The number of Americans earning doctoral degrees has declined in recent years, renewing worries that the United States is losing its dominance in Ph.D.-level education to rapidly developing nations like China and India.
The National Center for Education Statistics recently reported that 44,160 Ph.D.s were awarded by U.S. universities in 2002, down from the high-water mark of 46,010 doctorates awarded in 1998.
All other education degrees are up dramatically.
The Census Bureau reported that the number of Americans who obtained a bachelor’s degree increased from 32 million in 1990, or 20 percent of the population then, to more than 44 million in 2000 _ 24 percent of the population. Master’s and professional degrees have also increased significantly.
But only 1 percent of Americans had earned Ph.D.s as of 2000, a figure expected to decline slightly since awarded doctorates are not matching population growth.
Census officials reported that there were slightly more than 1.7 million Americans with Ph.D.s as of 2000.
Meanwhile, other nations are ratcheting up their doctoral programs. The National Bureau of Economic Research has predicted that by 2010 China will surpass the United States in the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s conferred.
“The numbers I’ve seen from the National Science Foundation show a trajectory that Asia will, in a very short time, produce more Ph.D.s than the United States,” said education researcher Heath Brown. “India has pledged to have a sixfold increase in the number of advanced degrees it awards.”
The United States in 1970 produced more than half of the world’s Ph.D.s. But if current patterns continue, the United States will be lucky to produce just 15 percent of the world’s doctorates by 2010.
“We don’t know exactly why this is happening. But we do know that there are financial issues involved, including the increased debt burden that American students are facing,” said Debra Stewart, president of the Washington-based Council of Graduate Schools.
The median amount of debt incurred by students seeking doctoral degrees has increased from $11,500 in 1992 to $44,743 in 2003, a more rapid increase than for any other category of college student.
“These debt levels are likely to prove burdensome to many recent doctorate earners and may dissuade some from pursuing careers in academe,” said Jacqueline King, director of the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis.
American students may also be discouraged by the increasingly uncertain labor market for Ph.D. recipients.
“Is there really a viable non-academic job market for someone with a doctorate in English? I’m not sure we’ve done such a wonderful job explaining to students the range of things they can do with a Ph.D.,” said Stewart.
She said that many doctoral programs have low completion rates. Only about 40 percent of Ph.D. candidates in the humanities finish, compared with a 75 percent completion rate for doctoral candidates in the biological sciences.
Census officials also found that Americans with doctorates are not evenly distributed throughout the nation. Los Angeles County has the nation’s largest concentration of Ph.D.s, with 58,852 , followed by Chicago’s Cook County with 33,501 and Middlesex County, Mass., with 32,025.
Those with doctorates account for 1 percent of the adult populations in Los Angeles County and Cook County, but represent nearly 3 percent in Middlesex County, home to most of the academics employed at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other major academic centers.
But the Boston area does not have America’s highest population proportion of Ph.D.s, according to Census officials. That honor goes to Los Alamos County, N.M., where 16 percent of the population has a doctorate, due to the more than 2,000 Ph.D.s employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The facility conducts research for the nation’s nuclear weapons and energy programs.
There are 140 counties in the United States that do not have any doctoral-degree recipients.
The U.S. Department of Education reported that there were 6,967 degrees awarded for education in 2002, the most for any academic field, followed by 5,195 degrees conferred in engineering and 4,489 awarded for biological and life sciences. Advanced degrees for English and literature have been on the decline, dropping to 1,446 recipients in 2002, down from its record of 1,672 recipients in 1976.
(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter at Scripps Howard News Service.)