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Global Higher Education and Workforce Trends

No comprehensive measures of the global S&E labor force exist, but fragmentary data indicate rapid growth, concentrated in developing countries, in the number of individuals who pursue education beyond the secondary level. Their number of degrees, especially degrees in the natural sciences and engineering (NS&E), has diminished the advantage that mature countries had in advanced education.[6] The low U.S. share of global engineering degrees in recent years is striking; well above half of all such degrees are awarded in Asia[7] (figure O-8).

Governments in many Western countries and in Japan are concerned about lagging student interest in studying NS&E, fields they believe convey technical skills and knowledge that are essential for knowledge-intensive economies. In the developing world, the number of students earning first university degrees—that are considered broadly comparable to a U.S. baccalaureate—in NS&E is rising.

China, especially, has driven the rise of first university NS&E degrees—from about 280,000 in 2000 to 1 million in 2008 (figure O-9). Its degree structure has a pronounced concentration on engineering degrees, which represent about 30% of all first university degrees, 60% of S&E degrees, and 70% of NS&E degrees (the U.S. equivalents are 4%, 14%, and 28%).

South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan show similar field patterns. The combined NS&E degrees earned by their students, about 330,000 in 2008, exceeded the 248,000 earned by U.S. students, even though the U.S. population was considerably larger (300 million versus 200 million).

The expansion of NS&E degrees extends beyond first university degrees to degrees certifying completed advanced study. Since 2000, the number of NS&E doctorates awarded in Japan and India has increased to approximately 7,100 and 8,000, respectively. NS&E doctorate awards from universities in China have more than tripled since 2000, to about 26,000 in 2008, exceeding the comparable number of NS&E doctorates awarded in the United States (figure O-10).

Moreover, unlike in China, in the United States a large proportion of these degrees go to non-U.S. citizens. Most of the post-2000 increase in U.S. NS&E doctorate production reflects degrees awarded to temporary visa holders, who in 2009 earned about 10,900 of the 24,700 U.S. NS&E doctorates.[8] Temporary visa holders, not counting foreign students with permanent visas, have earned 39% to 48% of U.S. NS&E doctorates since 2000. More than half of these students are from China, India, and South Korea.

For engineering alone, the numbers are considerably more concentrated. Since 2000, the share of U.S. engineering doctorates earned by temporary visa holders has risen from 51% to as high as 63% in 2005–07, before dropping to 57% in 2009. Nearly three-quarters of foreign national recipients of engineering doctorates were from East Asia or India.

Many of these individuals, especially those on temporary visas, will leave the United States after earning their doctorates, but if past trends continue, a large proportion—about 60%—will stay. It appears, though, that graduates from top-rated programs are somewhat less likely than others to stay.[9]


[6] See Joan Burrelli and Alan Rapoport, Reasons for International Changes in the Ratio of Natural Science and Engineering Degrees to the College-Age Population, SRS 09-308 (Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, January 2009).
[7] No data are available for India, making this share estimate an upper bound.
[8] Both figures exclude those with unknown citizenship (1,600 in 2007) and those with degrees in medical/other life sciences. Engineering figures exclude about 630 with unknown citizenship. The U.S. figures include individuals with permanent visas.
[9] Michael G. Finn, Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients From U.S. Universities, 2007 (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, January 2010).