Chapter 2
Undergraduate Degrees

Overview ^

Analyzing historical trends on the participation of women and minorities in science and engineering education helps in understanding their current rates of participation in science and engineering employment. Currently employed scientists and engineers include recent degree recipients as well as those who earned degrees 40 to 50 years ago. Although comparable data on science and engineering degrees are not available 40 to 50 years back, data on science and engineering bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees to women are available from 1966 to 1996. For racial/ethnic groups, comparable data are available only from 1985, and comparable annual data are available only from 1989. Even with these limited time series, though, it is possible to see the extremely small percentages of women and minorities earning degrees in science and engineering in years past. However, both the numbers and percentages of women and minorities earning science and engineering degrees at all levels (associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctorate) have increased over time.

Associate's degrees ^

About half of entering undergraduate students are seeking either an associate's degree or a certificate. After 5 years, however, only 24 percent have actually earned such a degree or a higher level degree (NCES 1998b). In all, only 13 percent of associate's degrees are awarded in science and engineering. Although associate's degrees are the terminal degree for some, others continue their education and subsequently earn higher degrees. About 13 percent of 1995 and 1996 science and engineering bachelor's degree recipients had previously earned associate's degrees. (See text table 2-1.)

Women ^

The number of associate's degrees in science and engineering awarded to women rose from 18,282 in 1983 to 21,070 in 1996; concurrently, the number awarded to men dropped from 61,218 to 46,750. (See appendix table 2-1.) Women earned 31 percent of the associate's degrees in science and engineering in 1996, up from 23 percent in 1983. In 1996, they earned at least 45 percent of the associate's degrees awarded in computer science, biological sciences, physical sciences, psychology, social sciences, and interdisciplinary sciences, but only 13 percent of those in engineering and 14 percent in engineering technologies. The largest increases from 1983 to 1996 in the numbers of associate's degrees awarded to women were in biological sciences, psychology, social sciences, and interdisciplinary or other sciences. (See appendix table 2-1.)

The largest numbers of science and engineering associate's degrees are awarded in computer science and engineering technologies. From 1983 to 1996, the number of associate's degrees in computer science awarded to women and men followed similar patterns. (See figure 2-1.) Associate's degrees in engineering technologies decreased for men but increased slightly for women in 1996.

Minorities[1] ^

In 1996, blacks earned 9 percent of the associate's degrees awarded in science and engineering, Hispanics earned 8 percent, Asians 5 percent, and American Indians 1 percent; in contrast, whites earned 73 percent. (See text table 2-2.) Hispanics and American Indians, as noted in chapter 1, are more likely than other groups to enroll in 2-year colleges.

The number of associate's degrees in science and engineering increased for Asian, black, and American Indian students and decreased for white and Hispanic students from 1995 to 1996. (See appendix table 2-2.) The number of associate's degrees in computer science increased for blacks and American Indians and decreased for all other racial/ethnic groups in 1996. The number of associate's degrees in engineering technologies decreased for all racial/ethnic groups in 1996.

Minority women ^

In 1996, minority women earned a larger proportion of associate's degrees in science and engineering awarded to their respective racial/ethnic groups than did white women. Women earned 48 percent of the science and engineering associate's degrees awarded to American Indians, 38 percent of those to blacks, 34 percent of those to Hispanics, and 33 percent of those to Asians. (See appendix table 2-3.) In contrast, women earned only 29 percent of the science and engineering associate's degrees awarded to whites.

In many fields, women earned well over half of the associate's degrees in science and engineering awarded to their respective racial/ethnic group. In each racial/ethnic group, women earned more than half of the associate's degrees in the biological sciences, psychology, and the social sciences. In the physical sciences, black, American Indian, and Asian women earned half of the associate's degrees awarded to their racial/ethnic groups. In computer science, women earned more than half of the associate's degrees awarded to blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians.

Persons with disabilities ^

As noted in the previous chapter, students with disabilities are more likely to enroll in 2-year colleges than those without disabilities. Similarly, persons with disabilities are more likely than those without to earn associate's degrees prior to earning a bachelor's degree. Among 1995 and 1996 science and engineering bachelor's degree recipients, 23 percent of persons with disabilities, compared with 13 percent of those without disabilities, had previously earned associate's degrees. (See text table 2-1.)

