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
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 ).
Race/ethnicity trends in the number of associate's degrees earned
are shown in appendix
table 2-21 .
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
The proportion of computer science degrees earned by these students
has almost doubled since 1985.
S&E Bachelor's Degrees
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
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
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 ).
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
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 K12. 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.
Other programs recognize mentoring efforts that have increased the
participation of women and underrepresented minorities in S&E.
The need to improve K12 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
and figure 2-12
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
In contrast, the proportion of S&E bachelor's degrees earned
by white students declined from 87 percent in 1977 to 68 percent
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 ).
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
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 ).
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 ).
S&E Master's Degrees
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
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)
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
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
table 2-24 ).
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.
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 ).
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
going from 7,800 in 1977 to 24,800 in 2000 (appendix
table 2-25 ).
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)
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
table 2-25 ).
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
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
The number of S&E doctorates conferred annually by U.S. universities
fluctuated around 18,00019,000 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
The post-1998 decline in earned doctorates reflects fewer degrees
earned by both U.S. citizens and permanent residents (see "Doctoral
Degrees by Citizenship").
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 ).
Over this period, women made strong and uninterrupted gains, albeit
from different bases, in all major field groups. However, as 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
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
table 2-27 ).
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
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
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 19852001 period, foreign students at U.S. universities earned
close to 148,000 U.S. doctoral degrees in S&E fields (appendix
table 2-28 ).
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
In particular subfields, foreign doctoral recipients were an even
higher proportion of the total (e.g., 65 percent in electrical engineering)
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 ).
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
table 2-29 ).
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
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
(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 198991) and physics (from 29
percent at 23 months in 1965 to 68 percent at 34 months in 198991)
(chapter 3 and CPST
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
table 2-30 ).
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 13 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.