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Paying interest to interest techies?

A new bill in Congress aims to attract students to tech-related majors by paying the interest on their student loans. But is it the smartest way to improve U.S. competitiveness?

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., and Rep. Sherry Boehlert, R-N.Y., would pay up to $10,000 of the interest on the undergraduate student loans of math, science or engineering majors who agree to work five years in their respective fields.

"America's dominance in science and innovation is slipping," Wolf said in a statement Tuesday. "We are facing today a critical shortage of science and engineering students in the United States."

Such an incentive program would surely cause students to give tech-oriented majors a second look. But it's not clear the legislation would get at the root causes of what appears to be a gradual decline in the United States' long-standing leadership in technology.

Some observers point the finger at problems in U.S. schools. But others argue that the main reason students in the U.S. aren't drawn to and thriving in tech-related fields has to do with career prospects.

Offshoring of tech work may be a small phenomenon now, but it's growing. Meanwhile, nearly 150,000 tech professionals were unemployed last year, and technology companies have been slashing jobs at a rapid pace. This just after Washington approved an expansion to the H-1B visa program that some argue effectively brings in foreign workers to compete with U.S. techies.

Could the lesson here be that Congress should pay more attention to how techies already in the work force pay--or have trouble paying--their regular bills?