Bachelor's degrees ^

Bachelor's degrees are the most prevalent degree in science and engineering, accounting for more than three-quarters of all degrees awarded in science and engineering—384,674 degrees out of 507,217 total science and engineering degrees (NSF 1999).

Historically, about one-third of all bachelor's degrees are earned in science and engineering fields. With only a few exceptions, the numbers of bachelor's degrees in both science and engineering and in non-science and -engineering fields have been increasing since 1966. (See appendix table 2-4.)

Women ^

The number of bachelor's degrees in science and engineering awarded to women has increased each year since 1966 (with the single exception of 1988), reaching 181,333 in 1996. (See appendix table 2-5.) The number of bachelor's degrees in science and engineering awarded to men has fluctuated around 200,000 since 1976. (See figure 2-2.) Women earn more bachelor's degrees in non-science and -engineering fields than do men. In fact, women have received more than half of all bachelor's degree awarded in non-science and -engineering fields since at least 1966 and 59 percent in 1996. (See appendix table 2-6.)

Women account for nearly half of all science and engineering bachelor's degree awards. The percentage of bachelor's degrees in science and engineering earned by women, which had held fairly constant in the early to mid-1980s at 38 to 39 percent, has been steadily increasing since then, and reached 47 percent in 1996. (See appendix table 2-6.)

Women have received an increasing share of the bachelor's degrees awarded in all major science and engineering fields except mathematics and computer science. (See appendix table 2-6.) In engineering, for example, women earned less than 1 percent of the bachelor's degrees in 1966 but 18 percent in 1996. In mathematics, women have earned 46 to 47 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded since 1985. In computer science, the proportion of female bachelor's degree recipients reached a high of 37 percent in 1984 and dropped to 28 percent in 1996. During the 1987--96 period, the number of bachelor's degrees in awarded computer science declined for both men and women. (See figure 2-3.)

A dissimilarity index was constructed to measure the amount of similarity or dissimilarity in the distributions of men and women by bachelor's degree field.[2] In 1966, the dissimilarity index was 25.6, indicating that 25.6 percent of women would have to switch their bachelor's degree field in order to match the distribution of fields for male bachelor's degree recipients. By 1996, the dissimilarity index was 15.2. (See appendix table 2-6.)

In 1996, women earned nearly three-quarters of the bachelor's degrees awarded in psychology (73 percent), and over half of those in the biological sciences and in most social sciences. They earned 46 percent of the bachelor's degrees in mathematics, 43 percent in chemistry, and 40 percent in the agricultural sciences. Women earned approximately a third of the bachelor's degrees in astronomy (37 percent), earth sciences and ocean sciences (35 percent in each), economics (30 percent), computer science (28 percent), and chemical engineering (32 percent). On the other hand, women earned less than 20 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, physics, and atmospheric sciences in 1996. (See appendix table 2-7.)

Minorities ^

The number of science and engineering bachelor's degrees earned by whites leveled off in the 1990s, and the number of non-science and -engineering bachelor's degrees earned by whites decreased from 1994 to 1996. (See appendix table 2-8.) In sharp contrast, the numbers of bachelor's degrees earned by Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians in both science and engineering and non-science and -engineering fields increased each year from 1989 to 1996.

Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians earn roughly the same percentages of science and engineering bachelor's degrees as of non-science and -engineering degrees. Blacks earned 7 and 8 percent of science and engineering and non-science and -engineering bachelor's degrees, respectively, in 1996. Hispanics earned 6 percent of both; American Indians earned 0.6 percent of both. Both the numbers and percentages of degrees in science and in engineering earned by nonwhite racial/ethnic groups have risen since 1989. (See figure 2-4 and appendix table 2-9.)

With the exception of Asians, for whom almost half of all bachelor's degrees received are in science and engineering, about one-third of bachelor's degrees earned by each racial/ethnic group are in science and engineering. (See text table 2-3.) The field distribution of these science and engineering bachelor's degrees differs by racial/ethnic group.

Blacks earned higher percentages of the bachelor's degrees awarded in the social sciences (especially sociology where they earned 15 percent of all bachelor's degrees), psychology, and computer science than they did of bachelor's degrees in other science and engineering fields; they earned relatively lower percentages of agricultural science and engineering degrees. (See appendix tables 2-9 and 2-10.) The percentage of engineering bachelor's degrees earned by blacks rose from 3 percent in 1989 to 5 percent in 1996. The percentage of agricultural science bachelor's degrees earned by blacks remained at around 2 percent from 1989 to 1996. (See appendix tables 2-8 and 2-9.)

