Is the United States falling behind China and India in the creation of new engineers? That's conventional wisdom, but...

The logic behind this argument is flawed in many ways. First let's tackle the myth of the Rising East's mastermind engineers. China and India's engineering graduation numbers have been used for the past decade to justify arguments that the United States is in trouble. My research team at Duke University dispelled common myths about China's and India's engineering-education advantages in December 2005. The graduation statistics most commonly touted then were: China graduates 600,000 per year, India, 350,000, and the U.S., 70,000. We found that, in 2004, when comparing apples with apples, the U.S. had graduated more engineers (roughly 140,000) than India had (roughly 120,000).

What's more, China's tally of 350,000 was suspect because China's definition of "engineering" was not consistent with that of U.S. educators. Some "engineers" were auto mechanics or technicians, for example. We didn't dispute that China was and is dramatically increasing its output of what it calls engineers. This year, China will graduate more than 1 million (and India, close to 500,000). But the skills of these engineers are so poor that comparisons don't make sense. We predicted that Chinese engineers would face unemployment. Indeed, media reports have confirmed that the majority of Chinese engineers don't take engineering jobs but become bureaucrats or factory workers.

This situation reminds me of the common trope that US pre-university students trail their international peers. What usually isn't pointed out is that most countries don't have universal education systems that are required to admit (and test) every child. The result of this disparity is that America's student population includes a representative sample of all American youths, while tests results from other countries only include children who are smart/wealthy enough to attend school. It's no surprise that these top foreign youths outperform the median American student.

(HT: RD.)

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