I have been reading a lot about the DREAM act lately in the news, specifically about Barack Obama’s latest proposal to “staple a greencard to the diploma of every immigrant who gets a college degree or higher in the US”. This makes me highly uneasy for a number of reasons. I have written before about the dysfuntional educational system in this country (as it pertains to science), and how there is a severe disconnect between industry and academia.
The Higher Education Bubble is getting a lot of press now due to it’s increasing severity as time passes. Day by day, increasing numbers of students are unable to pay their hefty student loans taken out to get an undergraduate degree; this is simply due to the fact that we have too many colleges and too many students attending college today, as I have mentioned earlier. In the early days (of my grandparents), having a high school education was considered a major achievement and set you apart from everyone else when it came to employment. In those days, college degrees were a rarity reserved for the economic elites. With increasing economic liberalization, education also became available for the masses, making high school education much more common, and lowering it’s relative value among the population. With high school graduation becoming commonplace, a bachelor’s degree became the minimum requirement to distinguish oneself for employment. Nowadays, with banks handing out student loans willy nilly and the proliferation of colleges across the US and online, bachelor’s degrees have also become commonplace, rendering undergraduate education meaningless. The attaining of a bachelor’s degree is no longer seen as an achievement; rather, it is another stepping stone in the process of getting the real degree that will distinguish you (an MS, MBA, MFE, MD, JD, MA, MFA, or PhD). Thus, college has become an “experience” that every young adult goes through, with drinking, partying, and socializing being the main focus rather than education. In the older days, most people graduating from high school would be well-adjusted adults, able to take on the world. Then, it became the norm to mature during the college years. Nowadays, college education in the US has become almost like an extension of high school – note the number of people taking remedial courses during their first two years of college! A lot of people, myself included, end up maturing to become “adults” during graduate studies.
How does this tie in with immigration? Well, in the context of education, we have taken liberalism a bit too far, and are now seeing the consequences. The notion of an egalitarian education system is very noble, but we can see that it does not work, at least within the constraints of our economic system. In a time like this, we should be reeling things in, being a little more protective (increasingly, as I have become more educated, I have found myself becoming more conservative with regards to education; this may be a subconscious expression of self-preservation). I can use chemistry as an example since that is the field that I know best – some of what I mention is going to be a rehash of what I have mentioned previously. With the recession, the number of jobs available for chemists in this country has dramatically decreased in both industry and academia. The slow increase in the number of chemistry graduates year after year is doing nothing but exacerbating the situtation, since laid-off midcareer chemists are now competing with fresh graduates in an ever-shrinking job market. If the government is truly concerned with reducing unemployment, then there should be some level of federal control over student enrollment in universities and colleges.
The federal government already has systems in place to protect American jobs – whether they are effective or not is a totally different discussion. When it comes to H-1 visas, companies are required to justify why they need to bring in talent from abroad and demonstrate that they cannot find someone to fill the position within the available labor pool. University professors should be required to do the same thing when it comes to graduate education. They should justify why they need to bring in foreign students when there ARE domestic people willing to do the work! By continuously bringing in foreigners and making “masters/Phd mills”, they are also responsible for slowly eroding the value of graduate education. It used to be that in order to obtain a faculty position at a university, having a PhD was sufficient. Now, 2 postdocs has become the bare minimum requirement to be competitive, thus signing away about 13-15 years for post-secondary education. Grant proposals and funding requirements by federal agencies should be restructured to favor the hiring of domestic workers, either as technicians, students, or senior scientists, depending on their level of education. Federal funding agencies and universities should also be aware of employment issues and adjust their programs accordingly; it makes no sense to flood the market with chemistry graduates when there are few jobs for them, for example. This is what the DREAM act threatens to do, and this is why it makes me worried for my own future.
EDIT: Chemjobber’s comments on the NYT article on this topic gives me hope! There is skepticism on this topic, and rightfully so.
2nd EDIT: Derek Lowe has some interesting thoughts on this topic, which are worth reading.