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Calculating job growth

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If some college officials had their way, a scholarship plan proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would receive a failing grade.

As part of his executive budget, Gov. Cuomo proposed offering full-tuition scholarships to the top 10 percent of students in New York state. The students would have to enter a program in science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics at one of the State University of New York or City University of New York institutions and agree to work in the state for at least five years once they graduate. Gov. Cuomo’s budget allocates $8 million for the STEM Incentive Program.

Sounds like a sweet deal. The governor said there are tremendous opportunities for job growth in these fields, adding that New York must retrain its best students to ensure this potential is fulfilled.

“One of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy has been … the so-called STEM fields,” Gov. Cuomo said in his State of the State address delivered in January. “In New York today, there are 1.7 STEM jobs for every person looking for work, and the state is projected to have nearly a half-million STEM jobs by 2018, the third largest in the country.”

Officials at private colleges and universities, however, recognize that they’ve been left out of the equation. According to a report prepared by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York, the governor’s proposal would make these scholarships the only ones offered by the state that prevented students from using them at any educational institution of their choice. The report also notes that private sector schools awarded six out of every 10 bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields in New York state during the 2011-12 academic year.

The report, titled “Stemming the Tide,” cited data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that project substantial job growth in STEM-related fields. The bureau reports that between 2010 and 2020, the following increases are anticipated in specific sectors: health care support, 34.5 percent; personal care and service, 26.8 percent; health care practitioners and technical, 25.9 percent; community and social service, 24.2 percent; construction and education, 22.2 percent; computer and mathematical, 22 percent; business and financial operations, 17.3 percent; life, physical and social science, 15.5 percent; education, training and library, 15.3 percent; and transportation and material moving, 14.8 percent.

If Gov. Cuomo is correct that there are more STEM-related positions being offered than there are people looking for work, providing an incentive for students to pursue degrees in these fields is crucial to addressing the needs of the job market. Employers from across the country have said they can’t fill vacant jobs they now have due to a shortage of applicants who possess the necessary skills. And many of these jobs are in one of the STEM fields.

One of the benefits of picking up the tab at SUNY and CUNY schools is that tuition is less expensive at government-run institutions than it is at private colleges and universities. New York state residents pursuing bachelor’s degrees are paying about $5,870 for tuition at four-year SUNY schools during the 2013-14 academic year and about $3,960 at SUNY community colleges, according to a Jan. 22 article in the Albany Business Review.

In addition, the state has an interest in promoting the schools it operates. Funding from many sources, including the federal government, typically follows the most academically gifted students to the colleges and universities they choose to attend.

Creating an incentive for New York’s best students to attend state-run schools would help increase these revenue streams. And now that the federal government is considering an odious plan to rank colleges and universities in deciding where its money should go, attracting many of these students may help lift the profile of state-run institutions and keep federal dollars flowing into their coffers.

But such a scholarship plan should aim to benefit the students, not serve as a recruiting tool for state-run schools. Each student is an individual and must decide where to attend school based primarily on what program is the best fit.

While costs are a factor that can’t be ignored in this process, removing a large portion of available schools won’t serve the best interests of the students. Once many of the best students receive scholarships to attend private schools, there is no incentive for them to remain in New York upon graduation. This would defeat the purpose of STEM Incentive Program.

To fill those STEM-related jobs, the emphasis of the governor’s proposal should be on helping students find the college or university that offers the kind of academic program that benefits them the most. It could be that state-run schools would be their best choice. But ushering students to schools that may not bring out their best will not help the state in the long run.

If Gov. Cuomo is serious about retaining gifted students in these fields, the incentive program must be flexible enough to allow then to tailor it to their needs. Private sector schools have been awarding most of the STEM-related bachelor’s degrees in the state, and students wishing to enter one of these programs should have this option. They may not have all of their tuition costs covered at private schools, but scholarships that offer to pay a good portion of these expenses are better than nothing.

State legislators in Albany are busy working out the details of the budget to meet Tuesday’s deadline. They should consider amending the governor’s proposal to include colleges and universities from the private sector.

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