Chapter 3:

The Undergraduate Experience in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering

Four-Year Institutions

Although full-time enrollment at all undergraduate institutions has risen over the past 20 years (see appendix table 3-17), the enrollment of white men enrolled full time in 4-year institutions has declined by 10 percent from 1976 to 1994. At the same time, the enrollment of white women has remained almost constant (38 percent of total full-time enrollment at 4-year institutions). During the same period, the enrollment of all racial/ethnic minority groups has risen. The most notable increases in total full-time enrollment at all institutions during that period were for women, who increased from 46 percent to 54 percent; Hispanic students, who grew from 4 percent to 8 percent of the total full-time fall enrollment; and Asian students, who constituted 2 percent of the total full-time enrollment in fall 1976 and 6 percent in fall 1994. Racial/ethnic and gender patterns among total enrollment at 4-year institutions are similar to those for full-time enrollment at these institutions (see appendix tables 3-18 and 3-19).

The representation of the racial/ethnic and gender groups in 4-year institutions is similar to that in 2-year institutions in that there are more Asian males and females in both types of institutions than would be expected from their proportion in the population (see figure 3-3, text table 3-3, and appendix tables 3-20 and 3-21). This unexpected level was also found among American Indian females enrolled in 2-year institutions from 1980 through 1994. Although this group of American Indian females was underrepresented in 4-year institutions in 1980, since then it has increased its representation in these institutions and has achieved parity since 1992.

Additional findings from the IR analysis of particular interest are

Bachelorís Degrees

The percentage of women of all racial/ethnic groups who have been awarded bachelorís degrees in science and engineering has risen dramatically over the past 30 years. (See appendix table 3-2.)[3]  In 1966, women received 25 percent of all science and engineering bachelorís degrees awarded and 52 percent of degrees in non–science-and-engineering fields. By 1995, women received almost half (47 percent) of all science and engineering bachelorís degrees awarded and 58.7 percent of all non–science-and-engineering bachelorís degrees awarded. During the decade of the 1980s, the total number of bachelorís degrees awarded to all groups, especially women, increased. In the 10-year period between 1984 and 1994, the number of bachelorís degrees awarded to men increased by 10 percent, whereas those awarded to women rose by 29 percent. (See appendix tables 3-2 and 3-3.)

For both 1994 and 1995, approximately 40 percent of the bachelorís degrees earned by white males, American Indian males, and Hispanic males were in science and engineering. Fifty-seven percent of the bachelorís degrees earned by Asian males and 36 percent of the degrees earned by black males were in science and engineering. (See text tables 3-4 and 3-5 and appendix table 3-4.)

In 1994 and 1995, 40 percent of the bachelorís degrees earned by Asian females were in science and engineering. The percentage of degrees in science and engineering among the other female categories range from 27 to 30 percent for both years; black females had a higher percentage than the other female racial/ethnic categories. (See appendix table 3-5.)

White males continue to earn more than 60 percent of the bachelorís degrees awarded in engineering. White women had the next highest percentage–12 percent–of the engineering bachelorís degrees awarded in 1994 and 1995. Nine percent of these degrees were earned by Asian males. For both years, the percentage of the engineering degrees earned by Hispanic males was slightly higher than the percentage of these degrees earned by black males. Less than 1 percent of these degrees were earned by American Indians.

Differences among racial/ethnic and gender categories by field are considerable.

Physical, Computer, and Agricultural Sciences


There is a small difference between white males and females in their percentage of the total number of bachelorís degrees earned in mathematics.

Social Sciences

Differences between white males and females in social sciences are similar to those found in mathematics.


Indices of Representation 

Indices of Representation were computed to assess the relative representation of racial/ethnic and gender groups in the awarding of bachelorís degrees. (See text tables 3-6 and 3-7 and appendix tables 3-22, 3-23, and 3-24.) In 1994, considering all fields, three of the ten racial/ethnic and gender categories had an IR score of 100 or greater: white males and females and Asian females. (See text tables 3-6 and 3-7 and appendix table 3-22.) Asian males had an IR score slightly less than 100, and American Indian females had an IR score of slightly more than 90. The scores for 1995 are not substantially different from the scores for 1994. Black males had the lowest IR scores for both 1994 and 1995.

The racial/ethnic and gender groups differ a great deal when their IR scores within fields of study are compared.


Physical Sciences and Mathematics

Computer Sciences

Biological Sciences

Agricultural Sciences

Social Sciences



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Mathematics and Science Experiences of Young Women 

Young women in the United States continue to be more likely than young men to stop taking courses, earn lower grades, and lose interest in mathematics and science during the high school years. As early as 7th grade, girls are less likely than boys to aspire to mathematics and science jobs or to believe science knowledge is needed for a good job.

