With all the hand-wringing about the United States' apparently slipping performance in the global education and economic competition, statistics about the country's relative standing vis-a-vis its competitors are in demand. On Tuesday the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics injected a slew of new data into the mix, and the information offered nuggets for both optimists and pessimists.
The federal study compared the United States with the other members of the Group of Eight on a range of indicators related to educational attainment by citizens and educational investment by the countries themselves.
On several fronts the United States still leads the pack. It remains the most attractive destination for the world’s students, at a time when the number of people seeking higher education outside their own borders has swelled to 2.7 million in 2004, the year examined in the NCES study. Of those 2.7 million, about two-thirds were enrolled in the Group of Eight countries, and nearly a quarter of those, 22 percent, were enrolled in the United States. The United Kingdom followed with 11 percent, Germany with 10 percent, and France 9 percent. Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation and Italy lagged.
While the United States enrolled far more foreign students than its peers, the U.S. had among the smallest proportions of foreigners in its mix of students, given the large enrollment of American colleges and universities over all. Foreign students made up 16 percent of all students at colleges in the United Kingdom and 11 percent in Canada, France and Germany, for instance, but just 3 percent in the United States.
The U.S. also continues to spend more money per capita on higher education (and education generally) than its European peers and Japan, spending a total of $24,100 per person on higher education and a total of $37,500 on education over all in 2003. The higher education figure is $16,000 more than Italy spends per capita, and about $12,000 more per person than Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom spend. Over all, the U.S. spends about 7 percent of its gross domestic product on education, with 2.9 percent going to higher education. None of the other five countries that submitted budgetary information spent more than 1.4 percent of its GDP on higher education.
The results on indicators related to educational attainment, however, are where the glass may begin to look half empty to observers concerned about U.S. performance. In the proportion of the population aged 25 to 64 with a college degree, the United States (at 39 percent) outpaced countries such as Italy (11 percent), France (24 percent), Germany (25 percent), the United Kingdom (29 percent) and Japan (38 percent). But it trailed Canada, at 45 percent, and the Russian Federation, at 55 percent.
And the numbers looked significantly worse for adults aged 25 to 34, with the U.S. finding itself trailing Japan as well as Canada and Russia and essentially on a par with France.
The numbers also tended to bear out concerns that have driven recent legislative and other efforts to increase the number of Americans entering scientific disciplines. A smaller proportion of the "first university degrees" awarded in the United States in 2004 (17 percent) were in science, mathematics and engineering related fields than was true than in any of the other G-8 countries.