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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 2-13

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Figure 2-14

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Figure 2-15

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Figure 2-16

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Figure 2-17

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Figure 2-18

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Figure 2-19

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Figure 2-20

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Figure 2-21

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Figure 2-22

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Figure 2-23

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Figure 2-24

Higher Education in Science and Engineering

Graduate S&E Students and Degrees in the United States

Overall Trends in Graduate Enrollment
Master’s Degrees
Doctoral Degrees
Financial Support for S&E Graduate Education
Stay Rates of Foreign Doctoral Recipients

Overall Trends in Graduate Enrollment top of page

Is the United States educating an adequate number of bachelor-level S&E majors who are willing and able to pursue advanced degrees in S&E? Has access to graduate programs improved for women and underrepresented minorities? This section presents trends in graduate enrollment: strong growth in foreign student enrollment until 1992 and declining enrollment for both U.S. and foreign citizens from 1993 to 1998. Enrollment of foreign students turned up considerably in 1999, increasing their proportion of the graduate population.

The long-term trend of increasing enrollment in graduate S&E programs in the United States persisted for several decades, peaked in 1993, declined for five years, and then increased in 1999. Trends differ somewhat across S&E fields. For example, enrollment in mathematics and computer sciences peaked in 1992, declined for three years, and then increased from 1995 onward. In contrast, the number of graduate students in engineering declined for six consecutive years (1993–98) before increasing slightly in 1999. (See appendix table 2-19.) The favorable job market in the nation after 1992 may account for some of the decline in graduate enrollment. For general workforce conditions that may influence enrollment in higher education, see chapter 3, "Science and Engineering Workforce." The increase in 1999 is mainly accounted for by the increased percentage of foreign students enrolling in U.S. graduate S&E programs. (See appendix table 2-20.)

Graduate Enrollment by Sex, Race/Ethnicity, and Citizenship

The long-term trend of women’s increasing proportion of enrollment in all graduate S&E fields has continued during the past two decades, with significant differences by field. By 1999, women constituted 59 percent of the graduate enrollment in social and behavioral sciences and 43 percent of the graduate enrollment in natural sciences. In the same year, women constituted 37 percent of the graduate students in mathematics, 30 percent of the graduate students in computer sciences, and only 20 percent of the graduate enrollment in engineering. However, men are not as prevalent among underrepresented minority groups in NS&E fields; women in underrepresented minority groups have a higher proportion of graduate enrollment than women in other groups. For example, one-third of black graduate students in engineering and more than one-half of the black graduate students in natural sciences are women. (See text table 2-10 text table.)

Graduate enrollment trends also differ by race and ethnicity. The proportion of total enrollment represented by white (majority) students in graduate S&E programs declined from 65 percent in 1975 to less than 53 percent in 1999. In contrast, the number of underrepresented minority students in graduate S&E programs has increased during the past two decades. However, the rate of increase has slowed from 6.5 percent in the 1986–92 period to 4.1 percent in the 1992–99 period. Underrepresented minorities, which make up almost 25 percent of the U.S. population, represent 9.3 percent of the students in graduate S&E programs in U.S. higher education. Asians/Pacific Islanders are well represented in advanced S&E education, constituting 4 percent of the U.S. population and 6.7 percent of the graduate students in S&E programs. (See appendix table 2-20.)

After a four-year decline (1993–96), the number of foreign students enrolling in U.S. graduate S&E programs turned around in 1997 and 1998 and increased sharply in 1999. The decline in foreign students from 1993 to 1996 (and the subsequent decline in foreign doctoral degree recipients in 1997–99) is partly explained by fewer Chinese students coming to the United States during the few years after Tiananmen Square and the Chinese Student Protection Act. Chinese student enrollment in the U.S. S&E graduate programs declined from 28,823 in 1993 to 24,871 in 1995 and then continued to increase in subsequent years. However, the number of graduate S&E students from India, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia also declined in various years in the 1990s because of expanded opportunities for graduate education within their own countries or regional economies. (See appendix table 2-21.)

