Chapter 2: Higher Education in Science and Engineering


Overall Trends in Enrollments and Degrees in U.S. Universities

Enrollment in U.S. higher education is projected to continue rising over the next decade because of increases in the U.S. college-age population.

  • Enrollment rose from 12.6 million in 1983 to 15.7 million in 2001.
  • The number of individuals between the ages of 20 and 24 in the U.S. population is projected to rise through about 2015, although the demographic composition will shift. The number of people ages 20 to 24 is projected to decline from 2015 to 2020.
  • Whites are projected to decline from 66% of the population mentioned above in 2000 to 58% by 2020, as the shares of Asians/Pacific Islanders and Hispanics increase from 4% to 6% and 15% to 22%, respectively. The percentages of blacks and American Indians/Alaska Natives are projected to remain at 14% and 1%, respectively.

The number of science and engineering degrees awarded at all levels is rising.

  • The numbers of S&E bachelor's and master's degrees reached new peaks of 415,600 and 99,200, respectively, in 2002.
  • The number of S&E doctoral degrees, after declining for 4 years, rose in 2003 for both U.S. citizens and temporary visa holders.

S&E bachelor's degrees have constituted about one-third of all baccalaureate degrees awarded for more than 20 years.

  • S&E bachelor's degrees made up 32% of all bachelor's degrees awarded in 1983 and in 2002, fluctuating between 30% and 34% in the intervening years.
  • Bachelor's degrees in the natural sciences (physical, life, environmental, and computer sciences, and mathematics) are about 12%, engineering baccalaureates are about 5%, and social/behavioral science baccalaureates are about 15% of all baccalaureates awarded.
  • Percentages of all bachelor's degrees earned in the natural sciences, engineering, and social/behavioral sciences have fluctuated very narrowly over the past 20 years, but with an increase in the percentage of bachelor's degrees in psychology (from 4% to 6%) and a decrease in the percentage in engineering (from 7% to 5%).

S&E graduate enrollment in the United States reached a new peak of 566,800 in 2003.

  • Following a long period of growth beginning in the 1970s, graduate enrollment in S&E declined in the latter half of the 1990s, but then rebounded in the past several years.
  • Graduate enrollment in engineering and in life sciences drove most of the recent growth, but enrollment did increase in all major science fields.

After dropping from 1998 through 2002, the number of S&E doctorates awarded overall increased in 2003. Most major S&E fields also saw increases.

  • U.S. citizens accounted for most of the decline between 1998 and 2002, but the number of permanent residents earning S&E doctorates also declined in this period.
  • Temporary residents accounted for most of the 2003 increase. The number of U.S. S&E doctorates earned by temporary residents increased by 9% from 2002 to 2003, and the number earned by U.S. citizens increased by 2%.

The number of doctorate recipients with S&E postdoctoral appointments at U.S. universities more than doubled in the past two decades.

  • Noncitizens account for most of the increase in S&E postdocs during the period.
  • Noncitizens accounted for 58% of S&E postdocs in 2003.
  • About two-thirds of S&E postdocs are in the biological/medical/other life sciences.

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Financial Support of S&E Graduate Students

The federal government was the primary source of support for about one-fifth of full-time S&E graduate students in 2003.

  • Federal support came mostly in the form of research assistantships (RAs), which accounted for 70% of federal support in 2003, up from 61% two decades earlier. The share of federally supported S&E graduate students receiving traineeships declined from 19% in 1983 to 12% in 2003.
  • Federal support reaches relatively more students in the physical sciences; earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences; agricultural sciences; biological sciences; and engineering. Relatively few students receive federal support in mathematics, computer sciences, social sciences, and psychology.
  • The proportion of full-time S&E graduate students funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rose to 30% in 2003, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded 24%. Support from the U.S. Department of Defense declined to 11% of full-time S&E graduate students.

Primary mechanisms of support differ widely by S&E field of study.

  • Full-time students in physical, agricultural, and biological sciences and engineering are supported mainly by RAs.
  • In mathematics, primary student support comes from teaching assistantships (TAs) and self-support.
  • Full-time graduate students in the social and behavioral sciences are mainly self-supporting or receive TAs.

About one-fourth of 2003 S&E doctorate recipients still owed money from their undergraduate education, and one-third owed money related to their graduate education.

  • The majority had no undergraduate debt (73%) or no graduate debt (66%).
  • High levels of educational debt were most associated with graduate education: 13% had more than $35,000 of graduate debt, but only 2% had similar amounts of undergraduate debt.
  • Levels of debt vary by field, with doctorate recipients in psychology, social sciences, agriculture, and medical/health sciences having higher levels of debt.

