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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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Higher Education in Science and Engineering

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Higher Education Degrees

S&E Associate's Degrees
S&E Bachelor's Degrees
S&E Master's Degrees
S&E Doctoral Degrees

Degree conferral represents the certification of achievement at various levels of education and training. Over the years, U.S. colleges and universities have awarded rising numbers of associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in all fields. The number of degrees in S&E fields has generally risen along with other fields.

S&E Associate's Degrees top of page

Associate's degrees, largely offered by 2-year programs at community colleges, offer basic technical certification, primarily in computer and social science, engineering, and technology fields. S&E associate's degrees rose from 26,500 in 1985 to 33,700 in 2000. The increase in the late 1990s was mainly attributed to computer sciences, which represented 56 percent of all S&E associate's degrees by 2000. In contrast, the number of associate's degrees in natural sciences and engineering decreased in the late 1990s. Degrees earned in engineering technologies (not included in S&E totals because of their practice-focused nature) remained more numerous than degrees in S&E fields but experienced a steady decline during the past 2 decades (appendix table 2-20 Microsoft Excel icon).

Race/ethnicity trends in the number of associate's degrees earned are shown in appendix table 2-21 Microsoft Excel icon. Students from underrepresented groups earn a considerably higher proportion of associate's degrees than of bachelor's or more advanced degrees. In 2000, their proportion of associate's degrees was 32 percent for social and behavioral sciences and about 25 percent for mathematics and computer sciences (figure 2-10 figure). The proportion of computer science degrees earned by these students has almost doubled since 1985.

S&E Bachelor's Degrees top of page

The ratio of bachelor's degrees to the size of the college-age cohort (24-year-olds are a proxy) is a useful indicator of educational achievement. This ratio has risen from 21.8 per 100 in 1980 to 33.8 per 100 in 2000. The ratio of bachelor's degrees in natural, agricultural, and computer sciences; mathematics; and engineering (NS&E) to the population cohort stood between 4 and 5 per 100 for several decades but increased to 5.7 in the late 1990s, largely on the strength of increases in computer science baccalaureates (National Science Board 2002 and table 2-8 text table).

The annual output of S&E bachelor's degrees rose steadily from 303,800 in 1977 to about 398,600 in 2000; they represented approximately one-third of baccalaureates over the entire period. However, these consistent trends mask considerable variations among fields (figure 2-11 figure). The number of earned degrees in engineering and computer sciences grew sharply in the early 1980s, peaked in 1986, and then dropped precipitously before leveling off in the 1990s. In the 1990s, degrees in biological and agricultural sciences and psychology began a steady increase. By 1992, the number of psychology degrees surpassed the number earned in engineering, and, in 1997, biological and agricultural sciences surpassed engineering as well. After 1997, degrees in engineering began to decline further, but those in computer sciences increased sharply, almost reaching their mid-1980s level by 2000 (appendix table 2-22 Microsoft Excel icon).

Trends in earned degrees in broad fields can mask differences among subfields. For example, within the decline in physical sciences in the 1990s, degrees in chemistry actually increased. Similarly, declines in social sciences masked divergent trends; degrees in sociology continued to increase, whereas those in economics declined from their peak in the early 1990s (NSF/SRS 2002).

Innovations in Undergraduate S&E Education

Concerns about the growing need for scientifically trained workers and scientifically literate citizens have prompted the higher education community to examine the quality of the undergraduate experience and explore new approaches. Several recent studies called for reform (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2002; National Research Council 2002, 2003a, and 2003b; and Project Kaleidoscope 2002). These studies have common themes, including urging S&E educators to move toward more interdisciplinary education and more fully incorporate mathematical approaches; giving students experience in retrieving and manipulating large databases; exploring the use of electronic delivery; involving students in dialogue about their study topics; and providing research experiences early in students' academic careers, both in regular classroom settings and as part of a research team external to the classroom laboratory. The sidebar "Bioinformatics" describes how these changes are being manifested in life sciences.

