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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-level S&E education, the research capability necessary for innovation. This chapter focuses on the development of human capital by higher education.

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. The U.S. college-age population is currently increasing and projected to continue to grow for the next decade. Its composition 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.

As the world becomes more interconnected, more students travel to study in a different country, and more countries invest in their higher education systems. Increases in foreign students contributed to most of the growth in overall S&E graduate enrollment in the United States in recent years. Despite a decline in the number of foreign students coming to the United States after 11 September 2001, foreign graduate student enrollment in S&E has recovered. 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 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.

Chapter Organization

This chapter describes characteristics of the U.S. higher education system and trends in higher education worldwide. It begins with an overview of the characteristics of U.S. higher education institutions providing instruction in S&E, followed by a discussion of characteristics of undergraduate and graduate education. Trends are discussed by field and demographic group, with a focus on the flow of foreign students into the United States by country. The chapter then presents various international higher education indicators, including comparative S&E degree production in several world regions and indicators that measure 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) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education. Data also come from international organizations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and individual countries. 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.