Despite the four-year decline, the longer term trend shows increasing enrollment of foreign graduate students in S&E fields in U.S. institutions. Evidence shows that foreign student enrollment also is increasing in other major host countries (the United Kingdom and France) and to other host countries (Germany and Japan). See "International Comparison of Foreign Student Enrollment in S&E Programs." The international trend may be driven by the desire for advanced training in S&E fields and employment opportunities in S&E careers. In 1999, this increasing foreign enrollment, coupled with a declining number of U.S. white (majority) students, resulted in an approximately equal number of white and foreign students in the U.S. graduate programs in mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering. (See figure 2-13 figure.)

The NSF 1999 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (NSF/SRS 2001a) shows that more than 100,000 foreign students were enrolled in U.S. S&E graduate programs. They represent a significant proportion of engineering (41 percent) and math and computer science (39 percent) students. Except for Canada, the 10 top countries of origin of foreign students to the United States are in the Asian region. Trends in enrollment from particular Asian countries and economies show a decline through most of the 1990s for students from Taiwan, a leveling off of students from South Korea, and an increasing number of students from China and India after a temporary drop. (See figure 2-14 figure, appendix table 2-21, and "International Comparisons of Foreign Student Enrollment in S&E Programs" at the end of the chapter.)

Master’s Degrees top of page

Overall Trends

Declining S&E degree trends at the master’s level resemble those at the bachelor’s level. The number of degrees earned in engineering, the most attractive major at the master’s level, increased rapidly for more than a decade, peaked in 1994, declined for three consecutive years, and leveled off. The number of degrees earned in social sciences, psychology, and biological/agricultural sciences increased strongly in the 1990s and leveled off in the past few years. The corresponding statistics for mathematics, physical sciences, and geosciences have remained stable during the past few decades. The number of degrees earned in computer sciences remained essentially flat for most of the 1990s; computer sciences is one of the few S&E fields that exhibited an increase in degrees earned in 1998. (See figure 2-15 figure.)

Master’s Degrees by Sex, Race/Ethnicity, and Citizenship top of page

Trends for men earning master’s degrees differ slightly from trends for women. For men, growth in the number of degrees earned in biological and social sciences and psychology was more modest, and growth in computer sciences was stronger until 1996, when the number of degrees earned declined. Trends for women show continuously strong increases during the past two decades in biological and social sciences and psychology, modest increases in computer and physical sciences, and constant levels in mathematics, with a slight downturn in mathematics and physical sciences after 1996. (See appendix table 2-22.)

Trends also differ by race/ethnicity and citizenship. White students follow the overall trends, with increases in biological and social science, psychology, and computer science degrees earned in the 1980s, followed by steady decreases throughout the 1990s. In contrast, trends for Asian/Pacific Islander students show an increasing number of degrees earned in all S&E fields, particularly in computer sciences. S&E trends for blacks at the master’s level show strong growth in the number of degrees earned in social sciences and psychology and modest growth in biological and computer sciences. Hispanic students also show strong growth in the number of degrees earned in social sciences and psychology, modest growth in biological sciences, and minor fluctuations in computer sciences. American Indians/Alaskan Natives earned an increasing number of degrees in social sciences and psychology, but the number of degrees earned in all other fields fluctuated around a low base. The number of degrees earned by foreign students increased in all S&E fields, particularly computer sciences, until 1993 and then leveled off or declined. Trends in broad fields are shown for selected groups in figure 2-16 figure.

Among the new directions in graduate education are the creation of the new "terminal" master’s degrees and the proliferation of professional certificate programs. Terminal master’s programs provide the skills (often interdisciplinary) needed by professionals working in emerging S&E fields. Professional certificates that are approved by graduate programs include a coherent set of courses for a specialty, such as engineering management. The latter are amenable to distance delivery at corporate sites. See sidebar, "Terminal Master’s Degree Programs."

Doctoral Degrees top of page

Overall Doctoral Trends

After a steady upward trend during the past two decades, the overall number of doctoral degrees earned 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. The number of degrees earned in engineering peaked in 1996 and declined for the next three years. 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. See "Doctoral Degrees by Citizenship." The number of degrees earned in psychology and social sciences increased slightly in the 1990s and leveled off in 1998–99. The number of degrees earned in the physical sciences and geosciences, mathematics, and computer sciences was stable in the 1990s and declined slightly in 1999. (See figure 2-17 figure.)

