Chapter 2 | Higher Education in Science and Engineering
S&E higher education in the United States is attracting growing numbers of students. The number of associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees awarded in all fields and in S&E fields continues to rise, having reached new peaks in 2015. At the associate’s level, the number of S&E associate’s degrees more than doubled; growth was also high in associate’s degrees in health technologies. At the bachelor’s level, most of the growth in S&E education occurred in the social sciences and in the biological sciences, followed by engineering. In engineering, bachelor’s degrees have increased consistently for the last 10 years and have surpassed the record high numbers attained in the mid-1980s; graduate enrollment in engineering has also reached record numbers. Computer sciences degree awards have increased continuously since 2009, after a steep decline in the mid- to late 2000s. The number of master’s and doctoral degrees awarded grew in all major S&E fields. In the last decade, growth in doctoral degrees awarded occurred mostly in the natural sciences and engineering fields.
Community colleges play a key role in increasing access to higher education for all citizens. Many U.S. citizen and permanent resident degree holders report earning college credit from a community college. Nearly half of Hispanic undergraduates are enrolled in them. The expected demographic growth in the number of Hispanic students between 20 and 24 years of age will affect community colleges and HHEs.
Over the last two decades, higher education spending and revenue patterns and trends have undergone substantial changes, which intensified during the recent economic downturn. Public institutions faced competing demands in a tight budget environment, caught between declining state appropriations and the need to maintain educational quality and access. Despite the decline in enrollment in 2013–14, net tuition per FTE student continued to increase with the decrease in revenues from state and local appropriations in public institutions, so challenges remain.
Globalization of higher education continues. Universities in several other countries have expanded their enrollment of international S&E students. In the United States, international student enrollment in S&E has recovered since the post-9/11 decline, increasing considerably at the undergraduate and graduate levels in S&E and non-S&E fields, but in the last year international enrollment declined. Overall, the United States continues to attract the largest number of internationally mobile students worldwide, although its share of international students in all fields has dropped since the turn of the century. The U.S. proportion may decrease further if the declining trend in international enrollment continues.
Higher education is facing rapid technological transformations. The growth of distance and online education through MOOCs and similar innovations expands access to knowledge and has the potential to decrease the cost of some degrees, at the same time as pressures have been increasing to reduce rising costs. In computer sciences in particular, students can now obtain certificates that provide them with a specific set of skills they can apply to the job; these provide an affordable and flexible alternative to students’ training. However, it is too early to assess whether different types of institutions will widely adopt MOOCs, whether increased access will be accompanied by increased learning, and what consequences distance and online innovations will bring to the higher education landscape.