative processing of OPT has slowed markedly. These actions have limited the pipeline of foreign-born STEM professionals to the U.S. workforce and negatively affected the operations of companies working in these fields.

A Paradox of Competing Policies: Workforce Shortage vs. Prohibition

In 2015, a National Science Foundation report argued that arriving at a simple “yes or no” answer regarding the much-discussed shortage of STEM workers was a challenge (Granovskiy, 2018). Indeed, claims concerning an insufficient number of professionals in the STEM workforce continue to garner mixed reactions. For example, Xue and Larson (2015) have found that academia enjoys a surplus of STEM prepared professionals while the government and industry sectors are confronting a shortage of such individuals. Moreover, some analysts have contended that the U.S. should enact policies aimed at attracting the brightest minds to the country, regardless of their nation of birth, to ensure America’s continuing competitiveness (Granovskiy & Wilson, 2019). Whether the nation enjoys too few STEM prepared professionals or too many in whole or in part, there is little doubt that there is demand for more STEM prepared individuals (Gonzalez, 2015; Granovskiy, 2018), which makes foreign-born workers with such capabilities especially valuable to the nation today.

That is why Congress previously passed statutes that permitted foreign-born workers with critical skills entry to the U.S. workforce (Wasem, 2016). The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 incorporated several provisions, including the H1-B and L visas that Trump has suspended, for entry of highly skilled and/or specialized foreign professionals with higher educational attainments into the U.S. (Wasem, 2016). Additionally, OPT provided a mechanism for U.S. employers to meet labor shortages through temporary employment of foreign students/graduates (F1-visas) for a period of up to 36 months (for students in STEM fields) (Granovskiy & Wilson, 2019). While these mechanisms had long enabled foreign-born workers to contribute to U.S. technological innovation, Trump’s recent proclamations categorized all foreign-born workers as a “risk to the U.S. labor market.” His action has generated ongoing lawsuits by several technology companies, including Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook, that are contending that the policy will slow, if not endanger, U.S. economic growth (Hesson, 2020).

Past U.S. immigration policies acknowledged that the country’s colleges and universities were not graduating a sufficient number of native U.S.-born citizens in STEM fields to meet workforce needs. Trump’s recent proclamations have dramatically undercut those long-standing efforts and hampered the economy thereby. The deep irony now evident in American policymaking is that the President has sought to hamper foreign-born workers from entering the workforce as the country, already reliant on foreign-born workers to mitigate its STEM workforce shortage in government and industry, simultaneously aspires to be a global leader in technological innovation.


Assuring an adequate supply of STEM educated professionals continues to be essential to United States' technological innovation. The role of foreign-born workers with such backgrounds in the country’s labor force is significant, growing and important for vibrant economic growth. The national strategic plan for STEM education has recognized the shortfall of native-born citizens in these fields and sought to encourage the education of more individuals with such capacities, including those from historically underrepresented groups. Those efforts should be pursued vigorously. Likewise, policies such as the H1-B visa, L visa and OPT that provide the legal framework for temporary migration/immigration of foreign-born workers to enter the workforce must be reinstated, protected and encouraged (as appropriate) in order to ensure that the U.S. maintains its economic viability and enhances its capacity for global leadership in science and technology.


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Johnny C. Woods

Johnny C. Woods, Jr. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Higher Education and a concurrent student for the Master in Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech. Johnny earned an M.Ed. in Educational Foundations and Management from Makerere University, Uganda, and a BA in Sociology from the A.M.E. Zion University, Liberia. He is a Graduate Teaching Assistant for the Graduate School course on Preparing the Future Professoriate. Previously, he served as Graduate Research Assistant in the Dept. of Engineering Education where he is currently the Research Group Coordinator for the Engineering Competencies, Learning, and Inclusive Practices for Success (ECLIPS) Research Lab. His research interests include STEM education (policy and workforce), migration/immigration issues in education, international students/education, and quality assurance in higher education. Currently, his research focuses on exploring the experiences of Sub-Saharan African-born immigrant students in STEM.

Publication Date

September 10, 2020