Doctoral Degrees by Sex

At the doctoral level, the proportion of S&E doctoral degrees earned by women has risen considerably in the past three decades, reaching a record 43 percent in 1999. (See figure 2-18 figure.) However, dramatic differences by field exist. In 1999, women earned 23 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in physical sciences, 18 percent of those in computer sciences, and 15 percent of those in engineering. However, they earned more than 41 percent of the degrees awarded in biological and agricultural sciences and 42 percent of those awarded in social sciences. Women earned most of the degrees (66 percent) awarded in psychology.[4] (See appendix table 2-24.) The long-term trend of an increasing number of doctoral degrees earned by women halted in 1999, with slight decreases in biological and physical sciences and a leveling off in other S&E fields (NSF/SRS 2001d). (See appendix table 2-24.)

Doctoral Degrees by Race/Ethnicity

In the past decade, the white (majority) population earned a slightly increasing number of doctoral degrees across most S&E fields, followed by a downturn in most fields in 1998–99. In the same period, underrepresented minorities also earned an increasing number of doctoral degrees across all fields, mainly in social, behavioral, and natural sciences. Their increases were from such a low base, however, that the number of doctoral degrees awarded to underrepresented minorities is barely visible on a graph that compares S&E degrees earned by various groups. (See figure 2-19 figure.) The modest gains in the number of degrees earned in engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences continued in the 1990s until 1998, when the number of degrees earned in these fields turned slightly downward. Among Asians/Pacific Islanders who were citizens and permanent residents, the steep increases in the mid-1990s mainly reflect the Chinese foreign students on temporary visas shifting to permanent resident status from the 1992 Chinese Student Protection Act. The number of degrees earned by Asians/Pacific Islanders has since leveled off. (See appendix table 2-25.)

Doctoral Degrees by Citizenship

Each year from 1986 to 1996, the number of foreign students earning S&E doctoral degrees at universities in the United States increased; after that, this number of earned degrees dropped off. The number of such degrees earned by foreign students increased much faster (7.8 percent annually) than the number earned by U.S. citizens (2 percent annually). (See appendix table 2-26.) For example, the number of foreign students earning doctoral degrees in S&E increased from 5,000 in 1986 to almost 11,000 in the peak year of 1996, with declines each succeeding year.[5] During the 1986–99 period, foreign students earned 120,000 doctoral degrees in S&E fields. China is the top country of origin of these foreign students; almost 24,000 Chinese students earned S&E doctoral degrees at universities in the United States during this period (NSF/SRS 2001d).

The decline in S&E doctoral degrees earned by foreign students mirrors their declining enrollment in graduate S&E programs from 1993 through 1996. (See appendix table 2-20.) After this four-year drop-off in enrollment, the number of foreign graduate students stabilized in 1997 and increased in 1998 and 1999. (The number of foreign doctoral recipients may increase within the next few years if their graduate enrollment in U.S. institutions continues to increase.)

Foreign students earn a larger proportion of degrees at the doctoral level than any other degree level, more than one-third of all S&E doctoral degrees awarded. (See figure 2-20 figure.) Their proportion in some fields is considerably higher: in 1999, foreign students earned 47 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in mathematics and computer sciences and 49 percent of those awarded in engineering.

Doctoral Reform

The need for reform of doctoral education has been widely noted and discussed. In 1995, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) recommended broadening the education of doctoral students beyond research training. Because more than one-half of all doctoral recipients obtain nonacademic employment, COSEPUP recommended that doctoral students acquire an education in the broad fundamentals of their field, familiarity with several subfields, the ability to communicate complex ideas to nonspecialists, and the ability to work well in teams (COSEPUP 1995). Subsequently, professional societies and leading educators encouraged the expansion of COSEPUP recommendations beyond physical sciences and engineering to include all graduate education.

NSF responded to COSEPUP’s recommendations by funding universities to establish Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) programs. Such awards enable universities to offer stipend support to graduate students to engage in research in emerging multidisciplinary areas of S&E (NSF/EHR 2001a). From 1997 to 2000, NSF granted university faculties a total of 57 awards in the IGERT program.

Current research on doctoral education shows that doctoral students’ high level of interest and belief in the possibility of a faculty career persist even though the number of doctoral degrees granted far exceeds available tenure-track positions. See sidebar, "At Cross Purposes."

