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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
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Figure 2-1

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Figure 2-2

Higher Education in Science and Engineering

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Structure of U.S. Higher Education

Institutions Providing S&E Education
New Modes of Instructional Delivery
New Types of Institutions

The U.S. higher education system provides broad access to varied institutions, which differ in size, type of administrative control (public or private), selectivity, and focus. (See sidebar, "Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions.") The system gives students flexibility in moving between institutions, transferring credits, entering and leaving schools, and switching between full- and part-time status.

Nonprofit degree-granting institutions that offer face-to-face classroom education continue to dominate U.S. higher education. These traditional institutions have incorporated new modes of education delivery, through IT and distance education, into their repertoires. New institutional forms that feature control by profit-making firms, certificate programs designed to enhance specific skills, and primary reliance on distance education, alone or in combination, have also emerged in recent years. However, these new forms still play a limited role in S&E education.

Institutions Providing S&E Education top of page

The U.S. higher education system consists of approximately 3,700 degree-granting colleges and universities that served about 15.6 million students and awarded 2.3 million degrees in 2000. Almost one-quarter of the degrees were in S&E fields (appendix tables 2-1 Microsoft Excel icon, 2-2 Microsoft Excel icon, 2-3 Microsoft Excel icon, and 2-20 Microsoft Excel icon).

Figure 2-1 figure shows the distribution of institutions, enrollment, degrees, and research and development expenditures across the different types of academic institutions. The institutions are classified according to a typology published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching 1994.[1] The typology groups institutions on the basis of the type and breadth of their programs, the volume of doctoral degrees conferred, the amount of Federal R&D funding, and their selectivity in the early 1990s.

Although research and doctorate-granting universities award most of the S&E baccalaureates, students earn such degrees at all kinds of institutions. In different S&E fields, the role of different kinds of institutions varies. Research and doctorate-granting universities produced most of the undergraduate engineering degrees (78 percent in 2000) and about half of the degrees in natural and agricultural sciences and in social and behavioral sciences. However, master's and liberal arts institutions produce most of the undergraduate degrees in mathematics and computer sciences (figure 2-2 figure).

A higher percentage of baccalaureate recipients studied S&E at research universities and selective liberal arts colleges than at other kinds of institutions. However, over the past 30 years, these S&E-focused institutions accounted for a declining percentage of higher education enrollment (appendix table 2-2 Microsoft Excel icon). Master's and doctoral degrees were concentrated in research and doctorate-granting universities (appendix table 2-3 Microsoft Excel icon).

The fastest-growing major segment of higher education is community colleges. These institutions are a bridge for students who want to attend 4-year colleges, and some S&E graduates earn credit at community colleges toward their degrees (Bailey and Averianova 1999). Community colleges also offer remedial courses and services and enroll millions of students in noncredit and workforce training classes. Enrollment in remedial courses often includes many older adults taking refresher courses (American Association of Community Colleges 2001).

Some traditional colleges and universities educate a disproportionate share of undergraduate racial/ethnic minorities, including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and postsecondary minority institutions. In 1998, 29 percent of the blacks who received S&E bachelor's degrees earned them at HBCUs. About one-third of Hispanics who earned S&E bachelor's degrees did so at HSIs. Only six TCUs are 4-year colleges or universities; the rest are 2-year schools. Of the six TCUs that offer bachelor's degrees, two offer baccalaureates in S&E fields (NSF/SRS 2003c).[2]

New Modes of Instructional Delivery top of page

Institutions of higher education are increasingly using advanced IT and distance education and are exploring the best ways to use these recent innovations to improve S&E education.

IT in Traditional Institutions

Advances in IT have provided scientists with powerful tools to amass and manipulate large databases and to solve previously intractable problems requiring complex calculations. Computer laboratories can bring advanced research to undergraduates via simulations. (See sidebar, "IT in Forest Ecology.") U.S. institutions of higher education are developing the IT infrastructure needed for computer-driven classes. In 2002, more than half of the classes in colleges used Internet-based resources, about one-third had Web-based pages for courses, and rates of e-mail use in all college classes were close to 70 percent. In addition, campuses are investing in wireless networks. Nearly 70 percent of the campuses responding to the 2002 Campus Computing Survey indicated that wireless networks were functioning in at least some part of their campus (Green 2002).

Distance Education

Distance education has been a significant feature of higher education for more than 60 years. Until the advent of electronic means of easy communication, distance education was mainly conducted through the mail, either as correspondence courses offered by traditional universities or as certification programs offered by for-profit correspondence schools. As electronic technology evolved, so did the principal means of delivery of distance education, advancing from courses delivered by radio (in the 1930s), television (in the 1950s), audio- or videocassettes (in the 1970s and 1980s), and computer and videoconferencing via satellite (in the 1990s) to the Internet, the most popular form of delivery from the 1990s to the present.

Distance education in U.S. colleges and universities expanded dramatically in the late 1990s, according to a nationally representative survey taken in 2000–01 (U.S. Department of Education 2003b). Both enrollment in for-credit distance education courses and the number of courses offered more than doubled from 1997–98 to 2000–01: enrollment grew from 1.3 million to 2.9 million, and course offerings grew from 47,500 to 118,000. In 2000–01, 56 percent (2,320) of 2- and 4-year institutions offered distance education courses, up from 44 percent 3 years earlier. However, percentages were much higher in public institutions. Almost 90 percent of public 2-year and 4-year institutions offered distance education courses; 16 percent of private 2-year and 40 percent of private 4-year institutions offered such courses. Still, fewer than 10 percent of students in S&E fields took courses through distance education.

