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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering


Characteristics of the U.S. Higher Education System

Research institutions are the leading producers of S&E degrees at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels, but other types of institutions are also important in the education of S&E graduates.

  • Baccalaureate colleges are the source of relatively few S&E bachelor's degrees, but are a more prominent source of future S&E doctorate recipients.
  • Master's colleges and universities awarded more than one-third of S&E bachelor's and master's degrees in 2009.
  • Nearly one in five U.S. citizen/permanent residents who received a doctoral degree from 2005 to 2009 had earned some college credit from a community or 2-year college.

Over the past decade in the United States, tuition and fees for colleges and universities have grown faster than median income.

  • In the 2007–08 academic year, two-thirds of all undergraduates received some kind of financial aid and 39% took out loans to finance their education.
  • At the time of doctoral degree conferral, 45% of 2009 S&E doctorate recipients had debt related to their undergraduate or graduate education.

In 2009, the federal government was the primary source of financial support for 18% of full-time S&E graduate students.

  • In 2009, the federal government funded 63% of S&E graduate students on traineeships, 49% of those with research assistantships, and 23% of those with fellowships.
  • Graduate students in the biological sciences, the physical sciences, and engineering received relatively more federal financial support compared with those in computer sciences, mathematics, other life sciences, psychology, and social sciences.

Undergraduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees

Enrollment in U.S. higher education rose from 14.5 million in fall 1994 to 20.7 million in fall 2009.

  • Between 2007 and 2009, enrollment increased faster than in most previous years.
  • Enrollment in higher education is projected to grow through 2019 because of increases in the college-age population.
  • Postsecondary enrollment is projected to increase for all racial/ethnic groups, except for whites. The percentage for white students is projected to decrease from 63% in 2008 to 58% in 2019, reflecting demographic changes.

The number of S&E bachelor's degrees has risen steadily over the past 15 years, reaching a new peak of about half a million in 2009.

  • With the exception of computer sciences, most S&E fields experienced increases in the number of degrees awarded in 2009. In computer sciences, the number of bachelor's and master's degrees awarded decreased sharply from 2004 to 2007, but then remained stable through 2009.
  • Women have earned about 57% of all bachelor's degrees and half of all S&E bachelor's degrees since the late 1990s. In general, men earn a majority of bachelor's degrees in engineering, computer sciences, and physics. More women than men earn degrees in chemistry; biological, agricultural, and social sciences; and psychology.
  • In the last 10 years, the proportion of S&E bachelor's degrees awarded to women has not grown measurably and has declined in computer sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

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

  • For all racial/ethnic groups, the total number of bachelor's degrees earned, the number of S&E bachelor's degrees earned, and the number of bachelor's degrees in most S&E fields have generally increased since 2000.

Undergraduate students majoring in S&E fields persist and complete their degrees at a higher rate than non-S&E students.

  • Six years after enrolling in a 4-year college or university in academic year 2003–04, 63% of undergraduates with an S&E major had completed a bachelor's degree, compared to 55% of students with other majors.
  • Among students who began 4-year colleges in 2003–04, the proportion majoring in S&E in 2009 was higher than the proportion majoring in S&E in 2004. Thus, the number of students switching majors out of S&E fields was lower than the number entering S&E fields as a whole.
  • Within S&E, undergraduate attrition out of engineering was greater than transfers into this field, and transfers into social/behavioral sciences exceeded attrition. About 10% of engineering majors switched to mathematics or physical or computer sciences majors.

Graduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees

The proportion of women and minorities in S&E graduate education has been growing steadily but slowly.

  • Nearly half of the 611,600 S&E graduate students enrolled in the United States in fall 2009 were women, with considerable field variation.
  • Women continued to enroll at disproportionately lower rates in engineering, computer sciences, physical sciences, and economics.
  • In 2009, underrepresented minority students (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives) made up 12% of students enrolled in graduate S&E programs, with Asian/Pacific Islanders representing 6% and whites 48%. Temporary residents accounted for remainder of graduate S&E enrollment.

The number of total foreign graduate students continued to increase through fall 2010, with all of the increase occurring in S&E fields.

  • About 60% of all foreign graduate students in the United States in 2010 were enrolled in S&E fields, compared with 32% at the undergraduate level.
  • Most of the growth in the number of foreign graduate students in S&E between 2009 and 2010 occurred in engineering and computer sciences.
  • India and China were the countries of origin for nearly two-thirds of the foreign S&E graduates in the United States in November 2010.

Master's degrees awarded in S&E fields increased from 120,200 in 2007 to 134,000 in 2009, after holding steady for the previous 3 years.

  • Increases occurred in most major science fields.
  • The number and percentage of master's degrees awarded to women in most major S&E fields have increased since 2000.
  • The number of S&E master's degrees awarded increased for all racial/ethnic groups from 2000 to 2009. During this period, the proportion earned by blacks and Hispanics increased, that of Asians/Pacific Islanders and American Indians/Alaska Natives remained flat, and that of whites decreased.

In 2009, U.S. academic institutions awarded 41,100 S&E doctorates.

  • The number of S&E doctorates conferred annually by U.S. universities increased steeply (43%) from 2003 to 2007, then flattened and declined slightly in 2009.
  • Among fields that award large numbers of doctorates, the biggest increases between 2000 and 2009 were in engineering (47%) and biological sciences (49%).

Students on temporary visas earned high proportions of U.S. S&E doctorates and dominated degrees in some fields. They also earned large shares of the master's degrees in S&E fields.

  • Foreign students earned 57% of all engineering doctorates, 54% of all computer science degrees, and 51% of physics doctoral degrees. Their overall share of S&E degrees was one-third.
  • After a 64% growth from 2002 to 2008, the number of temporary residents earning S&E doctoral degrees declined by about 4% in 2009 to 13,400.
  • In 2009, temporary visa students earned 27% of S&E master's degrees, receiving 46% of those in computer sciences, 43% of those in engineering, and 36% of those in physics.

International S&E Higher Education

In 2008, about 5 million first university degrees were awarded in S&E worldwide. Students in China earned about 23%, those in the European Union earned about 19%, and those in the United States earned about 10% of these degrees.

  • The number of S&E first university degrees awarded in China and Taiwan more than doubled between 2000 and 2008. Those awarded in the United States and many other countries generally increased. Those awarded in France, Spain, and Japan decreased in recent years.
  • S&E degrees continue to account for about one-third of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States. In Japan and China, more than half of first degrees were awarded in S&E fields in 2008.
  • In the United States, about 4% of all bachelor's degrees awarded in 2008 were in engineering. This compares with about 19% throughout Asia and 31% in China specifically.

In 2008, 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 number of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in China, the United States, and Italy has risen substantially in recent years; S&E doctorates awarded in India, Japan, South Korea, and many European countries have risen more modestly. The number in Russia increased from 2002 to 2007, but fell sharply in 2008.
  • In 2007, China overtook the United States as the world leader in the number of doctoral degrees awarded in the natural sciences and engineering.
  • Women earned 41% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in the United States in 2008, about the same as women's percentages in Australia, Canada, the European Union, and Mexico.

International student mobility expanded over the past two decades and countries are increasingly competing for foreign students.

  • The United States remains the destination for the largest number of foreign students worldwide (undergraduate and graduate), although its share of foreign students worldwide decreased from 24% in 2000 to 19% in 2008.
  • Some countries expanded recruitment of foreign students as their own populations of college-age students decreased, both to attract highly skilled workers and to increase revenue for colleges and universities.
  • In addition to the United States, other countries that are among the top destinations for foreign students include the United Kingdom, Germany, and France.