Higher Education in Science and Engineering
Characteristics of Higher Education by Type of Institution
- Overall enrollment in the nations institutions of higher education increased from
7 million in 1967 to 15 million in 1992 and then continued essentially unchanged through 1997.
Enrollment in higher education is expected to increase in the first decade of the 21st century
because of a predicted 13 percent increase in the population of the college-age cohort during
- Research universities enroll only 19 percent of the students in higher education, but they play the largest role in S&E degree production. They produce most of the engineering degrees
and a large proportion of natural and social science degrees at both the graduate and undergraduate
levels. In 1998, the nations 127 research universities awarded more than 42 percent of
all S&E bachelors degrees and 52 percent of all S&E masters degrees.
- By 1997, enrollment in community colleges was 38 percent of the total enrollment in higher
education. Community colleges serve a diverse population of students and have a broad set of
missions. They confer associate degrees, serve as a bridge for students to attend four-year
colleges, and expand the supply of information technology workers through certificate programs.
They offer a wide array of remedial courses and services and enroll millions of students in
noncredit and workforce training classes.
- Traditional institutions of higher education are augmented by industrial learning centers,
distance education, and certificate programs. Substantial education within industry is at the
level of higher education and oriented toward engineering, design, and business management.
Interest in taking S&E courses and entire programs via distance education is growing. In
1997, more than 50,000 different on-line courses were offered by postsecondary institutions,
and 91 percent of those were college-level credit courses.
Undergraduate S&E Students and Degrees
in the United States
- A key challenge for undergraduate education is preparing K12 teachers in science
and mathematics. In the upcoming decade, the nations school districts will need to hire
2.2 million new teachers, including 240,000 middle and high school mathematics and science teachers.
Of the total, 70 percent will be new to the profession because of older teachers retiring and
the increase in student population.
- The percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college is increasing for some racial
groups. By 1999, approximately 45 percent of white and 39 percent of black high school graduates
were enrolled in college, up from approximately 31 and 29 percent, respectively, in 1979. In
contrast, during this period, enrollment rates in higher education for Hispanic high school
graduates increased only slightly, from 30 to 32 percent.
- In the past two decades, the proportion of white students in the nations undergraduate student enrollment decreased, falling from 80 percent in 1978 to 70 percent in 1997. The proportion
of underrepresented minorities increased the most, from 15.7 to 21.7 percent; Asians/Pacific
Islanders increased from 2.0 to 5.8 percent, and foreign students remained at approximately
2 percent of undergraduate enrollment.
- Women outnumber men in undergraduate enrollment for every race and ethnic group. White women constitute 55 percent of white undergraduate students, and black women constitute 62 percent
of black undergraduate enrollment.
- The long-term trend has been for fewer students to enroll in engineering. Undergraduate engineering enrollment declined by more than 20 percent, from 441,000 students in 1983 (the peak year) to
361,000 students in 1999. Graduate engineering enrollment peaked in 1993 and continues to decline.
- Approximately 2530 percent of students entering college in the United States intend to major in S&E fields, but a considerable gap exists between freshman intentions and successful completion of S&E degrees. Fewer than 50 percent of those who intend to major in S&E fields complete an S&E degree within five years. Underrepresented minorities drop out of S&E programs at a higher rate than other groups.
- For the past several decades, about one-third of bachelors degrees have been awarded in S&E fields, but from 1986 to 1998, the percentage of engineering degrees decreased from 8 to 5 percent of total undergraduate degrees. Since 1986, the percentage of bachelors degrees earned by undergraduates also has declined slightly in physical sciences, mathematics, and computer sciences. In contrast, since 1986, students have earned a higher percentage of bachelors degrees in social and behavioral sciences and in biological sciences.
- The ratio of natural science and engineering (NS&E) degrees to the population of 24-year-olds in the United States has been between 4 and 5 per 100 for the past several decades and reached 6 per 100 in 1998. Several Asian and European countries, however, have higher participation rates, and the U.S. gap in educational attainment between whites and racial/ethnic minorities continues to be wide; the rate of earning NS&E degrees for racial/
ethnic minorities is still less than half the rate of the total population.
Graduate S&E Students and Degrees in the United States
- Long-term trends show that the proportion of women enrolled in all graduate S&E fields is increasing. By 1999, women constituted 59 percent of the graduate enrollment in social and
behavioral sciences, 43 percent of the graduate enrollment in natural sciences, and 20 percent
of the graduate enrollment in engineering. Women in underrepresented minority groups have a
higher proportion of graduate enrollment than women in other groups; one-third of black graduate
students in engineering and more than one-half of the black graduate students in natural sciences
- Long-term trends show that the enrollment of foreign graduate students in S&E fields in the United States is increasing. This increase, coupled with a declining number of American
white (majority) students, resulted in an approximately equal number of American white and foreign
students in U.S. graduate programs in mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering in 1999.
- After a steady upward trend during the past two decades, the overall number of earned doctoral degrees in S&E fields declined in 1999. Trends differ by field. Degrees in biological sciences
followed the overall pattern and declined for the first time in 1999. Strong increases in the
number of degrees earned in engineering peaked in 1996 and were followed by three years of decline.
This decrease in the number of engineering degrees earned is accounted for mainly by the decrease
in the number of degrees earned by foreign students from 1996 to 1999.
