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Global Higher Education and Workforce Trends

No comprehensive measures of the global S&E labor force exist, but fragmentary data indicate rapid growth in the number of individuals who pursue advanced education, especially in developing nations. In recent decades, the increasing number of new S&E degrees, including degrees in natural sciences and engineering, awarded in developing countries has diminished the advantage that mature countries had held in advanced education.[6]

Worldwide, the number of persons with a tertiary education continues to grow.[7] Estimates for 1980 and 2000, the latest available year, show an increase of about 120 million individuals, from 73 million to 194 million (figure O-7 ). The completion of tertiary education expanded most rapidly in developing Asian economies, where the combined shares of China, India, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand increased from 14% to 25% of the world's total. The number of individuals with advanced education in these Asian countries in 2000, 49 million, nearly matched the 2000 U.S. total; in 1980, these countries had accounted for less than half. Trends in fragmentary international degree data suggest that Asian growth has continued and perhaps accelerated.

Governments in many Western countries and in Japan are concerned about lagging student interest in studying natural sciences or engineering (NS&E), fields they believe convey technical skills and knowledge that are essential for knowledge-intensive economies. In the developing world, the number of first university NS&E degrees, broadly comparable to a U.S. baccalaureate, is rising, led by large increases in China, from about 239,000 in 1998 to 807,000 in 2006. New NS&E degrees earned by Japanese and South Korean students combined in 2006 (about 235,000) approximated the number earned by U.S. students in that year, even though the U.S. population was considerably larger (300 million vs. 175 million) (figure O-8 ).

The expansion of NS&E degrees extends beyond first university degrees to degrees certifying completed advanced study. Since the early 1990s, the number of NS&E doctorates awarded in Japan and India has increased by more than 70%—to approximately 7,100 and 7,500, respectively. The number awarded in South Korea nearly tripled over the same period, reaching approximately 3,500. China's domestic NS&E doctorate awards have increased more than tenfold over the period, to about 21,000 in 2006, nearing the number of NS&E doctorates awarded in the United States (figure O-9 ).

Most of the post-2002 increase in U.S. NS&E doctorate production reflects degrees awarded to temporary and permanent visa holders, who in 2007 earned about 11,600 of 22,500 U.S. NS&E doctorates.[8] Foreign nationals have earned more than half of U.S. NS&E doctorates since 2006. Half of these students are from East Asia, mostly from China (31%), India (14%), and South Korea (7%).

For engineering, the numbers are more concentrated. Since 1999, the share of U.S. engineering doctorates earned by temporary and permanent visa holders has risen from 51% to 68% in 2007. Nearly three-quarters of foreign national recipients of engineering doctorates were from East Asia or India.

Many of these individuals, especially those on temporary visas, will leave the United States after earning their doctorates, but if past trends continue, a large proportion will stay. Sixty percent of temporary visa holders who had earned a U.S. S&E doctorate in 1997 were gainfully employed in the United States in 2007—the highest 10-year stay rate ever observed.[9]


[6] See Joan Burrelli and Alan Rapoport, Reasons for International Changes in the Ratio of Natural Science and Engineering Degrees to the College-Age Population, SRS 09-308 (Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, January 2009).
[7] Tertiary education by international convention is broadly comparable to at least a U.S. technical school or associate's degree.
[8] Both figures exclude those with unknown citizenship (1,600 in 2007) and those with degrees in medical/other life sciences. Engineering figures exclude about 630 with unknown citizenship.
[9] Michael Finn, Stay rates of foreign doctorate recipients from U.S. universities, (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, forthcoming).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010