Innovations are also under way to improve teaching, both at the undergraduate level and in K–12. Science funding agencies and professional societies support faculty to design, test, and improve computer-driven classes. The Federal Government has developed repositories of teaching materials, such as the Department of Education's Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education and NSF's National Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Digital Library. Programs that recognize and reward outstanding teachers and scholars highlight the value of integrating research and education during the undergraduate years.[8] Other programs recognize mentoring efforts that have increased the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in S&E.[9]

The need to improve K–12 teacher preparation in S&E has been widely noted (see chapter 1 and National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century 2000). The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching was established in 1983 to recognize outstanding teachers from each state. More recently, the Math and Science Partnership program, initiated in 2002, is designing ways to link institutions of higher education and local school districts to improve student achievement and teacher training. The sidebar "Meeting the Challenge of Teacher Preparation" notes some initial results of various programs that are under way to foster collaboration between S&E faculty and schools of education to improve teacher preparation. These efforts, although promising, are unlikely to solve this national need alone.

S&E Bachelor's Degrees by Sex

Women have outnumbered men in undergraduate education for several decades and earned 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees in 2000. Because men are more likely to choose S&E majors, however, they earned half of the total S&E bachelor's degrees in that year. About 37 percent of the bachelor's degrees earned by men were in S&E fields, compared with 28 percent for women. The female share was a slight increase from 25 percent in the late 1970s; the male share was a decline from 40 percent.

Within S&E, men and women tend to study different fields. Men earned most of the bachelor's degrees in engineering, computer science, and physical science fields (79, 72, and 59 percent, respectively). Women earned 77 percent of the bachelor's degrees in psychology, 59 percent in biological sciences, 54 percent in social sciences, and 48 percent in mathematics (appendix table 2-22 Microsoft Excel icon and figure 2-12 figure).

S&E Bachelor's Degrees by Race/Ethnicity

In the past 2 decades, the racial/ethnic composition of those earning S&E bachelor's degrees changed, reflecting both population growth and increasing college attendance by members of minority groups. Between 1977 and 2000, the proportion of S&E degrees awarded to Asian/Pacific Islanders increased from 2 to 9 percent, and the proportion awarded to members of underrepresented minority groups grew from 9 to 16 percent (figure 2-13 figure). In contrast, the proportion of S&E bachelor's degrees earned by white students declined from 87 percent in 1977 to 68 percent in 2000.[10] During the 1990s, the number of degrees earned by white students decreased in all S&E fields except computer, biological, and agricultural sciences and psychology.

In the 1990s, race/ethnicity trends in degrees earned differed by S&E field. American Asian/Pacific Islanders increased their share of degrees in all S&E fields (except mathematics), particularly computer, biological, and physical sciences and engineering. Blacks had slight increases in overall S&E degrees in the past 2 decades but had the strongest growth in biological and computer sciences, psychology, and engineering technologies. Hispanics had strong increases (but from a low base), especially in computer and biological sciences and psychology. American Indian/Alaskan Natives earned an increasing number of S&E degrees, but their total number of S&E bachelor's degrees in 2000 barely exceeded 2,600 (appendix table 2-23 Microsoft Excel icon).

Despite considerable progress for underrepresented minority groups between 1990 and 2000 in earning bachelor's degrees, the gap in educational attainment between minorities and whites continues to be wide, especially in S&E fields. In 2000, the ratio of college degrees earned by members of these groups was 17.9 per 100 24-year-olds, about half that of whites. Their ratio for NS&E degrees was even lower (table 2-8 text table). In contrast, Asian/Pacific Islanders have considerably higher-than-average achievement: 50.6 bachelor's degrees per 100 college-age population and 15.6 NS&E degrees per 100 college-age population in 2000.

Bachelor's Degrees by Citizenship

Foreign students in the United States earned a small share (3.8 percent) of S&E degrees at the bachelor's level (appendix table 2-23 Microsoft Excel icon). Trends in degrees earned by foreign students in the 1990s showed increases in the number of bachelor's degrees in social sciences and psychology, fluctuating and declining numbers in physical sciences and engineering, and relatively stable numbers in computer sciences, with an upturn in 2000. Foreign students in U.S. institutions earned approximately 7-8 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer sciences and engineering (appendix table 2-23 Microsoft Excel icon).