Current efforts focus on how to "re-envision the Ph.D." to meet the needs of society in the 21st century and how to effect reforms without lengthening the time to achieve a degree. The re-envisioning project provides a forum for national dialog on doctoral reforms among key stakeholders: research- and teaching-intensive institutions, doctoral students, agencies that fund and hire doctoral recipients, disciplinary societies, and education associations. A recent workshop composed of many such stakeholders agreed on six themes for doctoral reforms:

  • shorten time to degree acquisition,

  • increase underrepresented minorities among doctoral recipients,

  • improve the use of technology for research and instructional purposes,

  • prepare students for a wider variety of professional opportunities,

  • incorporate understanding of the global economy and international scientific enterprise, and

  • provide doctoral students with an interdisciplinary education.

The project also collects and disseminates promising practices for doctoral education that are submitted by individual departments (Nyquist and Woodford 2000). See also chapter 3 on "Science and Engineering Workforce" for employment prospects of doctoral recipients by field and the sidebar, "International Efforts in Doctoral Reform," at the end of this chapter.

Financial Support for S&E Graduate Education top of page

U.S. higher education in S&E fields has traditionally coupled advanced education with research. This coupling is reflected by the various forms of financial support for S&E graduate students, particularly those pursuing doctoral degrees. Support mechanisms include fellowships, traineeships, research assistantships (RAs), and teaching assistantships (TAs).

Sources of support include Federal agency support, non-Federal support, and self-support. See sidebar, "Definitions and Terminology," for fuller descriptions of both mechanisms and sources of support. Most graduate students, especially those who pursue doctoral degrees, are supported by more than one source and one mechanism during their time in graduate school; some graduate students may even receive support from several different sources and mechanisms in any given academic year.

This section describes both sources and mechanisms of financial support. During the 1990s, the distribution of different mechanisms of support stabilized after the importance of RAs increased during the 1980s. The increase was offset by a reliance on traineeships and self-support. The relative stability in the proportion of different mechanisms of support in the 1990s holds for both federally and nonfederally supported students. Federal support is found predominantly in the form of RAs, which represent 66 percent of all Federal support. However, Federal support through fellowships increased slightly in the 1990s, from 9 percent in 1989 to 11 percent in 1999. For students supported through non-Federal sources, TAs are the most prominent mechanism (41 percent), followed by RAs (30 percent). (See appendix table 2-27.)

Primary mechanisms of support differ widely by S&E fields of study. For example, students in physical sciences are supported mainly through RAs (42 percent) and TAs (41 percent). RAs also are important in engineering (42 percent) and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (41 percent). In mathematics, however, primary student support is through TAs (57 percent) and self-support (17 percent). Students in social sciences are mainly self-supporting (41 percent) or receive TAs (22 percent). (See appendix table 2-28.)

The Federal Government plays a significant role in supporting S&E graduate students in some selected fields and mechanisms and an insignificant role in others. For example, Federal traineeships represent approximately two-thirds of all such support, almost one-half of all RAs, and one-quarter of all fellowships. The percentage of Federal traineeships is even greater in physical and biological sciences and in chemical engineering, and the Federal Government supports most RAs in physical sciences. In contrast, the Federal Government is not a significant source of support for graduate education in social sciences, psychology, and mathematics. (See appendix table 2-29.)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NSF support most of the S&E graduate students whose primary support comes from the Federal Government, 17,000 and 14,000 students, respectively. Trends in Federal agency support of graduate students show a considerable increase in the proportion of students supported primarily by NIH, from less than 22 percent in 1980 to 29 percent in 1999. The proportion of graduate students receiving Federal support primarily by NSF has increased from 18 to 21 percent in the past two decades. 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. (See appendix table 2-30.)

Support Mechanisms for Doctoral Students

For doctoral students, support mechanisms can be classified by sex, race/ethnicity, and citizenship. For men, the leading support mechanism is RAs, followed by personal sources. For women, the leading support mechanism is personal sources, followed by fellowships. Foreign doctoral students serve as S&E research and teaching assistants and are more likely to have RAs and TAs as their primary sources of support. For example, more than 80 percent of the Chinese doctoral degree recipients in the United States from 1988 to 1996 reported in the U.S. Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) that they were supported by university RAs,[6] and more than 50 percent reported financial support from TAs (NSF/SRS 2001a). U.S. citizens are more likely to have personal sources of support. For underrepresented minorities, however, fellowships are the primary source of support. (See appendix table 2-31.)

