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.
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
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). 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
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. 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
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%
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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. Increases occurred in all major science fields and in engineering during that period
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
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
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
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%
 Based on previous projections, NCES has estimated that the mean absolute percentage error for bachelor's degrees projected 9 years out was 8.0.
 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.")
 Physical sciences include earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.
 Data for racial/ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.