Chapter 4:

Higher Education in Science and Engineering


The capacity to provide higher education in S&E is expanding throughout the world, with multiple poles of concentration in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The expansion of S&E higher education in these and other regions, and the consequent decline in the U.S. proportion of S&E degrees, is likely to continue. This increasing global capacity in S&E education, with recent growth in graduate education capacity, has implications for the United States as well as for all nations. Higher participation rates in S&E degrees and a greater focus on S&E fields in higher education in other countries contribute to their potential pool of scientists and engineers. Such human capital is important for addressing complex societal needs and for technological innovations.

These world regions are attempting to create important additional factors for innovation besides S&E degrees and recognize a lag time between S&E degree production and other needed S&E infrastructure that would contribute to their economic competitiveness. Creating graduate S&E departments has proven easier than creating jobs to employ the recent graduates, particularly in developing countries. Nonetheless, a larger global capacity for S&E education implies U.S. needs for (1) S&T information on other world regions and (2) consideration of heightened levels of international scientific cooperation in emerging regions. In addition, the global expansion of S&E knowledge has potential benefits of quickening the pace of development in other world regions.

This global diffusion parallels some limited domestic progress; U.S. higher education in S&E is becoming more diverse, particularly at the undergraduate level. In the 1990s, white enrollment in undergraduate education leveled off and began to decline, while enrollment for all minority groups increased. Similarly, while overall undergraduate engineering enrollment has been declining, enrollment of women and minorities has been increasing, particularly in the 1990s. At the bachelor's level, the number of degrees earned by underrepresented minorities is increasing slightly in NS&E fields and very rapidly in the social sciences. Compared with a decade ago, recent participation rates, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and sex, show considerable progress toward increasing diversity by sex in S&E fields and more limited progress in increasing diversity by race/ethnicity.

The constancy of the ratio of NS&E degrees to the college-age population (5 per hundred) and the declining college-age population have accounted for the decade-long decline in NS&E degrees. This relatively low U.S. participation rate in NS&E degrees compared with other countries may be inadequate for the current and future economy, as reflected in the high number of foreign-born skilled workers who have been provided special visas to attempt to meet the needs of U.S. high-technology industries and services. In addition, the lower participation rates of underrepresented minority groups, currently 28 percent of the U.S. college-age population (see "Diversity Patterns in S&E Enrollment and Degrees in the United States") should be monitored as these groups increase their proportion of the U.S. workforce.

At the graduate level, there have been considerable progress for women and limited progress for minorities in S&E programs. At the master's level, women have made significant progress in earned degrees in the natural sciences, but underrepresented minority groups showed only modest growth in these fields. At the doctoral level, the share of S&E degrees earned by women has more than doubled, from 15 percent in 1975 to 33 percent in 1997. Underrepresented minority students have slightly increased their proportion of doctoral S&E degrees to 7 percent in 1997, from 5 percent in 1987.

The large capacity of U.S. graduate S&E programs in the late 1980s was increasingly met through foreign students, but S&E graduate programs have recently seen a slightly lower concentration of foreign students. The rate of growth in S&E master's degrees earned by foreign students slowed in the 1990s. The declining graduate enrollment of foreign students in engineering since 1993 has resulted in the 1996 fall-off of the number of master's degrees in engineering earned by foreign students. At the doctoral level, the proportion of NS&E degrees earned by foreign citizens reached 47 percent in 1994, but declined to 40 percent by 1997.

Despite these declines, graduate education in the United States will continue to have a large proportion of foreign students in S&E fields, as do France and the United Kingdom. As countries attempt graduate education reforms to improve the quality of their research universities, they will continue to send their students to U.S. research universities and encourage them to remain for postdoctoral training and an industrial research experience. This combination of doctoral education and research experience provides valuable skills to the home country, even in an advisory capacity if the young scientists and engineers remain in the United States for employment.

The U.S. university system has accelerated the diffusion of S&E knowledge in the world through teaching foreign doctoral students who have contributed to the S&T infrastructure in the United States and in their home countries. Besides the global good of enhancement of scientific knowledge and world development, U.S. higher education is itself enriched by the network of former doctoral students and faculty in key research centers in Asia and Europe. The benefits include enhanced cooperative research opportunities, expanded opportunities for U.S. graduate and undergraduate students to study abroad, and international postdoctoral research positions for young U.S. scientists and engineers.

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