Skip all navigation and go to page content

Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering


Undergraduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees

Enrollment in U.S. higher education is projected to continue rising because of increases in the U.S. college-age population.

  • Reflecting changes in the population of 18-year-olds, the number of high school graduates is expected to increase 6% between 2004–05 and 2017–18, a slower rate of growth than between 1992–93 and 2004–05 (25%).
  • Postsecondary enrollment rose from 14.5 million in fall 1993 to 18.7 million in fall 2006, and is projected to increase to 20.1 million students in 2017.
  • Postsecondary enrollment of all racial/ethnic groups is projected to increase, but the percentage that is white is projected to decrease to 61% in 2017, whereas the percentages that are black and Hispanic are projected to increase.

The number of S&E bachelor's degrees has risen steadily over the past 15 years.

  • The number of S&E bachelor's degrees awarded reached a new peak of 485,800 in 2007.
  • Most S&E fields (except computer sciences) experienced increases in the number of degrees awarded in 2007. In computer sciences, the number of bachelor's and master's degrees increased sharply from 1998 to 2004 but has decreased since then.
  • S&E bachelor's degrees have consistently accounted for roughly one-third of all bachelor's degrees for the past 15

The share of bachelor's degrees awarded to women increased in many major S&E fields from 1993 to 2007.

  • Women have earned 58% of all bachelor's degrees since 2002; they have earned about half of all S&E bachelor's degrees since 2000, but major variations persist among fields.
  • In 2007, men earned a majority of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering, computer sciences, and physics (81%, 81%, and 79%, respectively). Women earned half or more of bachelor's degrees in psychology (77%), biological sciences (60%), social sciences (54%), agricultural sciences (50%), and chemistry (50%).
  • Among fields with notable increases in the proportion of bachelor's degrees awarded to women are earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (from 30% to 41%); agricultural sciences (from 37% to 50%); and chemistry (from 41% to 50%).
  • Women's share of bachelor's degrees in computer sciences, mathematics, and engineering has declined in recent years.

The racial/ethnic composition of those earning S&E bachelor's degrees is changing, reflecting both population change and increasing college attendance by members of minority groups.

  • For all racial/ethnic groups except white, the total number of bachelor's degrees, the number of S&E bachelor's degrees, and the number of bachelor's degrees in most S&E fields has generally increased since 1995.
  • Between 1995 and 2007, the proportion of S&E bachelor's degrees awarded to Asians/Pacific Islanders increased from 8% to 9%; to black students, from 7% to 8%; to Hispanic students, from 6% to 8%; and to American Indian/Alaska Native students, from 0.5% to 0.7%, although the shares to black and American Indian/Alaska Native students have remained fairly flat since 2000. The proportion of S&E degrees awarded to white students declined from 73% to 64%.
  • For white students, the total number of bachelor's degrees, the number of S&E bachelor's degrees, and the number of bachelor's degrees in most S&E fields remained fairly flat from 1995 through 2001 as their numbers in the college-age population dropped but rose again through 2007.

Students in the United States on temporary visas earned only a small share (4%) of S&E bachelor's degrees in 2007.

  • The number of S&E bachelor's degrees awarded to students on temporary visas increased from about 14,700 in 1995 to 18,800 in 2004 before declining to 17,400 in 2007.
  • Students on temporary visas earned larger shares of bachelor's degrees in certain fields in 2007: 9% of those awarded in economics and about 10% of those awarded in electrical and industrial engineering.

Graduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees

S&E graduate enrollment in the United States continued to rise, reaching a new peak of almost 600,000 in fall 2006.

  • Following a long period of growth, graduate enrollment in S&E declined in the latter half of the 1990s but has increased steadily since 1999. First-time full-time enrollment, an indicator of future trends in enrollment, has also increased since the late 1990s.
  • Graduate enrollment in computer sciences and engineering has decreased in recent years, although first-time full-time enrollment in these fields increased in 2005 and 2006.

Foreign S&E graduate students in U.S. institutions increased in fall 2006 after 2 years of decline.

  • S&E graduate students on temporary visas increased from 22% to 25% of all S&E graduate students from 1993 to 2006.
  • The number of first-time full-time S&E graduate students with temporary visas increased in fall 2005 and fall 2006 after declining 18% from 2001 to 2004. The increases (and previous declines) were mainly in computer sciences and engineering.

Master's degrees awarded in S&E fields increased from 86,400 in 1993 to 121,000 in 2006 but declined in 2007.

  • Increases occurred in most major science fields, although the number of master's degrees awarded in engineering and computer sciences has dropped since 2004.
  • The number and percentage of master's degrees awarded to women in most major S&E fields have increased since 1993.
  • The number of S&E master's degrees awarded increased for all racial/ethnic groups from 1995 to 2007, and the percentage awarded to Asians/Pacific Islanders, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives increased during that time period.