Asians earned higher percentages of the bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science, biological sciences (especially biochemistry and cell and molecular biology), and engineering (especially electrical engineering); they earned lower percentages of agricultural science, most social sciences, and psychology degrees. Their share of degrees in all of these fields, with the exception of the agricultural sciences, has been increasing since 1989. (See appendix table 2-9.)

Hispanics earned roughly 5 to 7 percent of bachelor's degrees in most science and engineering fields, but only 3 percent of bachelor's degrees in the agricultural sciences and 2 percent of bachelor's degrees in earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences in 1996. They earned the highest percentage of degrees in microbiology (10 percent) and industrial engineering (10 percent). Their share of degrees in all major fields except biological sciences has been increasing since 1989. (See appendix table 2-9.)

American Indians earned between 0.4 and 0.8 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in the various science and engineering fields in 1996. They earned the highest percentages of degrees in the agricultural sciences (0.8 percent) and social sciences (0.7 percent). They earned the lowest percentages in mathematics, computer science, and engineering (0.4 percent of each). (See appendix table 2-9.)

A dissimilarity index was constructed to measure the amount of similarity or dissimilarity in the distributions of racial/ethnic groups by bachelor's degree field.[3] The dissimilarity index is highest for Asians—17.5 percent of Asians would have to switch their bachelor's degree field to match the field distribution of white bachelor's degree recipients—but is decreasing over time. (See appendix table 2-8.) The index is lowest for Hispanics—1.8 percent would have to switch their bachelor's degree field to match the field distribution of white bachelor's degree recipients.

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Minority women ^

Within each racial/ethnic group in 1996, women represented a lower percentage of bachelor's degrees in science and engineering than in non-science and -engineering. In contrast to white and Asian women, however, black, Hispanic, and American Indian women earned more than half of the bachelor's degrees in science and engineering awarded to their respective racial/ethnic group in 1996. (See text table 2-4.)

Persons with disabilities ^

Data on participation of persons with disabilities in undergraduate and graduate education are seriously limited for several reasons:

  1. Differing operational definitions of "disability" have been used; these include a wide range of physical and mental conditions. Different sets of data have used different definitions and thus are not comparable.
  2. Data about disabilities are frequently not included in comprehensive institutional records. Concerns about confidentiality often inhibit collection or dissemination by institutions of data on disabilities.
  3. The information on persons with disabilities gathered from surveys is often self-reported. Typically, respondents are asked if they have a disability and to specify what kind of disability it is. The resulting data therefore reflect individual decisions to self-identify and not objective measures.

Although the National Science Foundation (NSF) collects data on the disability status of scientists and engineers in most of its surveys and uses common definitions among its surveys, these cover people who have earned at least a bachelor's degree in science and engineering or who are employed in science and engineering. NSF does not collect data on individuals in precollege education or undergraduate education. The National Center for Education Statistics does collect data for those levels of education, but in many instances does not include measures of disability status. It has already been noted that colleges and universities do not maintain data in their central records that identify students with disabilities. Therefore, enrollment and degree data collected from colleges and universities are not reported by disability status.

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References ^

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 1998a. American Indians and Alaska Natives in Postsecondary Education. By D. Michael Pavel, Rebecca Rak Skinner, Elizabeth Farris, Margaret Cahalan, and John Tippeconnic. NCES 98-291. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

---. 1998b. The Condition of Education 1998. By John Wirt, Tom Snyder, Jennifer Sable, Susan P. Choy, Yupin Bae, Janis Stennett, Allison Gruner, and Marianne Perie. NCES 98-013. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

---. 1999. An Institutional Perspective on Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Education. By Laurie Lewis and Elizabeth Farris. NCES 1999-046. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Studies (NSF). 1999. Science and Engineering Degrees: 1966-96. NSF 99-330. Arlington, VA.

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Footnotes

[1] Data refer to U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.

[2] The dissimilarity index is calculated as the sum of the absolute difference between the percentage of female bachelor's degree recipients earning degrees in each field and the percentage of male bachelor's degree recipients earning degrees in each field divided by 2.

[3] The dissimilarity index is calculated as the sum of the absolute difference between the percentage of degree recipients in a particular racial/ethnic group earning degrees in each field and the percentage of white degree recipients earning degrees in each field divided by 2.


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