S&E Master's Degrees top of page

Master's degrees in S&E fields increased from 63,800 in 1977 to 95,700 in 2000. The long-term growth peaked in 1995, then leveled off (except in computer sciences), and rose again in 2000. The four most common major fields accounted for most of the growth: engineering, social sciences, computer sciences, and psychology (figure 2-14 figure). The mid-1990s decline in engineering master's degrees reflected enrollment declines for foreign students.

Research and doctorate-granting universities produced most of the master's degrees earned in engineering (87 percent), natural sciences (77 percent), and mathematics and computer sciences (68 percent) (figure 2-15 figure).

Master's Degrees by Sex

Since 1975, the number of S&E master's degrees earned by women has tripled, rising from 13,800 to 41,500 in 2000 (figure 2-16 figure). In addition to earning increasing numbers of degrees in both social sciences and psychology, which have historically had strong female representation, women showed strong growth in engineering and computer sciences (appendix table 2-24 Microsoft Excel icon). In contrast, the number of master's degrees that men earned grew only marginally, from 49,400 in 1975 to 54,200 in 2000. The most popular S&E master's degrees for men remain in engineering, social sciences, and computer sciences.

Master's Degrees by Race/Ethnicity

The proportion of S&E master's degrees earned by U.S. racial/ethnic minorities increased over the past 2 decades. Asian/Pacific Islanders accounted for 7.3 percent of master's degrees in 2000, up from 2.7 percent in 1977. Underrepresented minorities also registered gains, increasing from 5.9 to 10.1 percent during this period. The largest gains for underrepresented minorities were in engineering and physical sciences, both of which started from a very low base. Their percentage of master's degrees in engineering increased from 3.2 percent in 1977 to 6.1 percent in 2000; the corresponding figures in physical sciences were 3.4 and 6.3 percent (appendix table 2-25 Microsoft Excel icon).

Master's Degrees by Citizenship

S&E master's degrees increased more rapidly among foreign students than among underrepresented minority groups or all U.S. citizens (figure 2-17 figure), going from 7,800 in 1977 to 24,800 in 2000 (appendix table 2-25 Microsoft Excel icon). This pushed their share of these degrees from 12 to 26 percent over this period. Foreign students make up a much higher proportion of S&E degree recipients at the master's level than at lower levels of the system. Their degrees are heavily concentrated in computer sciences (representing 45 percent of master's degrees awarded in that field) and engineering (38 percent of engineering degrees awarded) (appendix table 2-25 Microsoft Excel icon). The increases among minorities and foreign students, along with a decline in the number of U.S. white students, led to a fall in the white majority share of S&E master's degrees from 79 percent in 1977 to 52 percent in 2000 (figure 2-18 figure and appendix table 2-25 Microsoft Excel icon).[11]

New Directions in Master's Programs

Many institutions are revisiting the graduate education programs they offer, perhaps in response to the suggestions of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP 1995) report to better prepare students for professional opportunities beyond research or to the uneven value the degree is accorded in different S&E fields. Although a master's degree in engineering is highly valued and an increasingly popular degree in the United States and other countries, a master's degree in some science fields implies a lack of advancement to the doctoral level.

Discussions in recent years have focused on creation of degree programs that validate useful advanced training below the doctoral level. These discussions have led to new directions in graduate education, manifested in new types of master's degree programs and the proliferation of professional certificate programs. The new master's programs often stress interdisciplinary training for work in emerging S&E fields. (See sidebar, "Developments in Master's Degree Programs.") Professional certificate programs at the graduate level are typically amenable to distance delivery at corporate sites. These programs include a coherent set of courses for a specialty, such as engineering management.

S&E Doctoral Degrees top of page

America's leaders in S&E research and education, especially in the academic sector, are drawn heavily from doctorate holders. As occurs at the bachelor's and master's degree levels, trends toward increasing numbers of S&E degree recipients and increasing the proportion of women, minorities, and foreign students occur at the doctoral level.

