Higher Education Enrollment in the United States

Recent higher education enrollments reflect the expanding U.S. college-age population. This section examines trends in undergraduate and graduate enrollment by type of institution, field, and demographic characteristics. For information on enrollment rates of high school seniors, see "Transition to Higher Education" in chapter 1.

Overall Enrollment

Over the past two decades, enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher education rose fairly steadily from 12.7 million students in 1986 to 16.9 million in 2004 (appendix table 2-13Excel.), despite declines in the college-age population in the mid-1990s. More than 6 million students (about 38% of all students enrolled in higher education institutions in the United States) were enrolled in 2-year institutions in 2004. Research universities (doctorate-granting universities with very high research activity) and master’s-granting universities together accounted for another 37% of all students enrolled (6.2 million) (appendix table 2-13). (See sidebar "Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions" for definitions of the types of academic institutions.)

Enrollment in higher education is projected to increase in coming years because of increases in the college-age population (NCES 2005b). These projections are based primarily on population projections but also incorporate information about household income (a measure of ability to pay) and age-specific unemployment rates (a measure of opportunity costs).[6] According to Census Bureau projections, the number of college-age (ages 20–24) individuals is expected to grow from 20.8 million in 2005 to 26.3 million by 2050 (appendix table 2-14Excel.). Increased enrollment in higher education is projected to come mainly from minority groups, particularly Asians and Hispanics. From 2000 to 2050, the Asian and Hispanic college-age populations are projected to more than double, while the black and white non-Hispanic college-age populations are projected to rise by 48% and 0.5%, respectively (appendix table 2-14).

Undergraduate Enrollment in S&E

Freshmen Intentions to Major in S&E

Since 1972, the annual Survey of the American Freshman, National Norms, which is administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, asked freshmen at a large number of universities and colleges about their intended majors. The data provided a broadly accurate picture of degree fields several years later.[7] For at least the past two decades, about one-third of all freshmen planned to study S&E. In 2006, about one-third of white, black, Hispanic, and American Indian freshmen and 45% of Asian freshmen reported that they intended to major in S&E (figure 2-7figure.). The proportions planning to major in S&E were higher for men in every racial/ethnic group (appendix table 2-15Excel.). For most racial/ethnic groups, about 10%–16% planned to major in social/behavioral sciences, about 6%–8% in engineering, about 8%–10% in biological/agricultural sciences, 1%–2% in computer sciences, 2%–3% in physical sciences,[8] and 1% in mathematics or statistics. Higher proportions of Asian freshmen than of those from other racial/ethnic groups planned to major in biological/agricultural sciences (17%) and engineering (12%). The percentages of all freshmen intending to major in engineering or computer sciences dropped in recent years, while the percentage intending to major in biological/agricultural sciences increased.

The demographic composition of students planning S&E majors has become more diverse over time. Women constituted 39% of freshmen planning S&E majors in 1985, but this proportion rose to 47% in 2006. White students declined from 84% in 1985 to 72% in 2006. On the other hand, the proportion of Asian students increased from 4% to 12%, Hispanic students from 2% to 9%, and American Indian students from 1% to 2% (appendix table 2-16Excel.). Black students increased from 10% to 11% of freshmen intending to major in S&E.

Foreign Undergraduate Enrollment

The total number of foreign students (undergraduate, graduate, and other) enrolled in U.S. academic institutions held steady in 2005–06 after 2 consecutive years of decline. The number of foreign students in S&E fields dropped in 2005–06 for the second year in a row (figure 2-8figure.). Enrollment of new foreign students increased 5%, suggesting that total foreign enrollment is likely to increase in coming years. The number of foreign undergraduates decreased 1%, the fourth consecutive decline after record increases during the 1990s (IIE 2006). Decreases in foreign enrollments from 2001 through 2005 have been attributed to increased opportunity for higher education in the home country, competition from other countries for foreign students, rising U.S. tuition, and difficulties in obtaining U.S. visas (IIE 2005). Recently, adjustments to visa requirements made it easier for students to obtain visas, and their number increased. Declines in particular fields may also be due to declining job opportunities in those fields. Among all foreign students (undergraduate and graduate), the number of those studying the physical sciences dropped 4%, mathematics 5%, engineering 5%, and computer sciences 12% in 2005–06 compared with the preceding year. Other S&E fields experienced increases in foreign students; for example, agricultural sciences and biological and biomedical sciences each increased 5% and psychology increased 3% (IIE 2006).