The number of S&E doctorates awarded by U.S. academic institutions reached a new peak of almost 41,000 in 2007.

  • After rising from the mid-1980s through 1998, the number of S&E doctorates declined through 2002 but has increased in recent years. The largest increases were in engineering and biological/agricultural and medical/other life sciences.
  • The recent growth through 2007 occurred among both U.S. citizens/permanent residents and temporary residents.

Foreign students make up a much higher proportion of S&E master's and doctoral degree recipients than of bachelor's degree recipients.

  • Foreign students received 24% of S&E master's degrees, 33% of S&E doctoral degrees, and 4% of S&E bachelor's degrees in 2007.
  • The number of S&E master's degrees earned by temporary residents rose from 1995 to 2004 and then dropped through 2007.
  • The number of S&E doctorates earned by temporary residents rose to a new peak of 13,700 in 2007.

Most foreign recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates plan to stay in the United States after graduation.

  • Among 2004–07 graduates, more than three-quarters of foreign S&E doctorate recipients with known plans reported they planned to stay in the United States and about half had accepted firm offers of employment.
  • More than 90% of 2004–07 U.S. S&E doctorate recipients from China and 89% of those from India reported plans to stay in the United States, and 59% and 62%, respectively, reported accepting firm offers of employment or postdoctoral research in the United States.
  • Between 2000–03 and 2004–07, the percentage reporting definite plans to stay in the United States decreased among U.S. S&E doctorate recipients from all of the top five countries/economies of origin (China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada). However, for all but Taiwan, increases in the number of doctorate recipients more than offset declines in the percentage staying.

Postdoctoral Education

The number of doctorate recipients with S&E postdoctoral appointments at U.S. universities increased to almost 50,000 in fall 2006.

  • More than two-thirds of academic postdoctoral appointments were in biological and medical/other life sciences.
  • Temporary visa holders accounted for 57% of S&E postdocs in 2006. They accounted for much of the increase in the number of S&E postdocs, especially in biological and medical sciences.
  • The number of U.S. citizen and permanent resident S&E postdocs at these institutions increased more modestly, from approximately 16,700 in 1993 to 21,100 in 2006.
  • An increasing share of academic S&E postdocs are funded through federal research grants. In fall 2006, 56% of S&E postdocs at U.S. universities were funded through this mechanism, up from 52% in 1993. Federal fellowships and traineeships funded a declining share of S&E postdocs.

International S&E Higher Education

Students in China earned about 21%, those in the European Union earned about 19%, and those in the United States earned about 11% of the more than 4 million first university degrees awarded in S&E in 2006.

  • The number of S&E first university degrees awarded in China, Poland, and Taiwan more than doubled between 1998 and 2006, and those in the United States and many other countries generally increased. Those awarded in Japan decreased in recent years.
  • In China, the number of first university degrees awarded in natural sciences and engineering has risen particularly sharply since 2002. In comparison, those awarded in Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, and the United States have remained relatively flat.
  • In the United States, S&E degrees are about one-third of bachelor's degrees and have been for a long time. More than half of first degrees were awarded in S&E fields in Japan (63%), China (53%), and Singapore (51%).
  • In the United States, about 5% of all bachelor's degrees are in engineering. In Asia about 20% are in engineering, and in China about one-third are in engineering (although the percentage has declined in recent years).

In 2006, the United States awarded the largest number of S&E doctoral degrees of any individual country, followed by China, Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

  • The numbers of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in China, Italy, and the United States have risen substantially in recent years. The numbers of S&E doctoral degrees in India, Japan, South Korea, and many European countries have risen more modestly.
  • Women earned 40% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in the United States in 2006, about the same as the percentages earned by women in Australia, Canada, the European Union, and Mexico. The percentage of S&E doctoral degrees earned by women ranged from less than 20% in some countries to 50% or more in others.

International migration of students and highly skilled workers expanded over the past two decades, and countries are increasingly competing for foreign students. In particular, migration of students occurred from developing countries to the more developed countries and from Europe and Asia to the United States.

  • Some countries expanded recruitment of foreign students as their own populations of college-age students decreased, both to attract highly skilled workers and increase revenue for colleges and universities.
  • The United States remains the destination of the largest number of foreign students worldwide (undergraduate and graduate), although its share of foreign students worldwide decreased from 25% in 2000 to 20% in 2006.
  • In addition to the United States, other countries that are among the top destinations for foreign students include the United Kingdom (11%), Germany (9%), and France (8%).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010