Stay Rates of Foreign Doctoral Recipients top of page

Historically, approximately 50 percent of foreign students who earned S&E degrees at universities in the United States reported that they planned to stay in the United States, and a smaller proportion had firm offers to do so (NSF/SRS 1998). In 1990, for example, 45 percent of all foreign S&E doctoral degree recipients planned to remain in the United States after completing their degree, and 32 percent had received firm offers. As a result of the strong economy and employment opportunities of the 1990s, however, these percentages increased significantly. By 1999, more than 72 percent of foreign doctoral recipients in S&E fields planned to stay in the United States, and 50 percent accepted firm offers to do so. (See figure 2-21 figure and appendix table 2-32.)

The number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by foreign students declined after 1996, but the number of students who had firm plans to remain in the United States declined only slightly from its 1996 peak. Each year from 1996 to 1999, more than 4,000 foreign doctoral recipients had firm offers to remain in the United States at the time of degree conferral. (See figure 2-22 figure.) These firm offers were mainly for postdoctorate appointments and industrial employment in research and development (R&D).

Foreign doctoral students’ plans to stay in the United States differ by region of origin. Those from East and South Asia receive the highest number of doctoral degrees by far and constitute the highest percentage of students who plan to stay in the United States. (See text table 2-11 text table.) Countries within regions also differ significantly. In Asia, China and India have higher-than-average firm stay rates in the United States, and South Korea and Taiwan have lower-than-average firm stay rates. In North America, Mexico has a far lower stay rate than Canada. The United Kingdom has the highest stay rate among European countries; in 1999, 79 percent planned to stay in the United States after earning their doctorate in S&E fields, and 62 percent had firm offers to do so. (See figure 2-23 figure.)

After 1996, the number of foreign doctoral degree recipients from China, Taiwan, and India with plans to stay in the United States declined slightly, even though the proportion that planned to stay increased. Because the number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by these groups decreased after 1996, the net result was that fewer remained in the United States. (See figure 2-24 figure.)

The SED data on stay rates can be used to indicate immediate reverse flow of foreign doctoral recipients. Those with no plans to stay in the United States may be planning an immediate return to their home country or to another country in the region. For example, Chinese doctoral recipients with no plans to stay in the United States may be hired by a research institute in China or Singapore. The rate of return of S&E doctoral recipients from universities in the United States differs by country of origin. Mexico and Brazil have the highest reverse flow; India and China have the lowest. (See text table 2-12 text table.)

Recently, the Social Science Research Council surveyed the rates of return of African Ph.D. recipients trained in U.S. and Canadian universities between 1986 and 1996. The survey found that 63 percent of these recipients were employed in their home country or a neighboring African country by 1999.[7] The factors that correlated with returning home were the home country of the degree holder, field of study, and type of funding for graduate study. Economic opportunities, political stability, and institutional conditions for establishing a professional career correlated with high return rates. The fields of agricultural and biological sciences, which receive high funding priorities in some African countries, also correlated with high return rates (Pires, Kassimir, and Brhane 1999).

Foreign doctoral recipients in S&E who remain in the United States represent a potential "brain drain" from their country of origin, but they also have an opportunity for enhanced research experience before returning home. Reverse flow back home is increasing for countries with increasing S&E employment in higher education and research institutes. Little is known of the broader diffusion of S&E knowledge by foreign doctoral recipients who remain in the United States through activities such as cooperative research, short-term visits, and networking with scientists at home and abroad. See sidebar, "Reverse Flow."


[4]  See National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Studies, Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 1999, table 2, for percentages of doctoral degrees earned by women for detailed S&E fields in 1990 and 1999.

[5]  Numbers include students on both temporary and permanent visas but not naturalized citizens.

[6]  Much of the funding for university RAs is derived from Federal grants to universities.

[7]  SED shows that 64 percent of African doctoral recipients planned to stay in the United States; however, because many were in biological sciences, they may have stayed for a postdoctorate for a few years and then returned to Africa. SSRC findings are relatively consistent with Finn’s research on stay rates several years after Ph.D. attainment (Finn 1999). Finn’s work shows that about 44 percent of African doctoral recipients were working in the United States several years after receiving their Ph.D.

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