Lost Dominance in Ph.D. Production

A new study explores just how far the United States has fallen in educating scientists and engineers.
July 15, 2005

Experts have been warning for a few years now that the United States is at risk of losing its lead position in the education of science and engineering Ph.D.'s. A new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows just how vulnerable that position is.

Indeed, the report finds that if China continues to expand science and engineering programs at its current pace (which may not be possible), it would overtake the United States in producing Ph.D.'s in those fields as early as 2010.

For the United States to be overtaken in such a short period of time raises significant questions about the country's economic and educational future, the report warns, while offering a history of how the current situation developed.

In 1970, the United States was riding high in higher education, enrolling about 30 percent of the world's college students and granting more than half of all science and engineering doctorates. But the report notes that these achievements were in part the result of conditions elsewhere, such as the flight of European scientists who escaped the Nazis by coming to the U.S., and the relatively slow recovery of European higher education after World War II.

Since 1970, much of the world has expanded postsecondary enrollment, especially in science and engineering. By 2001, the percentage of all college students in the world who were being educated in the United States had fallen to 14 percent.

Enrollments outside the United States aren't just going up, but they are rising especially in science and engineering. As the report documents, in 2000, 17 percent of bachelor's degrees in the United States were in science and engineering, compared to 27 percent worldwide and 52 percent in China.

Growth in China has also been impressive at the doctoral level, the report says, even though Chinese universities were not really awarding any doctorates in science and engineering as late as 1975. Between 1995 and 2003, the report says, first-year entrants in Ph.D. programs in China increased to 48,740, from 8,139. While the report acknowledges that growth at that rate hurts the quality of programs, it adds that any quality "discount" will disappear over time.

The report, "Does Globalization of the Scientific/Engineering Workforce Threaten U.S. Economic Leadership?" was written by Richard B. Freeman, the Herbert Ascherman Chair in Economics at Harvard University and director of the Labor Studies Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The report may be purchased online, for $5, from the bureau's Web site.


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