| SRS Home » NSF 04-326
Graduate Enrollment in Science and Engineering Fields Reaches New Peak; First-Time Enrollment of Foreign Students Declines
Graduate enrollment in science and engineering (S&E) programs reached a new peak of nearly 455,400 students in fall 2002, having recovered from the downward trend of 1994 to 1998 (table 1). This represents a 6 percent gain over enrollment in 2001 and a 5 percent gain over the previous peak, in 1993, of about 435,700 students. The number of postdoctoral appointees (postdocs) in S&E fields in U.S. institutions reached a total of 32,100 in 2002, also an all-time high.Table 1 Source Data: Excel file
Trends in Graduate Enrollment
Nearly 27 percent of full-time S&E graduate students in 2002 were enrolled for the first time. First-time enrollment grew 5 percent between 2001 and 2002, to more than 86,900, an all-time peak.
Field of Study
Over the past decade, enrollment of minority students in graduate S&E programs has grown faster than enrollment of white students (table 3). White, non-Hispanic students accounted for about 69 percent of all U.S. citizens and permanent residents enrolled in S&E graduate programs in 2002, down from 79 percent in 1992. White enrollment declined from 1994 to 2000, whereas underrepresented minority enrollment has increased every year. In 2002 white enrollment was 213,500, a 4 percent gain over the 2001 figure but 43,300 below the peak in 1993.
Asians/Pacific Islanders were the second largest racial/ethnic group among U.S. citizens and permanent residents in S&E graduate programs in 2002. They accounted for almost 10 percent of the total, followed by blacks (7 percent), Hispanics (6 percent), and American Indians/Alaskan Natives (less than 1 percent). Increases from 2001 to 2002 in S&E graduate enrollment for minority students ranged from 3 percent for American Indians/Alaskan Natives to 9 percent for Asians/Pacific Islanders.Table 3 Source Data: Excel file
Trends in Foreign-Student Graduate Enrollment
The fall 2002 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS) offers the first national data on enrollment of S&E graduate students since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There has been concern that enrollment of foreign students in U.S. graduate programs may have been adversely affected in the wake of those events. This InfoBrief provides an opportunity to examine short-term changes in enrollment of foreign students in the context of longer term trends in such enrollment. In this analysis, foreign students are those who are in the United States on temporary visas.
The short-term analysis of foreign student enrollment was based on the following expectations. (1) Total enrollment for temporary visa holders is unlikely to show a substantial decline from the fall 2001 figure because a large majority of such graduate students in fall 2002 were already enrolled in U.S. institutions in 2001. (2) Any immediate impact of 9/11 on graduate enrollment of temporary visa holders is most likely to be seen in first-time enrollment. (3) Declines in S&E graduate enrollment of temporary visa holders are more likely among men than among women, given the predominance of men among such students as well as among known terrorists. Data from the fall 2002 GSS support each of these expectations.
The gain in graduate S&E enrollment from 2001 to 2002 was greater for temporary visa holders (8 percent) than for U.S. citizens and permanent residents (5 percent) (table 3). The 2002 numbers represent all-time highs for both the number and proportion (32 percent) of S&E graduate students who were temporary visa holders. Fields with high proportions of temporary visa holders include engineering (49 percent), computer sciences (48 percent), physical sciences (40 percent), and mathematical sciences (39 percent) (table 4).
The 8 percent gain for temporary visa holders in the 2002 GSS data was smaller than gains in the previous two years (12 and 9 percent), but it exceeded the annual gains for most other years during the last two decades. Graduate enrollment of students with temporary visas rose every year from 1982 to 1992, declined from 1993 to 1996, and has increased every year since (table 3).
The 20-year trend for graduate S&E enrollment of U.S. citizens and permanent residents shows less growth and more years of decline than does the trend for temporary visa holders. Enrollment of U.S. citizens and permanent residents increased more slowly during the 1980s than did enrollment of temporary visa holders, and it declined from 1994 to 2000. Enrollment in 2002, of 310,200 students, was 6 percent below the peak year of 1993. Nevertheless, the addition of 15,500 students in 2002 represents the second largest numerical increase in U.S. citizen and permanent resident S&E graduate enrollment in the last 20 years, exceeded only by a 17,100 gain in 1992.Table 4 Source Data: Excel file
Country of Origin
Full-time, first-time enrollment declined among temporary visa holders by about 2,100 in 2002, with most of the decrease (2,000 students) being among male students (figure 1). Full-time, first-time enrollment of temporary visa holders was down about 8 percent for men and 1 percent for women. In contrast, full-time, first-time enrollment increased by almost 14 percent for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, with increases of 15 percent for men and more than 12 percent for women.Figure 1 Source Data: Excel file
Field of Study
A different picture emerges when full-time, first-time enrollment is examined by field. In 2002 first-time graduate enrollment of students with temporary visas declined in all S&E major fields except biological and social sciences, which showed gains of less than 1 percent (figure 2). The greatest loss was in computer sciences, which was down 15 percent in 2002, compared with a gain of 7 percent the previous year. Decreases in first-time graduate enrollment of temporary visa holders in other S&E fields ranged from 1 percent in psychology to 8 percent in earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.
Although the number of first-time graduate students with temporary visas decreased in 2002 for both men and women, men experienced declines in more fields, and their percentage losses were often greater than those for women. One of the largest percentage losses for both men and women with temporary visas occurred in nuclear engineering: a 37 percent decrease for men, from 68 first-time students in 2001 to 43 first-time students in 2002; a 65 percent decrease for women, from 20 to 7 first-time students.Figure 2 Source Data: Excel file
Many postdocs in the United States assumed their postdoctoral appointments after completing doctoral programs in U.S. institutions. Therefore, one might expect little change in the number of postdocs on temporary visas one year after 9/11. In 2002 about 18,600 such postdocs were in U.S. higher education institutions, about 3 percent more than the number in 2001 (table 3). This gain is slightly less than that in 2001 but is roughly only a third of the gains recorded in 1999 and 2000 (9 and 8 percent, respectively). After declines from 1999 to 2001, the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents holding postdoctoral positions in U.S. colleges and universities increased by 12 percent in 2002. The proportion of academic postdocs who were temporary visa holders declined from 60 percent in 2001 to 58 percent in 2002.
The number of postdocs in U.S. colleges and universities with temporary visas increased in most S&E major fields in 2002. The only numerical losses were in three fields that had few postdocs with temporary visas in earlier years: computer sciences, psychology, and social sciences. The share of postdocs with temporary visas, however, has declined in every major field, most notably in computer sciences (from 67 to 51 percent). Postdocs in both citizenship groups were concentrated, for the most part, in three major fields: biological sciences (a majority of postdocs in each group), physical sciences, and engineering.
Data presented here are from the fall 2002 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. Data were collected from approximately 12,000 departments at 481 institutions of higher education in the United States and outlying areas. The departmental response rate was 99 percent; however, 13 percent of the responding departments required partial imputation of missing data.
More detailed data are available in the forthcoming report "Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: Fall 2002," which will be available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/gradpostdoc/.
For more information, contact
 The author is a senior research analyst at SRI International in Arlington, Virginia.
 These declines reflect the adoption of the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992, which made thousands of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. institutions in 1989 (at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising) eligible for permanent residency on July 1, 1993.
 GSS data do not distinguish between new postdocs and continuing postdocs.