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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 2:
Structure of U.S. Higher Education

Enrollment in Higher Education

Higher Education Degrees
Foreign Doctoral Degree Recipients
International S&E Higher Education

Higher Education in Science and Engineering

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Governments around the world are expanding access to higher education to develop an educated workforce that will contribute to economic growth and competitiveness. Many countries have successfully increased the rate at which their college-age citizens earn S&E degrees. The United States has been less successful in this regard, particularly in the combined natural sciences, mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering fields that are considered critical to technological innovation. At the same time, mature industrial countries facing adverse demographic shifts are considering strategies to import highly trained foreign labor, especially from developing nations.

In the United States, freshmen continue to show considerable interest in S&E fields and appear to be no less prepared to undertake such study than they were 1 or 2 decades ago. However, sizable numbers indicate a need for remedial instruction in mathematics and the sciences, perhaps indicating weak spots in students' secondary education. In any case, as the number of U.S. bachelor's degrees has expanded, the share going to S&E degrees has held steady. However, shifts among S&E fields have been toward biological, social, and behavioral sciences and away from physical sciences and engineering.

Demographic trends that will shape U.S. higher education can already be seen. Women now represent the majority of students; they also earn most of the bachelor's degrees and half of the bachelor's degrees in S&E. Minority students from all groups are earning greater degree shares, with faster progress at the lower degree levels than at the doctorate level. As the share of underrepresented minorities in the college-age population grows, it is critical to entice them into S&E fields, where their attainment gap with whites remains large.

At advanced education levels, these trends come into sharper focus. Declining numbers of white men complete advanced S&E training; some of the women's numbers are also becoming flat or declining. Growing populations of minority groups counterbalance some of this trend, but growth in advanced S&E degrees primarily reflects strongly rising numbers of foreign students.

Through 2001, the last year of available data, the U.S. retained and even increased its attractiveness to these foreign students. The rate at which doctoral students remained here after receipt of their doctorate rose well above longer-term averages during the late 1990s. In the period 1998–2001, 76 percent reported plans to stay, and 54 percent had firm commitments to do so.

Nonetheless, the worldwide economic downturns and the events of September 11, 2001, introduce uncertainties into this picture. The latter especially has long-term ramifications, and even the initial impact is not yet captured in these data. Some evidence suggests that lower numbers of student and exchange visas are being granted. At this writing, it is unclear to what extent this evidence represents fewer applications, slower or more critical processing, a change in relative economic conditions, or a combination of these and other factors.

These developments occur in the context of continuing extension of global markets; worldwide reach of networks of scientific and technical activity, cooperation, and competition; and global flows of highly trained personnel. As government efforts to develop centers of excellence bear fruit, and as industry locates in developing markets and regions with newly developed technological competency, continuing shifts will take place in the international distribution of jobs and employment requiring high skill levels and technically sophisticated training. The shifts will, in turn, elicit responses from worldwide higher education systems.

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