The number of S&E doctorates conferred annually by U.S. universities fluctuated around 18,000–19,000 through the mid-1980s, reached a peak of 28,800 in 1998, and declined to 27,100 in 2001. The rise through 1998 largely reflected growth in the number of foreign U.S. degree recipients. The largest degree increases were in engineering, biological sciences, and, to a lesser extent, social and computer sciences (figure 2-19 figure). The post-1998 decline in earned doctorates reflects fewer degrees earned by both U.S. citizens and permanent residents (see "Doctoral Degrees by Citizenship").

Doctoral Degrees by Sex

Among U.S. citizens, the proportion of S&E doctoral degrees earned by women has risen considerably in the past 3 decades, reaching a record 44 percent in 2001 (appendix table 2-26 Microsoft Excel icon). Over this period, women made strong and uninterrupted gains, albeit from different bases, in all major field groups. However, as figure 2-20 figure shows, among total doctoral recipients, considerable differences by field continue, and the long-term trend of an increasing number of doctoral degrees earned by women may have begun to level off in 1999.

Doctoral Degrees by Race/Ethnicity

Although the proportion of S&E doctoral degrees earned by U.S. majority whites decreased in the past 2 decades, their number of S&E doctorates remained relatively stable, fluctuating between about 12,600 and 14,500 degrees annually. S&E doctoral degrees earned by whites reached 14,700 in 1995 and declined slightly each year since then, mainly in engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences (appendix table 2-27 Microsoft Excel icon). The slight drop in these degrees may reflect good employment opportunities in high-technology industries during this period. The share of all S&E doctoral degrees earned by white U.S. citizens and permanent residents decreased from 71 percent in 1977 to 50 percent in 2001. As a share of S&E degrees awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, it declined from 86 to 78 percent.

The proportion of doctoral degrees in S&E fields earned by U.S. underrepresented minorities increased slowly over the past 2 decades. Underrepresented minorities earned almost 1,550 S&E doctorates in 2001, accounting for 5.7 percent of the S&E doctoral degrees that year, up from 3.3 percent in 1977 (figure 2-21 figure). Their share of degrees earned by U.S. citizens and permanent residents rose from 4 to 9 percent over the period. Gains by all underrepresented groups contributed to this rise; the number of degrees earned by blacks doubled, by Hispanics more than tripled, and by American Indian/Alaskan Natives nearly tripled. However, all three groups showed declines after 1999 or 2000.

The largest gains were in social sciences and psychology. By 2001, the percentage of doctoral degrees earned by underrepresented minorities in psychology reached 11 percent, up from 5 percent in 1977; doctorates in social sciences increased from 5 percent in 1977 to 8 percent in 2001. Their number of engineering and computer science doctorates increased modestly throughout the 1990s but have decreased from highs reached in the late 1990s.

In the mid-1990s, doctoral degrees earned by Asian/Pacific Islanders who were citizens and permanent residents showed a steep increase. This increase mainly reflects the many Chinese doctoral students on temporary visas who shifted to permanent-resident status as a result of the 1992 Chinese Student Protection Act. The number of degrees earned by Asian/Pacific Islanders has since declined, representing a little more than 6 percent of the total in 2001.

Doctoral Degrees by Citizenship

Noncitizens account for most of the growth in U.S. S&E doctorates from the late 1980s through 2001 (figure 2-22 figure). The number of degrees earned by U.S. citizens rose from 13,700 in 1985 to 17,300 in 1998 and then declined to 16,100 in 2001; non-U.S.-citizen degrees rose from 5,100 to 9,600 over the period, pushing the foreign share upward from about 26 to 35 percent by 2001. The number of S&E doctorates awarded to noncitizens peaked in 1996, leveled off and declined until 1999, and then began rising again. During the 1985–2001 period, foreign students at U.S. universities earned close to 148,000 U.S. doctoral degrees in S&E fields (appendix table 2-28 Microsoft Excel icon).

Foreign students earned a larger proportion of degrees at the doctoral level than at any other degree level, more than one-third of all S&E doctoral degrees awarded. Their proportion in some fields was considerably higher: in 2001, foreign students earned 49 percent of doctoral degrees in mathematics and computer sciences and 56 percent in engineering (figure 2-23 figure). In particular subfields, foreign doctoral recipients were an even higher proportion of the total (e.g., 65 percent in electrical engineering) (NSF/SRS 2003b).

