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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering

The U.S. Higher Education System

Higher education in S&E is important, because it produces an educated S&E workforce and an informed citizenry. It has also been receiving increased attention as an important component of U.S. economic competitiveness. In his 24 February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama called for every American to commit to at least 1 year of postsecondary education. This section discusses the characteristics of U.S. higher education institutions providing S&E education as well as trends in and the characteristics of students and degree recipients.

Institutions Providing S&E Education

The U.S. higher education system consists of a large number of diverse academic institutions that vary in their missions, learning environments, selectivity, religious affiliation, types of students served, types of degrees offered, and whether public or private and for-profit or nonprofit (NCES 2008a). The number of these degree-granting institutions (including branch campuses) has increased from about 3,000 in 1975 to about 4,300 in 2007, with most of the growth in the 1970s and 1980s, and again from 2000 to 2007. The latter growth occurred largely because of growth in the number of for-profit institutions (NCES 2009b). In 2007, U.S. academic institutions awarded more than 2.9 million associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees; 23% of these degrees were in S&E (appendix table 2-1 ).

Research institutions are the leading producers of S&E degrees at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. In 2007, research institutions (i.e., doctorate-granting institutions with very high research activity) awarded 70% of S&E doctoral degrees, 40% of master's degrees, and 36% of bachelor's degrees in S&E fields. (See sidebar "Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions.") Master's colleges and universities awarded another 28% of S&E bachelor's degrees and 25% of S&E master's degrees in 2007. Baccalaureate colleges were the source of relatively few S&E bachelor's degrees (13%) (appendix table 2-1 ). (See sidebar "Baccalaureate-Origins of S&E Doctorate Recipients.")

Community colleges (also known as 2-year colleges or associate's colleges) are important in preparing students to enter the workforce with certificates or associate's degrees and in preparing students to transition to 4-year colleges or universities (Karp 2008). Thus, they provide the education needed for S&E or S&E-related occupations that require less than a bachelor's degree, and they provide the first 2 years of many students' education before they transfer to an S&E program at a 4-year college or university. Community colleges serve diverse groups of students and offer a more affordable means of participating in postsecondary education. Compared with 4-year colleges, community colleges enroll greater concentrations of low-income, first-generation, minority, immigrant, part-time, older, and academically underprepared students. The more than 1,000 U.S. community colleges enrolled more than 6 million students, or about a third of all postsecondary students in the 2006–07 academic year, more than half of whom were enrolled part time (NCES 2008a).

Community colleges also act as a bridge between high school and college. Dual enrollment programs, which enable high school students to take courses that can earn them college credit, are one way to make this link. In 2002–03, 71% of U.S. public high schools offered dual credit courses, and 57% of U.S. postsecondary institutions had high school students taking courses for college credit (NCES 2005a, b). In 2006, 42 states had dual enrollment policies (WICHE 2006).

Historically, dual enrollment opportunities were offered to high-achieving, academically oriented students. However, dual enrollment programs are increasingly viewed as means to support postsecondary achievement by average-achieving students and students in career and technical education programs. Students enrolled in dual enrollment programs can take college courses on a college campus or courses taught by high school teachers certified as college adjuncts. Courses vary in their eligibility requirements and target populations. Dual enrollment programs are presumed to have many positive outcomes, including early acclimation to postsecondary education, increased high school graduation, decreased need for remediation, and success in postsecondary education. Dual enrollment helps to upgrade career and technical education curricula with high-level academic and technical experiences (Karp et al. 2008).

Online and Distance Education

Online education and distance education enable institutions of higher education to reach a wider audience by expanding access to students in remote geographic locations and providing greater flexibility for students who have time constraints. Online education is a relatively new phenomenon and online enrollment has grown substantially over the past 5 years. Institutions believe that higher fuel costs and rising unemployment will drive increased demand for online courses in coming years (Allen and Seaman 2008).

About two-thirds of 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities offer distance education courses (table 2-1 ). Distance education is prevalent in public 2-year colleges (97%) and public 4-year colleges and universities (88%). A little more than half of private not-for-profit 4-year institutions offered online courses. Public 2-year colleges account for most of the enrollment (4.8 million), followed by public 4-year colleges (3.5 million). Private not-for-profit and private for-profit 4-year institutions both accounted for a little more than 1.8 million enrollments in 2006–07. Most (more than 80%) of the 3.9 million students who took at least one online course in fall 2007 were undergraduates (Allen and Seaman 2008).

Colleges and universities' most prevalent reasons for offering online courses are meeting students' need for flexible schedules (68%); offering courses to those who would not have access because of geographic, family, or work-related reasons (about two thirds); making more courses available (46%); and seeking to increase student enrollment (45%) (NCES 2009b). A smaller percentage of institutions offering programs in engineering (16%) than those offering programs in other major disciplines (psychology; social sciences and history; computer and information sciences; education; health and related sciences; business; and liberal arts and sciences, general studies, humanities) (from 24% to 33%) offered fully online programs in 2007 (Allen and Seaman 2008).

For-Profit Institutions

The rapid growth of for-profit institutions has been seen by some as a competitive threat to public and nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States (Bailey, Badway, and Gumport 2001). Over the past 10 years, the number of for-profit institutions has grown and the number of degrees that they have awarded has more than doubled (NCES 2009a; appendix table 2-2 ). In 2007, about 2,800 academic institutions in the United States operated on a for-profit basis. More than half of these institutions offer less-than-2-year programs and less than half are degree-granting institutions. Of the degree-granting institutions, close to half award associate's degrees as their highest degree (NCES 2008b).

For-profit academic institutions awarded 2%–3% of S&E degrees at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels and 29% of those at the associate's level in 2007. Computer sciences accounted for 97% of the associate's degrees and 86% of the bachelor's degrees awarded by for-profit institutions in science and engineering fields in 2007 (appendix table 2-3 ). For-profit institutions award relatively few S&E master's and doctoral degrees; those they do award are mainly in psychology. For-profit institutions are among the top institutions awarding master's and doctoral degrees in psychology. In addition, a for-profit institution, the University of Phoenix Online Campus, awarded more computer sciences bachelor's degrees than any other academic institution in the United States in 2007 (table 2-2 ).

Cost of Higher Education

Affordability and access to U.S. higher education institutions are perennial concerns (NCPPHE 2008; NSB 2003). In the 2008–09 academic year, average tuition and fees at 4-year colleges rose at a rate greater than inflation. Compared with the previous academic year, average tuition and fees rose 6.4% for in-state students at public 4-year colleges, 5.9% for students in private 4-year colleges, and 4.7% for students at public 2-year colleges, while the Consumer Price Index increased by 5.6% between July 2007 and July 2008 (College Board 2008). Another inflation index, the Higher Education Price Index, which measures the average relative level in the price of a fixed-market basket of goods and services purchased by colleges and universities each year, rose 3.6% in that year (Commonfund Institute 2008). For students at public 4-year colleges, tuition and fee increases over the past decade have been larger than in previous decades and the net price (that is, the published price minus grant aid and tax benefits) has risen since 2003–04 (College Board 2008). In the coming years, greater tuition increases may occur in response to state reductions in higher education funding as a result of the financial downturn that began in 2008.


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