When the mathematics and science experiences of women in race and class subgroups are examined, class affects these experiences in an expected manner. For example, women from upper SES (socioeconomic status) families are over three times as likely as those from lower SES families to have scored in the upper quartile on mathematics and science achievement indicators at some time during their high school years. Race, however, does not always work in the expected way. In fact, equally qualified black women are more likely to have positive mathematics and science achievement and to be taking mathematics and science courses than are their white counterparts. Analyses of these young black womenís resources suggests that their advantage may come from mothers who have high expectations and are very involved in their daughtersí lives.

An understanding of gender and science requires a longitudinal look at experiences in multiple areas of mathematics and science. Ebbs and flows in science interest and aptitude are common. Most women do not permanently leave the science pipeline until the post–high-school years.

–Sandra L. Hanson, Associate Professor of Sociology, Catholic University, Adapted from Lost Talent: Women in the Sciences

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The Engineering Path[4] 

Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Education examines the routes students take to earn an undergraduate degree in engineering.[5]  In its most elaborate configuration, this route, or engineering path (EPATH) sets forth 11 "stations beyond the threshold" for bachelorís degree candidates. Each station describes student history (for example, "Mediocre Performance, Leaves Engineering for a different science, mathematics, engineering, or technology (SMET) field" or "Completes Bachelorís in Engineering, Architecture, or Engineering Technology and Continues to Graduate School in a non-SMET field").

Text table 3-8 aggregates these heuristics for academic career histories into three stations and compares men and women. The story told by these and allied data is complex. On the one hand, the academic background of women, particularly in mathematics, was stronger than for men. At the same time, however, their degree completion rate in engineering (insert graphics) was significantly lower, even though the grade-point averages (GPAs) of female degree-completers were almost identical to those of men (men: 2.88, standard deviation = .561; women: 2.98, standard deviation = .437). Among degree completers, a far lower percentage of women had planned to major in engineering when they were seniors in high school, suggesting that some programs have been successful in changing womenís attitudes toward the field.

Over a third (35.4 percent) of the women who reached the curricular threshold continued, but then changed fields. Compared to men who left the engineering path, this group had slightly weaker mathematics backgrounds and slightly lower GPAs (2.71 to 2.83), but a much higher proportion of bachelorís degree completers (80 percent for women versus 60 percent for men). Where did they go? The physical sciences (not the life sciences) and computer science took most (44 percent) of the women who left engineering and completed bachelorís degrees in other fields. (See text table 3-9.) These choices may reflect prior academic investments in mathematics and interest in more theoretical SMET fields.

–Clifford Adelman, Senior Research Analyst, U.S. Department of Education

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Changes in Course Participation, 1972–1993 

College transcripts from two longitudinal studies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Educationís National Center for Education Statistics provide the basis for generating time-series data on college course taking.[6]  The analysis focuses on students who primarily attend 4-year institutions. Text table 3-10 displays the changes in the proportion of students in each cohort who completed courses in four key categories of mathematics. (There are 20 course categories in the mathematics taxonomy used in these studies.) With few exceptions, participation rates increased for all subgroups in all four of the categories. A principal reason for this expansion may lie in a jump in the proportion of bachelorís degree recipients majoring in business fields from 17 percent to 25 percent; simultaneously, the mathematics requirements for business degrees increased.

Nonetheless, with respect to participation, the following conclusions can be reached:

  • Women reached virtual "participation parity" with men in college algebra and statistics taught in mathematics departments.
  • The ratio of men to women completers of calculus courses dropped from 2.43:1 to 1.75:1. There is another category of calculus course not included in this table, "Calculus for Life Sciences, Economics, or Business," in which women reached near participation parity with men (for the High School and Beyond/Sophomore Cohort, 4.3 percent of women completed this "applied calculus" course compared to 4.8 percent of men).
  • Among underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, Hispanic students evidence the most dramatic increase in participation in calculus; black students have the lowest participation rate.

Text table 3-11 shows the proportion of students reaching midlevel course work in key laboratory sciences. The midlevel courses were chosen to illustrate the extent to which students from different groups persist beyond introductory courses. Because the courses are midlevel, the percentage of students taking them will be comparatively small. Where there are major changes in these percentages, for example in genetics or organic chemistry, it must be determined whether these changes are caused by changes in fields of concentration. Partly for this reason, the courses selected are generally less dependent on a studentís major than others. Such courses as microbiology, anatomy and physiology, or organic biochemistry (all of which are part of the Nursing curriculum) were not selected for this analysis because they distort the issue of womenís participation in science beyond the introductory level. Nursing and allied sciences, like engineering, are still gender-segmented fields.[7] 

There were considerable declines in participation rates in both basic and midlevel laboratory science courses from 1972 to 1982, a trend in the opposite direction of that in mathematics. In text table 3-11, these declines are noticeable in both genetics and organic chemistry, particularly among men. Only among Asian students did participation rates not decline.