South Korea (31,500), Japan (24,500), Canada (12,400), China (10,900), and India (10,600) accounted for the largest numbers of foreign undergraduates in the United States in April 2007 and were among the top countries sending foreign undergraduates in S&E fields (figure 2-9figure.; appendix table 2-17Excel.). Saudi Arabia and Nepal, which accounted for fewer total undergraduates in the United States, were also among the top countries sending foreign undergraduates in S&E fields.

Enrollment by Field

For the most part, undergraduate enrollment data are not available by field; however, annual data on engineering enrollment are available from the Engineering Workforce Commission, and the Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences compiles data on enrollment in mathematics and statistics every 5 years.

Engineering. Undergraduate engineering enrollment declined through most of the 1980s and 1990s, rose from 2000 through 2003, and declined slightly in recent years. Undergraduate engineering enrollment declined from 420,900 students in 1985 to about 361,400 students by 1999 before rebounding to about 422,000 in 2003. By 2005, it declined to 409,300 (figure 2-10figure.; appendix table 2-18Excel.). The declines in undergraduate engineering enrollment in recent years were evident for both men and women and for most racial/ethnic groups (NSF/SRS 2007a). Graduate engineering enrollment rose since the late 1990s, reaching a new peak of 147,900 in 2003, then declined to 139,800 in 2005 (figure 2-10; appendix table 2-19Excel.).

Mathematics and Statistics. Undergraduate enrollment in mathematics and statistics departments declined slightly between fall 2000 and fall 2005 in 4-year colleges and universities, and increased 26% in public 2-year colleges. More than half of student enrollment in mathematics courses in 2-year colleges is in precollege (or remedial) mathematics (Kirkman et al. 2007). The number of students taking precollege level courses (remedial courses) in mathematics at 4-year colleges and universities dropped from 261,000 in fall 1990 to 201,000 in fall 2005. During the same period, the number of students taking precollege level mathematics courses at 2-year colleges increased from 724,000 to 965,000 (table 2-4table.). The decline at 4-year institutions may reflect the policies of some states to move state-supported remedial education to 2-year institutions. Efforts are currently under way in at least 26 states to improve communication between high schools and colleges and to better align high school graduation standards to skills required for college entry (Cohen et al. 2006).

Graduate Enrollment in S&E

Graduate S&E educational institutions are a major source of both the high-skilled workers of the future and of the research needed for a knowledge-based economy. This section presents data on trends in graduate S&E enrollment, including trends in first-time enrollment of foreign students after September 11, 2001.

Enrollment by Field

S&E graduate enrollment in the United States reached a new peak of 583,200 in fall 2005. Following a long period of growth that began in the 1970s, graduate enrollment in S&E declined in the latter half of the 1990s but increased steadily since 1999 (appendix table 2-20Excel.). Growth occurred through 2005 in most major S&E fields, with two notable exceptions. In computer sciences, enrollment increased through 2002, and in engineering, through 2003. Enrollment in both areas then declined through 2005, with the decline attributable to foreign student enrollment. The number of full-time students enrolled for the first time in S&E graduate departments offers a good indicator of developing trends. The number of first-time full-time S&E graduate students also reached a new peak (110,400) in 2005. It declined in the mid-1990s in all major S&E fields but increased in most science fields through 2005 (appendix table 2-21Excel.). Growth was greatest in biological sciences, medical/other life sciences, and social and behavioral sciences. First-time full-time graduate enrollment declined in recent years in engineering; computer sciences; mathematics; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and agricultural sciences.

First-time full-time graduate enrollment, particularly in engineering and computer sciences, often follows trends in employment opportunities. When employment opportunities are plentiful, recent graduates often forego graduate school, but when employment opportunities are scarce, further training in graduate school may be perceived as a better option. Figure 2-11figure. shows trends in unemployment rates and first-time full-time graduate enrollment in engineering and computer sciences. Enrollment in S&E fields that offer fewer employment opportunities at the bachelor’s level (e.g., biological sciences) does not follow this trend.

Enrollment by Sex and Race/Ethnicity

The recent increase in S&E graduate enrollment overall occurred across all major U.S. citizen and permanent resident demographic groups: women, minorities, and white men. The number of women enrolling in graduate science programs increased for the past two decades except for a decline in computer sciences enrollment since 2002. In contrast, the number of male S&E graduate students declined from 1993 through the end of that decade before increasing in recent years (appendix table 2-20Excel.).

