U.S. Students Have Achieved World Domination in Computer Science Skills—for Now

In a study of senior computer science majors in the U.S., China, India, and Russia, U.S. students are tops in skills, if not in gross numbers

Photograph of a woman with a computer on her lap holding a diploma and a United States flag.
Photo: iStockphoto

When it comes to computer science skills, U.S. students approaching graduation have a significant advantage over their peers in China, India, and Russia.

That’s the conclusion of a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The study was put together by a global team of researchers led by Prashant Loyalka, an assistant professor at Stanford University. The team constructed a careful sampling mechanism to select senior (typically fourth year) computer science or equivalent students in each of the four countries, making sure that both the educational institutions and students enrolled at those schools were statistically representative of schools and computer science students throughout the respective nations. The sampling also ensured that study participants represented both elite and non-elite universities. The final selection included 6847 students from the U.S., 678 from China, 364 from India, and 551 from Russia.

Once the students were selected, the researchers then administered the Major Field Test in Computer Science, an exam that was developed by the U.S. Educational Testing Service and is regularly updated. The exam was translated for the students in China and Russia.

When the researchers tabulated the results, the U.S. students came out ahead in every category. U.S. seniors outperformed their peers overall; students from elite U.S. schools outclassed their counterparts at the other countries’ elite institutions; and the same was true for students at non-elite universities.  (The differences among the scores of students in China, India, and Russia were not statistically significant, the researchers indicated.)

The study sets in relief an important but rarely mentioned point with regard to the sheer numbers of computer science graduates. U.S. universities graduate about 65,000 computer science students annually, compared with an annual total of 417,000 for institutions in the other countries studied.  But those figures don’t tell the story of who will fill the most coveted slots at the world’s premiere tech companies. Loyalka and his collaborators note that the number of graduates supplied by China's elite programs is approximately half the total number of graduates supplied by those in the U.S. India's elite programs turn out only one-eighth the total number of graduates supplied by comparable U.S. schools) 

The skills gap between the U.S. and the other countries studied is not a huge surprise (though the gap in performance is smaller at the elite schools), Loyalka told IEEE Spectrum. “CS departments and CS education in general have a longer history and are much more established in the United States than in China or India especially. A lot more is spent per student in the U.S. than in the other three countries. [But] given time and resources, the other three countries could catch up to the United States.”   

“The study is good news for programs in the U.S.,” he said, “but it also does not mean that they should sit on their laurels.”

Loyalka and his colleagues also looked at the difference in scores between the men and women in the sample. In every country, the men came out ahead; the gap overall was smallest in China, and biggest in the U.S. That difference put the average female computer science student in the U.S. on par with the overall student population at elite schools in the other countries studied.

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