Various technologies were used in delivering these distance courses. Ninety percent of the institutions offering distance education courses used online technologies such as the Internet and e-mail. A smaller percentage offered live interactive technologies, such as computer (43 percent) or video (51 percent) conferencing.

Rather than replacing traditional institutions, distance education enables these institutions to reach a wider audience for higher education. A National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study on distance education conducted in 1999–2000 found that students taking advantage of distance education opportunities tended to be older (e.g., undergraduates age 24 years and older), have family responsibilities, and have limited time. They were more likely to be enrolled in public 2-year colleges, attend school part time, and work full time while enrolled (U.S. Department of Education 2003a).

Offering S&E courses through distance education has challenges and benefits. For example, one challenge is in equating experiences in virtual or online laboratories with traditional class laboratories. (See sidebar, "Distance Education: Problems and Successes.")

New Types of Institutions top of page

Certificate programs, for-profit colleges and universities, and various forms of industrial learning centers play a small but growing role in S&E higher education. Programs that award certificates have become an increasingly popular method for students and S&E professionals to learn a particular skill or expand their interest to a related field and to have their knowledge documented. General characteristics of graduate certificate programs are a focus on practical skills (e.g., hazardous waste management and infection control); fewer course requirements than for a master's degree (three to six specific courses); and, typically, an interdisciplinary scope (e.g., environmental ethics). Certificates represent a university's flexibility in a changing environment and an industry's need to upgrade the skills of its workers in emerging and rapidly changing fields. Although they are most commonly offered in health sciences, education, business, and IT, certificate programs are also offered in social sciences, environmental studies, engineering, and other sciences (Patterson 2001).[3]

Providers include 2- and 4-year colleges and universities of all types and the education units of various corporations (e.g., Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, and Novell). In 2002, approximately 500 universities offered graduate certificate programs, up from 40 in 1997 (Patterson 2002). In some cases, the coursework may be applied to a degree program. Community colleges are also an important source of S&E-related certificate programs, particularly in health and computer sciences. In 2000, community colleges represented almost half of the academic providers of IT-related certificates.

Certificates can be earned through onsite or distance education and in some programs, particularly in IT, are awarded on completion of a skill-based exam, requiring no specific coursework. A Department of Education study in 2000 showed strong growth in exam-based certificates for the IT industry in the 1990s, extending well beyond the United States (U.S. Department of Education 2000b). In 1999, 5,000 sites in 140 countries were administering an estimated 3 million assessments in 25 languages. More than 300 discrete certifications have been established since 1989, when the first IT certificate (Certified Novell Engineer) was issued.

The percentage of students enrolled in for-profit institutions remains small, even though the number of institutions is growing. The Community College Research Center (CCRC) found that student enrollment in for-profit 2-year institutions accounted for 4 percent of total enrollment in 2-year institutions (Bailey, Badway, and Gumport 2003). Among 4-year institutions, the for-profit enrollment share was less than 2 percent. A report of the Education Commission of the States found that between 1989 and 1999, the number of for-profit 2-year degree-granting institutions grew 78 percent, representing 28 percent of all 2-year institutions in 1999. During the same period, the number of for-profit 4-year institutions grew by 266 percent (Bailey, Badway, and Gumport 2003).

Certificates accounted for 57 percent of all degrees awarded by U.S. for-profit 2-year institutions, which was more than awarded by public 2-year institutions (35 percent) (Bailey, Badway, and Gumport 2003). On the basis of case studies of three public community colleges and a for-profit chain, CCRC concluded that for-profit 2-year institutions are more appropriate for students interested in a narrowly focused career in a technical field, and community colleges are better suited to students who are interested in a general education or undecided on a major.

From 1988 to 2001, corporate "universities" grew from 400 to 2,000 (National Research Council 2002). Most of them primarily offer noncredit, nondegree courses narrowly targeted at retraining the workforce and other company needs. However, some large industries have internal training at a higher education level in engineering and design. For example, Motorola University contracts with 1,200 faculty worldwide who teach business and engineering wherever Motorola is designing innovative products.

Independent nonprofit institutions are also emerging to provide training geared specifically to corporate needs. These institutions offer credit-bearing courses and degree programs through IT and distance education. Institutions such as the Western Governors University and the United States Open University are recently formed examples. Since 1984, the National Technological University (NTU), a consortium of some 540 institutions, has been developing and offering courses and degree programs for engineering-oriented companies. The programs target engineering professionals interested in obtaining master's degrees in 1 of 18 engineering, technical, or business areas. All 1,300 academic courses offered by NTU are supplied by 52 leading engineering universities, including 25 of the top engineering schools in the country (National Research Council 2002).

For-profit and nonprofit subsidiaries of institutions and partnerships between 4-year institutions and private companies comprise a third type of industry learning center. The University of Maryland, College Park and eCornell are examples of for-profit or nonprofit subsidiaries of postsecondary education institutions. Both offer credit and noncredit courses to individuals and corporate universities. Motorola has partnerships with traditional institutions for sharing technology, faculty, and facilities. Motorola is part of a Ph.D. program at the International Institute of Information Technology (formerly the Indian Institute of Information Technology) in Hyderabad, India, and degree programs at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois (Wiggenhorn 2000).


[1]  The 2000 Carnegie Classification is under review, and a series of distinct classification schemes is expected to be introduced in 2005.

[2]  The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, has definitions and a list of minority-serving institutions at

[3]  A listing of graduate certificate programs can be found at

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