- At the doctoral level, the proportion of S&E degrees earned by women has risen considerably in the past three decades, reaching a record 43 percent in 1999. However, dramatic differences
by field exist. In 1999, women earned 42 percent of doctoral degrees in the social sciences;
41 percent of those in biological and agricultural sciences; 23 percent of those in physical
sciences; 18 percent of those in computer sciences; and 15 percent of those in engineering.
- Each year from 1986 to 1996, the number of foreign students earning S&E doctoral degrees from universities in the United States increased; it declined every year thereafter. During
the period 198699, foreign students earned 120,000 doctoral degrees in S&E fields.
China was the top country of origin of these foreign students; almost 24,000 Chinese earned
S&E doctoral degrees at universities in the United States during this period.
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation support most of
the S&E graduate students whose primary support comes from the Federal Government, 17,000
and 14,000 students, respectively. The proportion of students supported primarily by NIH increased
from less than 22 percent in 1980 to 29 percent in 1999; those supported primarily by NSF increased
from less than 18 percent in 1980 to 21 percent in 1999. In contrast, the Department of Defense
provided primary support for a declining proportion of students funded primarily by Federal
sources, 17 percent in 1988 and 12 percent in 1999.
- By 1999, more than 72 percent of foreign students who earned S&E doctoral degrees at universities in the United States reported that they planned to stay in the United States after graduation,
and 50 percent accepted firm offers to do so. These percentages in the late 1990s represent
significant increases. Historically, approximately 50 percent of foreign doctoral recipients
planned to stay in the United States after graduation, and a smaller proportion had firm offers
to do so.
- Although the number of foreign doctoral recipients planning to stay in the United States increased in the 1990s, opportunities are expanding for returning to their home countries or
for collaborative research and networking with home-country scientists. Taiwan and South
Korea have been the most able to absorb Ph.D.-holding scientists and engineers trained abroad.
Some of this recruitment occurs after a distinguished science career abroad.
Increasing Global Capacity in S&E
- In 1999, more than 2.6 million students worldwide earned a bachelors degree in science or engineering. More than 1.1 million of the 2.6 million S&E degrees were earned by Asian
students at Asian universities. Students across Europe (including Eastern Europe and Russia)
earned almost 800,000 first university degrees in S&E fields. Students in North America
earned more than 600,000 S&E bachelors degrees.
- Trend data for bachelors degrees show that the number of degrees earned in the United States remained stable or declined in the 1990s in all fields except psychology and biology.
In contrast, trend data available for selected Asian countries show strong growth in degree
production in all S&E fields. At the bachelors level, institutions of higher education
in Asian countries produce approximately six times as many engineering degrees as do institutions
in the United States.
- Although the United States has traditionally been a world leader in providing broad access to higher education, other countries have expanded their higher education systems, and the United
States is now 1 of 10 countries providing a college education to approximately one-third or
more of their college-age population. The ratio of natural science and engineering (NS&E)
degrees to the college-age population is higher than in the United States in more than 16 other
- Among some Asian countries, women earn first university degrees at a rate similar to or higher than the corresponding rate in many European countries. However, only in South Korea do women
have high participation rates in NS&E degree programs. In 1998, the ratio of women-earned
degrees in these fields to the female population of 24-year-olds was 4.6 per 100, higher than
the participation rate of women in other Asian countries, Germany, or the United States.
- The group of traditional host countries for many foreign students (United States, France, and United Kingdom) is expanding to include Japan, Germany, and Australia, and the proportion
of foreign graduate students is increasing in these countries. Foreign S&E graduate student
enrollment in the United Kingdom increased from 28.9 percent in 1995 to 31.5 percent in 1999.
Percentages differ by field; foreign student graduate enrollment in U.K. universities reached
37.6 percent in engineering and 40 percent in social and behavioral sciences.
- Developing Asian countries, starting from a very low base in the 1970s and 1980s, have increased their S&E doctoral production by several orders of magnitude. China now produces the most
S&E doctoral degrees in Asia and ranks fifth in the world. Within Europe, France, Germany,
and the United Kingdom have almost doubled their S&E doctoral degree production in the past
two decades, with slight declines in 1998.
- Because of the growing capacity of some developing Asian countries and economies (China, South Korea, and Taiwan) to provide advanced S&E education, the proportion of doctoral degrees
earned by their citizens in the United States has decreased. In the past five years, Chinese
and South Korean students earned more S&E doctoral degrees in their respective countries
than in the United States; in 1999, Taiwanese students for the first time earned more S&E
doctoral degrees at Taiwanese universities than at U.S. universities.
- In 1999, Europe produced far more S&E doctoral degrees (54,000) than the United States
(26,000) or Asia (21,000). Considering broad fields of science, most of the doctorates earned
in natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering are earned at European universities. The
United States awards more doctoral degrees in natural and social sciences than Asian countries.
- Like the United States, the United Kingdom and France have a large percentage of foreign students in their S&E doctoral programs. In 1999, foreign students earned 44 percent of the doctoral
engineering degrees awarded by U.K. universities, 30 percent of those awarded by French universities,
and 49 percent of those awarded by universities in the United States. In that same year, foreign
students earned more than 31 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in computer sciences in
France, 38 percent of those awarded in the United Kingdom, and 47 percent of those awarded in
the United States.