International 'Leapfrogging'

October 5, 2009

In 1970, 29 percent of the world's college students were enrolled in the United States, which had 6 percent of the world's population. But 2006, the United States enrolled only 12 percent of the world's students. The United States actually grew in enrollments, but other parts of the world -- especially China -- experienced surges far beyond the totals in the U.S.

A study for the National Bureau of Economic Research explores the impact of what the author -- Richard B. Freeman, an economist at Harvard University -- calls the "human capital leapfrogging in the huge populous developing countries." The shift generally (and in particular for science and technology degrees) has important implications for higher education in the United States.

The figures for total enrollments (based largely on UNESCO data) show dramatic shifts in the relationship of the United States to both other developed nations and those in the developing world.

Enrollments and U.S. Share, 1970-2006

  1970 1980 1990 2006
World 29,400,000 55,300,000 67,600,000 141,500,000
U.S. 8,500,000 12,100,000 13,700,000 17,500,000
Other advanced nations 4,900,000 8,200,000 12,900,000 21,500,000
Developing nations 16,000,000 35,000,000 41,000,000 102,500,000
--China < 100,000 1,700,000 3,800,000 23,400,000
--India 2,500,000 3,500,000 5,000,000 12,900,000
U.S. share of world enrollment 29% 22% 20% 12%

Using data from the National Science Foundation, Freeman then explores statistics that relate to the academic programs that students select in the United States and the rest of the world, with Americans being much less likely than others to focus on science and engineering.

In 2004, for example, 12.9 percent of the first degrees awarded to students went to those in the United States. But only 8.5 percent of the first degrees awarded in science and engineering were awarded to those in the United States.

Similar data suggest shifts in the doctoral population. Ph.D. enrollments have been relatively stable in the United States but growing rapidly elsewhere, especially in countries like China where doctoral study is highly concentrated in the science and technology fields. Freeman notes that in 1975, China essentially had no science or engineering doctorates. But by 2004, the NSF found that China graduated 23,000 Ph.D.'s, about 63 percent of them in science and engineering. And between 1995 and 2003, new students in doctoral programs increased six-fold in China, to 48,740.

Assuming continuation of these trends, Freeman predicts that China will produce more science and engineering doctorates than the United States by next year. Freeman notes that the "quality of doctorate education surely suffers from such rapid expansion, so the numbers should be discounted, but as the new Chinese doctorate programs develop, quality will undoubtedly improve." (In another sign of China's rise in the worldwide research scene, The Times Higher reported Friday that a government study in Britain found that China had overtaken Britain in scholarly production as measured by published papers.)

A large part of the growth worldwide in enrollments comes from female students. While many educators in the United States have worried of late about lower enrollment rates of male students, Freeman notes that the global pattern until recently was for higher education to be largely male. Much of the progress in developing nations has taken place at a time of expanded opportunity for women in higher education, he notes.

"As women contribute an increasingly large supply of new university students, companies and countries whose institutions and policies (family friendly policies, most likely) allow them to attract and use female graduates efficiently are likely to have an edge in the market place," he writes.

Here are some of the figures for selected countries during a time when women went from the minority to majority worldwide in enrollments:

Number of Women Enrolled per 100 Men in Selected Countries

Country 1988 2005
World 64 105
United States 116 140
Netherlands 81 108
Chile 82 96
Malaysia 87 131
India 47 70
China 55 95
Brazil 106 132
Pakistan 46 88
Bangladesh 25 53
Mexico 66 99

Taken together, the various trends offer opportunities and some challenges for the United States and its colleges and universities. Freeman notes repeatedly the many positive impacts for the United States of the growth in higher education abroad. Because U.S. graduate education remains a leader worldwide (even if it has heightened competition), many of the new graduates around the world still want to come to American colleges for doctoral education -- and many of them will end up staying, and working in ways that advance the U.S. economy, through the business and academic worlds.

Freeman writes that there is no evidence that foreign students are forcing U.S. citizens out of graduate programs. Many universities have been increasing capacity, so there has been room for the foreign students, who have helped a number of institutions grow graduate programs, Freeman writes. In some cases, he says, "bachelor’s graduates from overseas will keep some graduate programs in business."

Eventually, Freeman notes, the new and expanding universities abroad will create competition for American institutions, Freeman writes. But he suggests this need not be damaging. "Over time foreign universities will improve their quality, so that the expansion of higher education outside the US will create greater competition for American universities in attracting international students," he writes. "For American students and faculty, the benefit will be a greater number of quality universities at which to obtain an education or a job. The challenge to U.S. universities will be to remain world centers of excellence in spite of increased overseas competition. This presumably requires that they innovate in various ways, taking advantage of their 'brand names,' culture of openness, ties with business, and so on."

He adds: "In the face of global competition it is difficult to imagine the U.S. maintaining the dominance it has had in the latter part of the 20th century (just as it is difficult to imagine the U.S. maintaining its dominance of the global economy). But barring some horrific policies or events I would expect U.S. universities to continue to among the world’s leader in higher education into the foreseeable future and thus to keep attracting high skill immigrants to the country."

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