Doctoral Degrees by Time to Degree

Completing an S&E doctorate takes a long time, and time spent in school usually involves at least a short-term financial sacrifice. The time required to earn a degree affects the attractiveness of undertaking and persisting in doctoral study, which may, in turn, affect the number of doctorates and the quality of doctoral students.

The NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates tracks patterns and trends in the time it takes to earn an S&E doctorate. The survey measures time to degree in several ways. This section contains information about the median number of years between baccalaureate receipt and doctorate receipt and while registered in graduate school before doctorate completion (appendix table 2-29 Microsoft Excel icon).

Data on the time from baccalaureate to doctorate show increases for all fields until the mid-1990s, followed by decreases thereafter. Physical sciences had the shortest and social sciences the longest time to degree. In the mid-1990s, the median time to degree completion was nearly 8 years in physical sciences, almost 9 years in engineering and biological sciences, and around 11 years in social sciences. By 2001, time to degree in each of these fields (as measured by elapsed time from baccalaureate) had shortened considerably (figure 2-24 figure and appendix table 2-29 Microsoft Excel icon).

In registered time to degree, an increase occurred for all fields over time and persisted through the mid-1990s to 2000, with a slight shortening in several fields in 2001. Among S&E fields, in 2001, registered time to degree was shortest in physical sciences (6.4 years) and engineering (6.7 years) and longest in social sciences (8.2 years).

Postdocs top of page

During the 1990s, increasing numbers of new doctorate holders received appointments as postdoctoral fellows. These positions were originally conceived as temporary appointments to obtain further specialized training after receiving a doctorate, but not all positions characterized as postdocs fit this description. Universities employ most postdocs, although not always under that title.

In 2001, there were almost 43,000 doctorate holders with science, engineering, or health postdoc appointments at U.S. universities, with approximately 30,000 of those in biological sciences and medical and other life sciences (figure 2-25 figure) (NSF/SRS 2003a). More scientists have been taking such positions and, especially in life sciences, have been occupying them longer. According to data from NSF's Survey of Doctorate Recipients, before 1965, only 25 percent of all S&E doctorate holders ever had a postdoc appointment, and the average appointment lasted 20 months. In the cohort of students who graduated in 1989-91, however, 38 percent took postdoc appointments, with the average appointment lasting 29 months. These increases were most pronounced in biosciences (from 40 percent at 24 months in 1965 to 72 percent at 46 months in 1989–91) and physics (from 29 percent at 23 months in 1965 to 68 percent at 34 months in 1989–91) (chapter 3 and CPST 2003).

Data from the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering show that noncitizens account for much of the increase in the number of S&E postdocs (NSF/SRS 2003a). The number of foreign S&E postdocs (temporary residents) at U.S. universities increased from approximately 15,700 in 1991 to 24,600 in 2001. The number of U.S.-citizen and permanent-resident S&E postdocs at these institutions increased more modestly, from approximately 15,100 in 1991 to 18,400 in 2001 (figure 2-26 figure and appendix table 2-30 Microsoft Excel icon).

The S&E community has become increasingly concerned about the well-being of postdocs and the effects that more and longer postdoc positions have on the attractiveness of S&E careers. Postdoc positions are often viewed as undesirable. Postdocs are paid less than other doctoral degree recipients; in 2001, the median salary for postdocs 1–3 years after completing their doctorate across all S&E fields was $33,000, whereas the median salary of nonpostdocs was $62,000 (CPST 2003). In addition, these positions often lack health insurance, retirement benefits, access to grievance procedures, pay raises, and annual reviews. The sidebar "Recent Developments Affecting Postdocs" describes some efforts to address the status of postdocs.


[8]  For example, the NSF Director's Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Award, which further the participation of forefront S&E faculty in undergraduate education at research universities.

[9]  For example, the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

[10]  Because of omission of an other or unknown race/ethnicity category, these percentages do not total 100 percent; see appendix table 2-23 Microsoft Excel icon.

[11]  An increase of 4 percentage points also occurred in the number of degree recipients with other or unknown race/ethnicity.

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