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Enrollment of and Degrees to Women and Underrepresented Minorities

Women earned more than half of all bachelor's degrees and S&E bachelor's degrees in 2002, but major variations persist among fields.

  • Women earned more than half of the degrees awarded in psychology (78%), biological/agricultural sciences (59%), and social sciences (55%), and almost half (47%) in mathematics.
  • However, women received 21% of bachelors degrees awarded in engineering, 27% in computer sciences, and 43% in physical sciences.

Underrepresented minorities (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives) do not enroll in or complete college at the same rate as whites. However, among those who do earn bachelor's degrees, similar percentages of underrepresented minorities and whites earn their degrees in S&E.

  • The percentages of blacks and Hispanics ages 25 to 29 in 2003 who completed bachelor's or higher degrees were 18% and 10%, respectively, compared with 34% for whites.
  • Among high school graduates, the percentages of blacks and Hispanics ages 25 to 29 in 2000 who had completed bachelor's or higher degrees stood at 21% and 15%, respectively, compared with 36% for whites.
  • About one-third of all bachelor's degrees earned by every racial/ethnic group, except Asians/Pacific Islanders, are in S&E. Asians/Pacific Islanders, as a group, earn almost half of their bachelor's degrees in S&E.

The recent increase in S&E graduate enrollment occurred across all major demographic groups: women, minorities, white men, and foreign students.

  • The number of women enrolling in S&E graduate programs has continued to increase for the past two decades (except for a decline in computer sciences in 2003).
  • The number of white S&E graduate students decreased from 1994 to 2000, then increased through 2003.
  • The number of underrepresented minority students enrolling in S&E graduate programs has increased each year since 1985.

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Enrollment of and Degrees to Foreign Students

Students in the United States on temporary visas earned a small share (4%) of S&E bachelor's degrees in 2002.

  • The number of S&E bachelor's degrees awarded to students on temporary visas increased over the past two decades from 14,100 in 1983 to 16,300 in 2002.
  • In 2002, these students earned 8% of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer sciences and 7% of those awarded in engineering.

Although total enrollment of foreign S&E graduate students continued to increase, first-time full-time enrollment declined in fall 2002 and fall 2003.

  • The number of S&E graduate students on temporary visas more than doubled between 1983 and 2003, rising from 19% to 27% of all graduate S&E students over that period.
  • The number of first-time full-time S&E graduate students with temporary visas declined 5% in fall 2002, the first full academic year since September 11, 2001, and declined another 8% in fall 2003.
  • These declines were concentrated mainly in engineering and in computer sciences; however, first-time full-time foreign enrollment increased in physical sciences and in psychology and remained stable in the other major science fields in 2003.

Students on temporary visas earned about one-third (32%) of all S&E doctorates awarded in the United States in 2003 (and more in some fields).

  • More than half (55%) of engineering doctorates were awarded to students on temporary visas.
  • Students on temporary visas earned 43%–44% of U.S. doctorates in mathematics, computer sciences, and agricultural sciences.

Historically, half or more of students on temporary visas have stayed in the United States immediately after degree conferral; however, this percentage has risen in recent years.

  • Although the number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by foreign students declined after 1996, the number of students who had firm plans to remain in the United States continued to increase through 2001, then declined slightly in 2002 and 2003.
  • In the period from 1992 to 1995, 68% of foreign S&E doctoral degree recipients stated they planned to remain in the United States after receiving their degrees. By 2000–03, 74% intended to stay in the United States.
  • Stay rates vary by place of origin, with relatively high percentages of S&E doctorate recipients from China and India and relatively low percentages of those from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, France, Italy, and Spain accepting firm offers for employment or postdoctoral research in the United States.

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Global S&E Education

Global competition for foreign students has increased in the past two decades.

  • The U.S. share of foreign students has declined in recent years, although the United States remains the predominant destination for foreign students, accounting for 40% of internationally mobile students in 2004.
  • The shares of Australia and the United Kingdom have increased, accounting for 6% and 18%, respectively, of foreign students enrolled worldwide. Germany and France also attract large numbers of foreign students, accounting for 15% and 12%, respectively, of internationally mobile students in 2004.

Worldwide, a number of countries are expanding doctoral S&E education.

  • About 78% of S&E doctorates worldwide were earned outside the United States.
  • The numbers of natural sciences and engineering (NS&E) doctoral degrees awarded in China, South Korea, and Japan have continued to rise.
  • In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the numbers of NS&E doctoral degrees leveled off or declined in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
National Science Board.