A new brief from NCEE explores how, in the wake of the pandemic, education systems both in the U.S. and abroad are harnessing innovation and digital technologies to deepen and accelerate learning for all students.

By Jackie Kraemer and Jennifer Craw

The United States long led the world in the percent of its population that achieved a bachelor’s degree.  Since the 1990s, however, that has no longer been the case for the younger generation.  As of 2010, among the top performers on PISA, Finland, Poland and South Korea have now surpassed the United States for adults aged 25-34 years with tertiary type A (bachelor’s) degrees. Six other countries (Sweden, Australia, Iceland, the UK, Netherlands and Norway) also surpass the United States in percentage of young adults with bachelor degrees.


Students in the United States are also much less likely to pursue degrees in science and engineering than their peers in the top performing countries, according to Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, a new report from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The table below shows the percent of degrees awarded in each area, with natural sciences on the side axis and engineering along the bottom axis.  The size of each bubble represents the total number of degrees awarded in that country.  While the United States is only exceeded by China in the absolute number of degrees (1,288,999 in China and 525,374 in the U.S.), the percent of all degrees awarded in science and engineering is quite low in the United States compared with the top-performing countries.  The percent of natural science degrees awarded in the United States is lower than all the countries in this group except for Japan, Poland and Finland.  And the United States has the lowest percentage of engineering degrees of all of these countries.  In fact, except for Canada, all the countries in the group have percentages exceeding that of the United States in engineering degrees by at least double.  China has the highest percentage of the all countries in engineering degrees (31.4 percent) although the report authors caution that all of the Chinese provinces define engineer differently so this number should be taken with some reservations.  While the percent of science and engineering degrees awarded in China, Taiwan and Poland doubled over the decade from 2000-2010, the U.S. percentage of science and engineering degrees increased as well, but at a much more modest rate of 31 percent.  We should note that Canada and South Korea’s percent of degrees increased at a rate below that of the United States and Japan’s percent of science and engineering degrees actually declined over that period.


Does this relative decline in science and engineering degrees reflect student performance in U.S. primary and secondary schools?  U.S. achievement in science compared to our competitors is worrisome.  The United States has fewer high-achieving students and more low-achieving students in science on PISA than our international competitors.  Trends on both of these measures are also troubling.  The U.S. percent of students scoring at level 5 or above on the PISA science exam in 2012 was lower than that in 2009 and 2006 and for students scoring at the low end was the same as in 2009 although lower than in 2006.

While the United States is still among the leading countries in terms of the education of its workforce, the relative decrease in the percentages of younger workers with degrees and with science and engineering backgrounds is not a good trend.  Not everyone agrees that this is a crisis, however.  Michael Teitlebaum, a demographer at Harvard, argues that there is no real shortage of STEM talent in the U.S. in his new book Falling Behind: Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.  This will be a continuing debate that demands our attention as a nation.