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Indicators 2002
Introduction Overview Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education Chapter 2: Higher Education in Science and Engineering Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Workforce Chapter 4: U.S. and International Research and Development: Funds and Alliances Chapter 5: Academic Research and Development Chapter 6: Industry, Technology, and the Global Marketplace Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding Chapter 8: Significance of Information Technology Appendix Tables
Chapter Contents:
U.S. Higher Education in Science and Engineering (S&E)
Undergraduate S&E Students and Degrees in the United States
Graduate S&E Students and Degrees in the United States
Increasing Global Capacity in S&E
Selected Bibliography
Appendix Tables
List of Figures
Presentation Slides

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Figure 2-1

Click for Figure 2-2
Figure 2-2

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Figure 2-3

Click for Figure 2-4
Figure 2-4

Click for Figure 2-5
Figure 2-5

Click for Figure 2-6
Figure 2-6

Higher Education in Science and Engineering

U.S. Higher Education in S&E

Demographics and Higher Education
Characteristics of U.S. Higher Education Institutions
Traditional Institutions of Higher Education
New Modes of Delivery

A key challenge for the higher education system in the United States is to remain a leader "in generating scientific and technological breakthroughs and in preparing workers to meet the evolving demands for skilled labor" (Greenspan 2000). The needs of the workplace are changing in today’s information- and service-oriented economy; all workers require increased competency in mathematics and critical thinking and, at minimum, an understanding of basic science and technology concepts (Romer 2000). Despite the rising number of college-age adults (see "Demographics and Higher Education"), the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC 2000) has expressed concern about the nation’s ability to meet its technical workforce needs and to maintain its international position in S&E. This section explains demographic trends that may affect higher education in the United States as well as institutional resources, both traditional and emerging, that are being mobilized to meet this challenge. The section includes data on the growing enrollment in S&E degree programs and the production of S&E degrees by type of institution. The growing importance of community colleges in lifelong learning and their role in teaching IT are also described.

Demographics and Higher Education top of page

Past Trends

The size of the college-age cohort has decreased in all major industrialized countries, although within somewhat different time frames. The U.S. college-age population decreased from 22 million in 1980 to 17 million in 1997, a reduction of 23 percent. Europe’s college-age population has begun an even steeper decline, from 30 million in 1985 to a projected 22 million in 2005, a reduction of 27 percent. Japan’s college-age population of 10 million, which began to decline in 1995, is projected to reach a low of 7 million in 2010, representing a loss of 30 percent. (See appendix table 2-1.)

Based on these trends, the major industrialized countries have recruited foreign students to help fill their graduate S&E departments. See "International Comparisons of Foreign Student Enrollment in S&E Programs" at the end of this chapter. Most of these foreign students have been drawn from developing countries with far larger populations of potential college students. For example, China and India are major countries of origin for foreign graduate students in the United States, each with approximately 90 million in their college-age cohort. (See figure 2-1 figure.)

Current Trends

In the United States, the almost 20-year decline of the college-age cohort reversed in 1997 and is projected to increase from 17.5 million to 21.2 million by 2010, with strong growth among minority groups. (See appendix tables 2-1 and 2-2.) This projected increase in the college-age population by more than 13 percent in the first decade of the 21st century, coupled with the high percentage of the college-age population electing to attend college, signals another wave of expansion in enrollment in the U.S. higher education system and growth in S&E degrees at all levels.

Demographic trends show an increase in the minority group population in the United States. (See figure 2-2 figure.) The white college-age population will expand slowly until 2010 and then decline, whereas the college-age population of racial and ethnic minorities will continue to rise. These trends offer a challenge to the United States and an opportunity to educate students who have been traditionally underrepresented in S&E fields (e.g., women, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives).

Characteristics of U.S. Higher Education Institutions top of page

The defining characteristics of the U.S. higher education system include broad access to an array of institution types and sizes with public and private funding and flexible attendance patterns. New ways of acquiring advanced training and skills outside these institutions are augmenting access (see "New Modes of Delivery"). As other countries broaden their access to higher education, a wider array of institution types and attendance patterns is also evolving internationally.

U.S. higher education includes nearly 3,400 degree-granting colleges and universities serving 14.5 million students, nearly 80 percent of whom attend public institutions. In 1997, approximately 5.5 million of these students attended two-year institutions. Institutions of higher education at all levels awarded 2.2 million degrees in 1998, almost one-quarter of which were in S&E fields. (See figure 2-3 figure.) Less than 8 percent of all students are enrolled in private liberal arts I and II institutions, and 19 percent attend research universities, as defined by the Carnegie Classification. (See appendix table 2-3 and sidebar, "Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions.") The demographic and college attendance patterns of the student population are changing. More than 50 percent of all undergraduates are age 22 or older, almost 25 percent are age 30 or older, and 40 percent of all students are attending college part time (Edgerton 1997).

Traditional Institutions of Higher Education top of page

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1994) has clustered institutions with similar programs and purposes to better describe the diverse set of traditional institutions serving various needs. The 2000 Carnegie Classification is under review, and new categories are being defined that combine doctoral and research universities. The changes omit references to the amount of research support different institutions have received (McCormick 2000). For the 1997/98 academic year enrollment and degree data used in this chapter, the former 1994 Carnegie Classification applies.

