Chapter Overview

The importance of higher education in S&E is increasingly recognized around the world for its impact on innovation and economic development. S&E higher education provides the advanced skills needed for a competitive workforce and, particularly in the case of graduate S&E education, the research necessary for innovation.[1]

A number of key influences shape the nature of U.S. S&E higher education and its standing in the world. In recent years, demographic trends and world events contributed to changes in both the numbers and types of students participating in U.S. higher education. After declining in the 1990s, the U.S. college-age population is currently increasing and is projected to increase for the next decade. The composition of the college-age population is also changing, with Asians and Hispanics becoming an increasing share of the population. Recent enrollment and degree trends, to some extent, reflect these changes. For example, graduate S&E enrollment and the number of S&E degrees at all levels are up, and the proportion of S&E degrees earned by minorities is increasing.

In the 1990s, the number of foreign students coming to the United States for higher education study, particularly from countries in Asia, increased substantially. Increases in foreign students contributed to most of the growth in overall S&E graduate enrollments in recent years. After September 11, 2001, the number of foreign students coming to the United States for graduate education dropped for several years, but these numbers increased in 2005 (although they have not yet regained earlier levels).

Finally, global competition in higher education is increasing. Although the United States has historically been a world leader in providing broad access to higher education and in attracting foreign students, many other countries are expanding their own higher education systems, providing expanded educational access to their own population, and attracting larger numbers of foreign students. The effects of these trends on foreign student enrollment in U.S. institutions remain to be seen.

Chapter Organization

This chapter describes characteristics of the U.S. higher education system as well as trends in higher education worldwide. It begins with characteristics of U.S. higher education institutions providing S&E education, including trends in tuition and fees, financial support, and debt levels. Trends in student involvement in higher education, including freshmen interest and enrollment in S&E fields, degree completions, and postdoctoral study are discussed along with trends by sex, race/ethnicity, and citizenship. The chapter highlights the flows of foreign students into the United States by country and their intentions to remain in this country. The chapter then presents various international higher education indicators, including comparative S&E degree production in several world regions and the growing dependence of all industrialized countries on foreign S&E students. Additional state data on tuition charges, enrollment, and degrees granted are available in chapter 8, State Indicators.


[1] New efforts to develop indicators of the linkage between human capital (e.g., degrees granted, size and flows of the scientific work force) and growth in high- and medium-high technology-intensive manufacturing industries are underway (Hansen et al. 2007). Preliminary results indicate a significant correlation between doctorates awarded in natural sciences and engineering per capita population and productivity (measured by patent applications per capita population) in high and medium-high technology-intensive manufacturing industries.

Right-click on image to save.