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The Podium

Invest in developing homegrown STEM talent

Nearly every year we hear about a looming problem that threatens to undermine Boston’s economic success: a “brain drain” from our college-rich region of graduates moving back home or on to other destinations.

Most troubling, the reports say, is the exodus of talent in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Losing a large number of these graduates threatens Boston’s innovation economy, and we should do all we can to make the Commonwealth more attractive to keep them here.

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As a region, we depend on a continuous and plentiful supply of STEM-educated students to fuel our economy and keep us at the forefront of innovation and development in the nation. As disconcerting as the exodus of college graduates may be, the solution to keeping a pipeline of STEM talent flowing in Massachusetts lies right under our noses: public higher education.

While media report that many Boston-area colleges and universities see well over half of their graduates leave Massachusetts, what we know is that 75 to 80 percent of graduates from public universities here stay in state, contribute to our workforce, and help drive our economy for decades into the future.

We also know there is a hunger among Massachusetts students to pursue STEM-based careers, and that hunger is even greater in economically disadvantaged areas and among minorities. In the state’s Gateway Cities — former industrial hubs redefining themselves in a new economy – students show higher interest in STEM majors. Across the state, Hispanic and African-American students express the greatest interest in STEM health majors, according to a Donahue Institute Research and Evaluation study, sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s STEM Pipeline Fund.

Public higher education in the Commonwealth is responding to the need for STEM-educated college graduates, and to the demand from students seeking careers in these fields. This summer, University of Massachusetts President Robert Caret, while attending a Capitol Hill conference aimed at boosting diversity and college enrollment in STEM fields, announced a new program to help streamline the transfer of these students from community colleges to UMass campuses, and double the number of minority STEM graduates in the UMass system.

At the University of Massachusetts Boston, we have seen a fourfold increase in freshmen entering STEM fields in our College of Science and Mathematics over the past four years. A new student success program in the college, created in 2009, has fostered remarkable retention: 72 percent of students who entered the college in STEM majors three years ago are on target to graduate with those degrees next spring.

Also remarkable is that our College of Science and Mathematics has become a minority-majority college: 53 percent of our STEM majors are students of color – a significant step toward diversifying the talent pool in this important area.

The commitment to student success doesn’t end in the classroom. Through our Venture Development Center, STEM students can obtain paid internships at our region’s most promising venture-capital-backed technology companies. Over 70 percent of the interns are hired full time after graduation.

Other UMass campuses and state universities are pursuing similar efforts to grow our STEM talent pool and bolster our regional economy. Programs such as the National Science Foundation–funded BATEC (Broadening Advanced Technological Education Connections) have established pathways that connect high schools, community colleges, and universities in a seamless progression to develop homegrown talent.

While we must continue to work toward making Boston and the Commonwealth more attractive to college graduates, we also need to recognize the important role of public higher education in this area and further strengthen it. Providing students predisposed to remaining in Massachusetts with access to high-quality STEM education and helping them succeed is a proven strategy, and it’s a wise investment in our future.

J. Keith Motley is chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston.
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