The long-term trend of women’s rising proportions in S&E fields also continued. Women made up 36% of S&E graduate students in 1985 and 49% in 2005, although large variations among fields persist. In 2005, women constituted the majority of graduate enrollment in psychology (76%), medical/other life sciences (78%), biological sciences (56%), and social sciences (54%). They constituted considerable proportions of graduate students in mathematics (37%), chemistry (40%), and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (46%). However, their percentage in computer sciences (25%) remains unchanged since 1985 and their percentages in engineering (22%) and physics (20%) remain low (appendix table 2-20Excel.).

The proportion of underrepresented minority (black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native) students in graduate S&E programs increased from about 6% in 1985 to about 11% in 2005.[9] Increases occurred in all major science fields and in engineering during that period (appendix table 2-22Excel.). In 2005, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives as a group made up 6%–7% of graduate enrollment in many S&E fields (engineering; mathematics; physical sciences; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and computer sciences), 8%–9% of graduate enrollment in agricultural and biological sciences, 14% in medical/other life sciences, 17% in social sciences, and 19% in psychology.

The number of white S&E graduate students decreased from 1994 to 2001 in most S&E fields and then increased through 2005, while the numbers of black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students increased steadily from 1985 through 2005 (figure 2-12figure.). The long-term rise in the numbers of black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native graduate students occurred in most S&E fields with the exceptions of engineering and mathematics. In those two fields, enrollment reached a plateau in the 1990s before rising again from 2000 through 2005. In computer sciences, enrollment of blacks and American Indians/Alaska Natives peaked in the early 2000s as it did for all other racial/ethnic groups, then declined (although Hispanic enrollment in computer sciences continued to rise). The number of Asian/Pacific Islander S&E graduate students increased every year since 1985 with the exception of 2000 and 2004. As was the case for all racial/ethnic groups, Asian enrollment in graduate engineering programs dropped in the mid-1990s, increased through 2003, then declined again. Asians/Pacific Islanders accounted for about 7% of S&E graduate enrollment in 2005 (appendix table 2-22Excel.).

Foreign Student Enrollment

Foreign graduate student enrollment in S&E grew from 79,900 in 1985 to 154,900 in 2003 before declining through 2005. Despite the decline, the number of foreign S&E graduate students in 2005 (146,700) was higher than in 2001. Foreign students increased from 20% to 25% of all S&E graduate students from 1985 to 2005 (appendix table 2-22Excel.). The concentration of foreign enrollment was highest in engineering (45%), computer sciences (43%), physical sciences (40%), and mathematics (37%).

First-time full-time enrollment of foreign S&E graduate students increased 4% in fall 2005, the first increase since September 11, 2001, although numbers remain below those of 2001 (appendix table 2-23Excel.). The number of first-time full-time foreign students declined 18% from 2001 through 2004. Declines were concentrated mainly in engineering (down 26%) and computer sciences (down 36%); these fields are heavily favored by foreign students. First-time full-time foreign enrollment increased 5% in biological sciences and 1% in medical/other life sciences from 2001 through 2004. Foreign students’ share of first-time full-time S&E graduate enrollment dropped from 35% in fall 2000 to 27% in fall 2005, with most of the decrease in computer sciences (from 71% to 56%) and engineering (61% to 51%) (appendix table 2-23).

According to data collected by the Institute of International Education, the overall number of foreign graduate students in all fields decreased 2% from academic year 2004–05 to 2005–06, with all of the decrease occurring among master’s degree students. The proportion of foreign master’s degree students decreased 5% and that of foreign doctoral students increased 6%. India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada are the top places of origin for foreign graduate students. More than half of all foreign graduate students are studying S&E. More recent data from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services show an increase in foreign graduate students from April 2006 to April 2007, with foreign enrollment in S&E fields growing 8% (appendix table 2-24Excel.). Most of the growth was in computer sciences (up 14%) and engineering (up 10%). In April 2007, India accounted for 66,500 foreign graduate students with 70% in S&E fields. China accounted for 48,300 foreign graduate students with 67% in S&E. In contrast, less than half of graduate students from South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada were studying S&E fields. Business accounts for large numbers of graduate students from South Korea and Taiwan, and education accounts for large numbers of graduate students from Canada.


[6] Based on previous projections, NCES has estimated that the mean absolute percentage error for bachelor's degrees projected 9 years out was 8.0.

[7] The number of S&E degrees awarded to a particular freshmen cohort is lower than the number of students reporting such intentions and reflects losses of students from S&E, gains of students from non-S&E fields after their freshman year, and general attrition from bachelor's degree programs. (See sidebar "Persistence, Retention, and Attainment in Higher Education and in S&E.")

[8] Physical sciences include earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.

[9] Data for racial/ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.

Right-click on image to save.