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Baccalaureate Origins of Black Women Earning Doctorates 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) play a critical role in educating black women who go on to earn doctorates in science and engineering. A study examining the baccalaureate origins of 1,465 black women who went on to earn doctoral degrees between 1975 and 1992 in the fields of biological sciences, physical sciences, and the social sciences noted that, in 1992, black women earned 49 percent of the science and engineering (S&E) doctorates awarded to black U.S. citizens (Leggon and Pearson, 1997). Of these, the greatest number earned was in the social sciences (1,217), followed by the biological sciences (211), and the physical sciences (37).

Across fields, 52 percent earned their undergraduate degrees from predominantly white colleges and universities (PWCUs), 38 percent from HBCUs, and 10 percent from womenís colleges, but there were significant differences by field.

Among black women earning doctorates in the biological sciences, almost 75 percent earned undergraduate degrees from HBCUs. Of the remaining 25 percent, half received bachelorís degrees from PWCUs and half from womenís colleges. A similar pattern holds for black women earning doctorates in the physical sciences. Slightly more than two-thirds had baccalaureate origins in HBCUs. Equal proportions of the remaining one-third had such origins in womenís colleges and PWCUs.

For those in the social sciences, almost 60 percent earned the baccalaureate from PWCUs; approximately 30 percent from HBCUs; and less than 10 percent from womenís colleges. Of the 27 biological scientists earning undergraduate degrees in womenís colleges, 18, or two-thirds, earned them from the two historically black womenís collegesóSpelman and Bennett. Of the six African American women earning a doctorate in the physical sciences between 1975 and 1992, four did so from Spelman College. Among the 115 African American women earning social science doctorates, Spelman and Bennett produced more than all of the Seven Sisters collegesó54 and 51, respectively.[8] 

Across fields, Spelman and Bennett Colleges produced slightly more than half of the black women earning doctorates, the Seven Sisters produced approximately two-fifths, and other womenís colleges produced one-tenth.

–Cheryl B. Leggon, Wake Forest University

The continuing importance of HBCUs to the undergraduate science and engineering education of black men and women, whether or not they go on to earn doctorates, can be seen in text tables 3-12, 3-13 and 3-14.

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Degree Recipients in Science and Engineering From Universities in Puerto Rico 

Since 1991, the number of bachelorís, masterís, and doctoral degrees in science and engineering (S&E) fields conferred by institutions in Puerto Rico has increased. In 1995, institutions in Puerto Rico accounted for a significant proportion of Hispanics in the United States earning S&E degrees–16 percent of bachelorís, 11 percent of masterís, and 6 percent of doctoral degrees (see figure 3-4 and appendix tables 3-28, 3-29, and 3-30).

Universities in Puerto Rico accounted for 27 percent of the engineering bachelorís degrees awarded to Hispanics in the United States in 1995. Among natural science fields, Puerto Rican universities accounted for 26 percent of biological science and 39 percent of physical science bachelorís degrees awarded to Hispanics (NSF, 1997).

Of recent science and engineering bachelorís degree recipients from institutions in Puerto Rico, 35 percent attended graduate school. Of those who earned their bachelorís degree from Puerto Rican institutions and then earned a doctorate in science and engineering from 1991 to 1995, 75 percent earned their doctorates from universities on the continent and 25 percent from universities in Puerto Rico. Two universities in Puerto Rico–University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras and University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez–provided doctorate education to the majority of science and engineering doctorate recipients from universities in Puerto Rico.

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[3] Nonresident aliens and persons whose race/ethnicity are unknown are excluded from these tables.

[4] The data used in this analysis come from a national age-cohort longitudinal study and rely heavily on the college transcripts of participants in that study. That study, conducted over 13 years by the National Center for Education Statistics, followed the high school graduating class of 1982, known as the High School and Beyond Sophomore Cohort (HS&B/So). The college transcripts were gathered in 1993, when the members of this cohort were 29 to 30 years old.

[5] Engineering path (EPATH) is an empirically derived model for describing what happens to all students who cross a curricular threshold that would qualify them to pursue degrees in engineering, architecture, or engineering technologies. For a full explication, see Adelman, C., Women and Men of the Engineering Path: A Model for Analysis of Undergraduate Careers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute for Science Education, 1998.

[6] The first of these cohorts was the high school graduating class of 1972 (NLS-72); the second was the high school graduating class of 1982 (High School and Beyond/Sophomore Cohort). The college records of these two cohorts, gathered at approximately age 30 in both cases, cover the period from 1972 to 1993. There are some striking differences in the undergraduate course participation rates of students in these two cohorts.

[7] Of the courses selected, organic chemistry is somewhat of an outlier because it is a de facto "service course" for premeds, regardless of major. The same cannot be said for genetics, physiological psychology, or biochemistry.

[8] The "Seven Sisters" colleges are Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley, and Vassar (now coed).

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