“Last year, Mexico, barely a third our population, graduated 113,000 engineers, the United States 120,000.”

— Former president Bill Clinton during a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the New Republic, Nov. 19, 2014

Former president Bill Clinton loves to toss out facts and figures. This line, from his speech at the New Republic 100th anniversary gala, is apparently a favorite that has turned up in some of his other speeches.

But the comparison seemed so striking, given that there are so many more university students in the United States, that we just had to check it.

The Facts

The 113,000 figure comes from the office of the Mexican president. Former president Felipe Calderon touted it repeatedly as he prepared to leave office in 2012, and so the statistic has appeared in quite a few news articles.

The Mexican media reported in 2013 that the president’s office said the number of annual engineers that had graduated had increased to 118,000. The same report claimed that this figure put Mexico in sixth place in the world, after Russia, Iran, the U.S., Ukraine and Indonesia.

This is official data from the Mexican government, but you run into trouble when trying to compare between nations.  First of all, not all engineering degrees can be considered equal, even in the United States; not every university offers an engineering program equal to MIT or Stanford. The problem becomes exacerbated when comparing between nations.

Mexico has significantly bolstered the number of universities, but the rapid expansion has led to concerns about the quality of education, according to a report in University World News.  Many new Mexican universities are considered to be poor quality and lack recognized accreditation, churning out graduates in a “limited number of fields” that don’t lead to employment, according to World Education News.

A Clinton spokesman did not respond to queries about the source of the former president’s statistics. In an effort to rely on comparable data, The Fact Checker turned to two international data sets — one compiled by by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and other by the United Nations Educational, Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In theory, this should result in apples-to-apples comparisons, but of course the data depends on national reporting. We used data from 2012, the most recent available.

Neither data set provides much evidence for Clinton’s assertion that Mexico and the United States graduate roughly the same number of engineers.

OECD: graduates in engineering

United States: 171,000

Mexico: 96,000

UNESCO: graduates in engineering

United States: 238,000

Mexico: 112,000

The UNESCO data we analyzed suggest that Mexico was in sixth place in terms of the number of engineering graduates. There is no breakdown of degrees for China, but with more than 9 million university graduates a year, it’s a fair bet that China actually is in first place, knocking Mexico down to 7th place.

(For reference, the American Society for Engineering Education says 148,000 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering were awarded in the United States in 2012.)

Clinton is correct that the overall U.S. population is about triple the size of Mexico. But the proper comparison for this statistic would be university-age population.

The number of Americans between 15 and 24 is about 40 million; the number of Mexicans between 15 and 24 is 22 million. That ratio (the Mexican population being 55 percent the size of the relevant US population) almost exactly tracks the ratio of engineering degrees listed by the OECD; Mexico does worse under the UNESCO data.

Thus, in terms of raw numbers, there is really nothing remarkable about Mexico’s performance.

However, to be fair to Clinton, the UNESCO data does show that Mexico had a much larger percentage of university graduates in engineering (21.3 percent) than the United States (7.2 percent). That has the makings of a talking point —though as we noted, one criticism of Mexico’s university education is that too few options are offered.

The Pinocchio Test

Clinton appears to be roughly on target with the number of Mexican graduates, but misses on the number of U.S. engineering graduates. That in turn makes his comparison fairly useless, especially because the ratio of degrees roughly tracks the ratio of university-age population.

It’s time for the former president to scratch this line out of his speeches.

Two Pinocchios

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