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Charting Our Nation's Prosperity

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With Washington focused on reducing unemployment and the budget deficit, it may seem counterintuitive to state that now is an ideal time to invest. But when it comes to the education of our future innovators, such investment is warranted, if not imperative.

Now is exactly when our nation should be developing the highly-skilled workforce that we need to make us more competitive and spur a sustained economic recovery. U.S. global competitiveness depends on our ability to produce highly educated, creative individuals who are prepared to address the challenges of the 21st century. Smarter, more focused investments are needed in all levels of education, including graduate programs, where our future scientists, researchers and innovators are developed.

I have served for the past year on the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States, which examined the role graduate education plays in maintaining and strengthening U.S. innovation. The Commission found that the global economy will increasingly demand the advanced knowledge and skills acquired in graduate school.

Companies want to hire employees who: have broad, advanced education; can learn quickly as they are trained in specific jobs; and have a hunger for continuous education and skill development. At IBM, for example, we need people with technical skills in areas like business analytics and cloud computing. We also need deep thinkers who can help address business and societal problems and build solutions for a smarter planet.

Recent national studies show that jobs like these pay well and are in high demand. Those with master's degrees earned 23 percent more in 2009 than those with only a bachelor's, and PhD recipients earned almost 50 percent more. The Labor Department has forecast that the number of jobs requiring a master's degree will increase by 18 percent through 2018, and those requiring a doctoral degree will grow by 17 percent. However, another report projects a deficit of three million college graduates in that same time frame.

You don't need a graduate degree to know that this does not add up. The United States is simply not producing sufficient talent required to compete globally. We lack the national talent development policy required to increase supply. Establishing one should be a top priority.

In addition, the preeminent position of our nation's graduate schools, which have been the world's best for decades, is being threatened as never before. Other countries -- especially India and China -- are expanding and improving their higher education systems as a fundamental part of their economic growth strategies. This growing international competition makes the need to develop our own domestic talent pool even more urgent.

The Commission on the Future of Graduate Education believes that partnerships between universities, policymakers and the private sector can strengthen graduate education through a variety of initiatives that fall into three basic categories.

First, there must be deeper collaboration between business and academia. Employers have an opportunity to work more closely with graduate schools to develop clear paths to careers outside academia, especially for doctoral students. Conversely, university curricula need to more accurately reflect changes in the workforce and current demands for specific skills.

At IBM for example, we have done a good deal to shape course content, particularly in the area of service sciences. We have partnered with the State University of New York to create their new Nanotech Center. And we recently announced an innovative partnership with the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York to create a grade nine to 14 program that will prepare students for jobs in the technology sector.

Second, universities must improve degree completion rates at all levels. At the doctoral level, attrition rates range from 40-50 percent. At Community Colleges, the drop out rate is even more alarming, with only about 20 percent of students completing their degree programs. The situation can be improved if universities create professional development programs that focus on the skills valued by business, government, and nonprofit employers.

Third, we should enact policies to encourage the world's best students to pursue their graduate studies here in the United States International students consistently make the significant scientific and economic contributions that our nation needs. The percentage of foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs remaining here to work or pursue research has steadily increased. It appears that if we can get them here, most will stay.

By producing graduates who can innovate and think both creatively and critically, U.S. graduate education plays a central role in charting our nation's prosperity. Our ability to address the challenges facing our nation and the world, both known and unknown, will depend on our ability to produce a highly-skilled workforce. We must invest now in high-quality graduate education that will allow the United States to secure our place in the 21st century global economy.