China and India are expanding their influence in the higher education arena -- according to a new report  from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, about 40 percent of young postsecondary degree-holders in leading countries will come from China and India by 2020. The United States and some European Union countries will produce about 25 percent.
The report, which is part of the organization’s series Education Indicators in Focus , looked at higher education graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 in OECD  and Group of Twenty  member countries -- 42 countries total.
The gap between China and the United States -- the two leading producers of graduates in 2010, with 18 and 14 percent, respectively -- will grow even larger by 2020. China is expected to produce 29 percent of all higher education graduates studied in the report, and the United States is expected to produce 11 percent of all those graduates. India, which produced 11 percent of graduates in 2010, is expected to overtake the United States and produce 12 percent of the share of graduates by the end of this decade.
In 2000, 51 million higher education graduates hailed from OECD countries, and 39 million came from G20 countries that are not in the OECD, including China and India. But according to the report, this gap is narrowing: “It’s likely that the global talent pool will continue to grow across most OECD and G20 countries, and that the fast-growing G20 economies will continue to account for an increasingly large share.”
The report shows dramatic changes in the percentage of adults between 25 and 34 who have a college degree, with sharp gains by China and India and a drop by the United States.
Setting Education Goals
In 2009, the United States established a goal to become the nation with the highest proportion of 25-34 year-old graduates by 2020. According to the report, about 60 percent of the target group must attain a postsecondary degree in order to reach this goal.
China is also looking to educate more people by 2020. It is aiming for 20 percent of its citizens, or 195 million people, to have higher education degrees by the end of the decade. According to the report, this would mean that China’s population of higher education graduates would be about the same as the entire projected population of 25-64 year-olds in the United States in 2020.
But Ben Wildavsky, senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, said the United States should not feel threatened by the increasing number of Chinese postsecondary degree-holders. He wrote The Great Brain Race , published by Princeton University Press in 2010, in which he argues that the expansion of international higher education in rising countries benefits all countries both educationally and economically, and it should not be seen as threatening.
International higher education is not a zero-sum game, Wildavsky said in an interview: “Sometimes international comparisons can lead to a misplaced alarmism,” he said. “People mistakenly assume that if another country’s doing better, we must be doing worse.”
He said countries should look to improve internally without comparing themselves to others. “It’s absolutely true that the push to increase college completion rates and attainment rates in the U.S. makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Yes, we should be trying to boost our attainment rate, but I don’t think we should be worried by the findings of this kind of report.”
According to the percentages listed in the report, the United States produced about 15.5 million postsecondary degree-holders in 2000 and 18 million in 2010. So, Wildavsky said, even though the United States’ relative percentage of graduates has decreased, its total number of graduates has increased by about 2.5 million. “We have a slightly smaller slice of the pie, but the pie is getting much, much bigger, and that’s a good thing.”
He said the United States needs to focus on meeting the needs of its own economy. “We don’t have to do that by rooting for others to get behind.”
Art Hauptman, an independent higher education consultant, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that U.S. higher education is not in decline, despite some reports that make it look that way. “The reports of U.S. decline have been way overblown,” he wrote. “U.S. attainment rates have not stagnated as some have reported but have increased briskly over the past decade.”
Growing the ‘Knowledge Economy’
The report says that higher levels of education correlate with higher employment rates and larger earnings premiums, so individuals have strong incentives to pursue more education, and developing countries also have strong incentives to promote higher education to build their populations’ skills to fit more specialized jobs.
Employment in science and technology grew from 1998 to 2008 in all OECD and G20 countries with available data, according to the report. Although this sector employs a smaller percentage of the population in non-OECD countries such as China -- less than 10 percent -- than in OECD countries such as Switzerland -- more than 40 percent -- this trend shows that the demand for employees in what the report calls the “knowledge economy” is still rising.
Wildavsky said the global spread of higher education and the more specialized job opportunities that accompany it should be welcomed, not feared: “It’s good if there are people in other countries who are better-educated, and that leads to economic growth elsewhere.”