Is the United States falling behind India and China in education, science and technology?
That's the question lots of politicians and educators continue to ask, and while higher education leaders like to boast about being No. 1, many are also aware that a perceived loss of American dominance could motivate Congress into spending more on higher education -- especially in math and science education and research.
"Apples and Oranges in the Flat World,"  a booklet released Friday by the American Council on Education, offers guidance on how to make international comparisons and explains the limitations of those comparisons. The booklet was written by Jane V. Wellman, an education consultant who directs the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability.
The main theme of the booklet is that it's important to be a bit cautious about making international comparisons. In part, that's because of definitional differences -- an engineering degree, a high school diploma, a private college are three of the many terms that mean different things in different countries. Another reason for caution is the importance of historical perspective. Many countries are so late in taking higher education seriously that their rapid advances can be more a reflection of their low base than their current performance.
For example, Hungary has seen a 132 percent increase in higher education participation rates (enrollment rates adjusted for population growth) from 1995 to 2003. For the United States, the change was an increase of only 5 percent. But American adults are more than twice as likely as their Hungarian counterparts to have spent time in higher education.
The report also reviews the difficulties of comparing numbers of scientists or engineers being produced in different countries. The ACE study reviews the work of Duke University researchers, who have questioned statistics  suggesting a huge growth in the numbers of Chinese engineers. Many of those engineers, the Duke study found, are not coming out of programs of the quality of American engineering colleges.
While much of the ACE report would appear reassuring to Americans, it stresses that the United States is losing some of its relative advantage in many areas -- but that the situation is more subtle than some headlines have suggested.