Enrollment in U.S. Higher Education by Type of Institution

Overall enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher education increased from 7 million in 1967 to 15 million in 1992 and then continued essentially unchanged through 1997. (See figure 2-4 figure.) The expansion period represented an average annual growth rate of 3 percent, but growth rates differed greatly by type of institution. For example, two-year colleges grew at twice this rate and accounted for the largest share of the growth, from 1.5 million students in 1967 to 5.5 million in 1997 (including full- and part-time students).[2] By 1997, enrollment in two-year colleges was 38 percent of total higher education enrollment. In contrast, total student enrollment in research universities I grew more modestly, from 1.5 million students in 1967 to 2.1 million in 1992, with fluctuations around 2.1 million enrollments until 1997. Research universities enroll only 19 percent of the students in higher education, but they play the largest role in S&E degree production. (See figure 2-3 figure and appendix table 2-5.) Enrollment in higher education is expected to increase in the first decade of the 21st century because of a 13 percent increase in the college-age cohort during this period. (See appendix table 2-1.)

S&E Degree Production at All Levels of Higher Education by Type of Institution

Research-intensive universities produce most of the engineering degrees and a large proportion of natural and social science degrees at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. (See figures 2-5 figure) and 2-6 figure.) In 1998, the nation’s 127 research universities awarded more than 42 percent of all S&E bachelor’s degrees and 52 percent of all S&E master’s degrees. In addition, comprehensive and liberal arts I institutions awarded significant numbers of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in S&E. Associate degrees awarded by community colleges accounted for only a small percentage of total S&E degrees awarded but serve other important functions.

S&E Faculty by Type of Institution

More than 1.1 million faculty teach in the approximately 3,400 degree-granting institutions of higher education. A large proportion (approximately two-fifths) of all faculty work part time. Some institutions rely on part-time faculty to a greater degree than others; almost two-thirds (65 percent) of faculty at public two-year institutions hold part-time appointments, and approximately one-fifth of faculty at public research institutions work part time. (See text table 2-1 text table.)

Underrepresented minority faculty in S&E fields are more concentrated at the associate level or in part-time positions at four-year institutions. They constituted only 6 percent of the full-time faculty who teach engineering and computer sciences at four-year institutions but 10 percent of the full-time faculty teaching subjects in these fields at community colleges. (See text table 2-2 text table and appendix table 2-6.)

Community Colleges

Community colleges serve a diverse student population and have a broad set of missions: they confer certificates and associate degrees, serve as a bridge for students to attend four-year colleges, offer an array of remedial courses and services, and enroll millions of students in noncredit and workforce training classes (Bailey and Averianova 1999). Community colleges are an accessible and low-cost group of institutions for lifelong learning. In 1998, 63 percent of the students in community colleges were enrolled part time, and more than 60 percent of these part-time students were older than age 25; in general, enrollment in remedial courses includes a significant number of older adults taking refresher courses (Phillippe and Patton 1999; American Association of Community Colleges 2001).

The role of community colleges as a bridge to four-year schools is difficult to determine because many students transfer to four-year schools before earning an associate degree.

Approximately 25 percent of community college students transfer to four-year institutions, but percentages differ by field and by state. Eighteen percent of physical science students attending four-year schools in 1994 had previously attended a community college, and 15 percent of those earning bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences in 1994 had also earned associate degrees (U.S. Department of Education 1998). In Indiana, 67 percent of teachers surveyed took community college courses as part of their formal education. Some states encourage students to begin a bachelor’s program at a community college: 50 percent of students in the California State University system attended a community college before entering a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year institution. In addition, 75 percent of upper division education majors in the California State University system began their studies at community colleges (American Association of Community Colleges 2001; Pierce 2000; and Chancellor’s Office 1999).

Of all students in higher education in 1997, minority populations were concentrated in community colleges as follows: 46 percent of Asians/Pacific Islanders, 46 percent of blacks, 55 percent of Hispanics, and 55 percent of American Indians/Alaskan Natives (Phillippe and Patton 1999). A recent study indicates that minority students attending community colleges are more likely to transfer to selective four-year institutions than their colleagues who begin their academic career at a four-year school. Also, the completion rate for these transfer students is comparable with that of transfer students from other colleges (Eide, Goldhaber, and Hilmer, forthcoming).

The importance of community colleges in advancing the nation’s technical workforce is indicated by the number of associate degrees and certificates in S&E fields and the number of information technology (IT) workers reporting "some" college experience. See sidebar, "Role of Community Colleges in Expanding Supply of Information Technology Workers."

New Modes of Delivery top of page

The number of earned degrees from traditional institutions does not adequately represent the knowledge being acquired by students in science, engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences in a given year. Lifelong learning and various new ways of acquiring knowledge are not all quantified or captured in current education indicators. No indicators adequately capture the nontraditional education acquired through industrial training, certificate programs, and distance learning. See sidebars, "New Horizons in Science and Engineering Education" and "Certificate Programs."

Limited data exist on student participation and completion rates for many of the cited mechanisms. For example, national education surveys do not capture the number and types of students enrolled in most certificate programs or those taking an array of related courses that could lead to upgraded job skills but not a formal degree. Such data are needed to gain a more complete picture of the nation’s S&E education and training system.


[2]  An additional 5 million students are estimated to be enrolled in noncredit courses in community colleges and are not counted in the overall enrollment in higher education.
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