Beginning July 1, the nation’s students will have $790 million in new incentives to keep up their grades and study “high-demand” subjects such as math, science, engineering, technology, and certain foreign languages. To help keep U.S. students on par with students across the world when it comes to their performance and interest in these fields, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is launching two new student grant programs.

ED’s Academic Competitiveness Grants along with its Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent, or SMART, Grants aim to encourage students to take more challenging courses in high school and to pursue college majors in high demand in the new global economy, such as science and technology.

The student grants are part of the government’s push to make Americans more competitive economically. In the coming academic year, $790 million is earmarked for college students who study relevant subjects, show financial need, and maintain good grades. During a conference call with reporters on June 29, Terri Shaw, the chief operating officer for ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid, said $4.5 billion is being made available for the program over the next five years.

“For America to remain a world leader in innovation, our children … must have math, science, and critical language skills,” Shaw said.

Eligible subjects include computer science, engineering, life and physical sciences, technology, mathematics, and languages such as Arabic, Chinese, and Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan.

The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) issued a recent report detailing the need for computer-science education to play a central role in U.S. competitiveness efforts. Funded with support from the National Science Foundation, the report says only 26 percent of U.S. schools now require students to take computer science courses.

“The United States cannot ignore the fact that there will be a shortage of qualified candidates for the 1.5 million computer and information technology jobs by 2012,” said Chris Stephenson, CSTA president and co-author of the report.

The fields of math and science “are ever more critical, and they are largely the fields that will be in demand,” U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said at a recent news conference with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican. “Unfortunately, we’re not doing well enough today.”

Officials hope the grants will attract students to fields they might not have considered before–and give high school students an additional incentive to study challenging subjects.

“I worry about debt,” said Justin Blahnik, a computer science student at Winona State University in Minnesota. “I already have two years of student loans. This grant would enable me to work less, to borrow less, and to study more.” Blahnik expects to finish his degree in a year and then will begin searching for work related to human genome research.

Students who are in their first or second year of a two-year or four-year degree program are eligible for Academic Competitiveness Grants. Students who are in their third or fourth year of a four-year degree program are eligible for SMART Grants.

Under the Academic Competitiveness grants program, a first-year college student can receive $750 to pay for higher education, and a second-year student may receive $1,300. Students must have completed a rigorous high school program of study to qualify. A rigorous program includes advanced or honors diploma programs or state scholars programs. ED also accepted applications from individual states to prove that their high school curricula met the federal guidelines for a “rigorous” program of study, because not all states have the same programs or opportunities available to students.

ED received 37 applications from states and is reviewing and processing those applications, said Holly Kuzmich, deputy chief of staff for policy to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Kuzmich added that no applications have been rejected; instead, ED is working with certain states to clarify and redefine portions of their applications.

Third- or fourth-year college students in good academic standing can receive SMART Grants of up to $4,000. This money is in addition to whatever Pell Grant funding they receive.

Students must be eligible for Pell Grants to be eligible for the SMART and Academic Competitiveness Grant programs. Pell-eligible students will be notified of their potential eligibility for these grants through regular mail or eMail starting July 1. Funding for Pell Grants has increased from $8.8 billion in 2001 to $13 billion this year.

“Math, science, and foreign-language skills are the new currency in our global economy,” Spellings said. “In developing these grants, we realized just how badly our country needs students to have these skills. As our world grows more competitive, Americans must run faster and break new ground, just as we always have.”


Academic Competitiveness and SMART Grants

Letter from Sec. Spellings outlining the new grants