Reposted from Science magazine, 22 April 2005

An estimated 100,000 college graduates could save up to $10,000 each under proposed federal legislation to increase the number of U.S. citizens pursuing science and engineering careers.

The bill, introduced last week in both the U.S. House and Senate, would forgive the interest on federal loans for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors who work in science-related occupations for 5 years after they graduate. If passed, the legislation (H.R. 1547 and S. 765) would create the largest program of its type in the history of U.S. higher education. But some observers say that the amount is too small to steer students into science careers.

Several federal agencies already offer a variety of scholarship and loan forgiveness programs to attract more U.S. citizens into the sciences. Some have paid off, contributing to a 10% increase in the number of domestic students earning STEM degrees from 1991 to 2001, but policymakers say more are needed. Under the Math and Science Incentive Act of 2005, each STEM major would receive a waiver of up to $10,000 in loan interest in exchange for agreeing to work as a science or math teacher or as a STEM professional for five consecutive years. The program would be funded by the Education Department, which already runs a similar program that erases up to $17,500 in student loans in return for 5 years of teaching in an impoverished school district.

"We understand incentives in baseball, basketball, and football," says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose new book Winning the Future inspired Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) to propose the legislation. "There's no reason why incentives won't work in education."

Others are not so sure. Economist Anthony Carnevale, a senior fellow at the nonprofit National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C., calls the legislation "a symbolic gesture" and doubts it will influence students who aren't already headed in that direction. "Few students make a career decision based on how much interest they might be able to save on a loan 10 years down the road," he says. Naga Kodali, a collections manager for the federal Perkins student loan program at the University of Maryland, College Park, agrees. "If you want to entice students to major in a discipline that requires significant academic effort, you have to offer a comprehensive financial package," he says.

Congress followed a similar line of reasoning in last year's Taxpayer-Teacher Protection Act, which more than tripled the amount forgiven under the Education Department's program to attract qualified math and science teachers to low-income schools. "The feeling was that we needed a better incentive," says Susan Sclafani, assistant secretary of vocational and adult education at the Education Department.

A successful loan-forgiveness program could have the unintended negative effect of crimping the flow of students into graduate school, worries Daryl Chubin, director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at AAAS, the publisher of Science. "Students would presumably enter the workforce immediately after earning the baccalaureate," he says. Forsaking graduate school, he adds, could ultimately put these students at a disadvantage in a competitive job market.