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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering


Chapter Overview

Higher education performs a number of societal functions, including developing human capital, building the knowledge base (through research and knowledge development), and disseminating, using, and maintaining knowledge (OECD 2008). S&E higher education provides the advanced skills needed for a competitive workforce and, particularly in the case of graduate S&E education, the research capability necessary for innovation. This chapter focuses on the development of human capital by higher education; chapter 5 focuses on S&E research.

Indicators presented in this chapter are discussed in the context of national and global events, including changing demographics, increasing foreign student mobility, and global competition in higher education. After declining in the 1990s, the U.S. college-age population is currently increasing and is projected to increase for the next decade. The composition of the college-age population is also changing, with Asians and Hispanics becoming an increasing share of the population. Recent enrollment and degree trends, to some extent, reflect these changes. Increases in foreign students contributed to most of the growth in overall S&E graduate enrollment in recent years, but after 11 September 2001, the number of foreign students coming to the United States for graduate education dropped. In 2006 the number of foreign S&E graduate students increased (although they have not yet regained earlier levels). Finally, although the United States has historically been a world leader in providing broad access to higher education and in attracting foreign students, many other countries are expanding their own higher education systems, providing expanded educational access to their own population, and attracting growing numbers of foreign students. The effects of these trends, as well as the effects of the recent global financial crisis on domestic and foreign student enrollment in U.S. institutions, remain to be seen.

This chapter does not address the issues of quality of higher education or demand for S&E-educated personnel. Although the quality of higher education and especially the quality of learning outcomes are important, adequate national quantitative measures of quality do not yet exist. This chapter makes no attempt to determine whether current or future trends in degrees are adequate for the expected short- or long-term needs of the labor market. For information on labor market conditions for recent S&E graduates, see chapter 3, "Labor Market Conditions for Recent S&E Graduates," particularly the sidebar "Projected Growth of Employment in S&E Occupations." Chapter 5, "Trends in Academic Employment of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers," contains information on academic employment.

Chapter Organization

This chapter describes characteristics of the U.S. higher education system and trends in higher education worldwide. It begins with characteristics of U.S. higher educational institutions providing S&E education, followed by characteristics of undergraduate education, enrollment, and degrees; graduate education, enrollment, and degrees; and postdoctoral education. Trends are discussed by field and demographic group. The chapter highlights the flow of foreign students into the United States by country and their intentions to remain in this country. The chapter then presents various international higher education indicators, including comparative S&E degree production in several world regions and the growing dependence of all industrialized countries on foreign S&E students.

The data in this chapter come from a variety of federal and nonfederal sources, primarily from surveys conducted by the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Division of Science Resources Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. Most of the data in the chapter are from censuses of the population—for example, all students receiving degrees from U.S. academic institutions—and are not subject to sampling variability. When sample data are used, differences are discussed only if they are statistically significant at the 95% confidence level.


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