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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering


The U.S. Higher Education System

Graduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees in the United States

International S&E Higher Education

The U.S. Higher Education System

Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is widely used in higher education research to characterize and control for differences in academic institutions. The 2005 version of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's basic classification scheme for colleges and universities is more complex than previous versions and includes subcategories, new names, and new criteria for categories. Academic institutions are categorized primarily on the basis of highest degree conferred, level of degree production, and research activity.* In this report, several categories have been aggregated for statistical purposes. The characteristics of those aggregated groups are as follows:

  • Doctorate-granting universities include institutions that award at least 20 doctoral degrees per year. They include three subgroups based on level of research activity: very high research activity (96 institutions), high research activity (103 institutions), and doctoral/research universities (84 institutions).
  • Master's colleges and universities include the 663 institutions that award at least 50 master's degrees and fewer than 20 doctoral degrees per year.
  • Baccalaureate colleges include the 767 institutions for which baccalaureate degrees represent at least 10% of all undergraduate degrees and that award fewer than 50 master's degrees or 20 doctoral degrees per year.
  • Associate's colleges include the 1,814 institutions in which all degrees are associate's degrees or bachelor's degrees account for less than 10% of all undergraduate degrees.
  • Special-focus institutions are the 806 institutions in which at least 75% of degrees are concentrated in a single field or a set of related fields.
  • Tribal colleges are the 32 colleges and universities that are members of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

*Research activity is based on two indices (aggregate level of research and per capita research activity) derived from a principal components analysis of data on R&D expenditures, S&E research staff, and field of doctoral degree. See for more information on the classification system and on the methodology used in defining the categories.
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Baccalaureate Origins of S&E Doctorate Recipients

Although baccalaureate colleges produce relatively small numbers of undergraduate S&E degree holders compared with doctorate- and master's-granting institutions, they are important contributors to producing future S&E doctorate recipients (NSF/SRS 2008). When adjusted by the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in all fields, baccalaureate colleges as a group yield more future S&E doctorates per hundred bachelor's degrees awarded than other types of institutions, except research universities. Private institutions, whether research universities or baccalaureate colleges, outperform public institutions in the proportion of their bachelor's degree recipients who go on to receive S&E doctorates. The number of 1997–2006 S&E doctorate recipients per hundred bachelor's degrees awarded in all fields 9 years earlier is higher among private research universities and a subset of baccalaureate schools, the Oberlin 50 liberal arts schools.* The Oberlin 50 colleges have a higher yield in the social and behavioral sciences and about the same yield in the natural sciences but a far lower yield in engineering than the private research universities. In engineering, the research universities, both public and private, yield more future doctorates than either public or private baccalaureate colleges. The yield of future doctorate recipients is only partly related to the range of fields that the various types of institutions offer. Research institutions (both public and private) and the Oberlin 50 schools award more than half of their bachelor's degrees in S&E fields. Baccalaureate and master's institutions (both public and private) award approximately one-third of their bachelor's degrees in S&E fields.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are important baccalaureate-origin institutions of black S&E doctorate recipients. In 2006, about one-third of black S&E doctorate recipients received their baccalaureate degrees from HBCUs. When the data were adjusted for the number of bachelor's degrees awarded, HBCUs as a group yielded about as many future S&E doctorates per thousand bachelor's degrees awarded as non-HBCU institutions. The Oberlin 50 colleges and the private research universities yielded the most S&E doctorate recipients per thousand black recipients of bachelor's degrees, but private HBCUs as a group have a yield similar to private baccalaureate colleges and public research universities. Similarly, Hispanic-serving institutions are important baccalaureate-origin institutions of Hispanic S&E doctorate-recipients. Because few tribal colleges or universities award bachelor's degrees in S&E, tribal colleges are not a major source of American Indian S&E doctorate recipients (NSF/SRS 2009d).

*The Oberlin 50 institutions are Albion College, Alma College, Amherst College, Antioch University, Barnard College, Bates College, Beloit College, Bowdoin College, Bryn Mawr College, Bucknell University, Carleton College, Colgate University, Colorado College, Davidson College, Denison University, DePauw University, Earlham College, Franklin and Marshall College, Grinnell College, Hamilton College, Hampton University, Harvey Mudd College, Haverford College, College of the Holy Cross, Hope College, Kalamazoo College, Kenyon College, Lafayette College, Macalester College, Manhattan College, Middlebury College, Mount Holyoke College, Oberlin College, Occidental College, Ohio Wesleyan University, Pomona College, Reed College, Smith College, St. Olaf College, Swarthmore College, Trinity College (CT), Union College (NY), Vassar College, Wabash College, Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, Wheaton College (IL), Whitman College, Williams College, and College of Wooster. Two of these institutions (Hampton University and Manhattan College) are now Carnegie master's-granting institutions.
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Graduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees in the United States

Interdisciplinary Dissertation Research

One indicator of interdisciplinary research is the number of doctorate recipients reporting two or more dissertation fields. A recent analysis from the Survey of Earned Doctorates shows that during the period 2004–07, the share of doctorate recipients reporting more than one dissertation research field fluctuated between 28% and 30% (NSF/SRS 2009a).

The report found that interdisciplinary research at the dissertation research level occurred mostly within the same knowledge domain, whether science (80.2%), engineering (58.5%), or non-science and engineering (non-S&E, 69.3%). Respondents who reported a primary dissertation field in the sciences most frequently reported a secondary research field within the same broad field in the sciences. However, this varied considerably by field of primary dissertation research, from the biological sciences (81.2%) to computer sciences (11.2%). About half of the doctorate recipients who reported a primary dissertation research field in the earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; the physical sciences; psychology; or the social sciences reported a secondary dissertation research field within the same broad field. The biological sciences were also the most frequent secondary dissertation research field across all the other sciences except the social sciences.

About 29% of mathematics and 11% of computer sciences doctorate holders listed a secondary field within the same respective major field. Dissertations in which the primary research field was computer sciences most frequently had engineering (24.9%) or a non-S&E field (20.1%) as the secondary dissertation research field. Dissertations with mathematics as the primary research field most often had biological sciences (24.6%) or engineering (11.7%) as the secondary field.

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Professional Science Master's Degrees

Partially in response to the call for more realistic programs to serve the nation's S&E needs and students' professional goals, a number of universities have developed Professional Science Master's (PSM) programs (CGS 2008d; Colwell 2009; NAS 2008; NPSMA 2009). These programs are designed to prepare people to work primarily in nonacademic sectors as laboratory administrators or project directors in, for example, large government or industrial laboratories or in small startup companies. They serve people who need advanced technical training (beyond the bachelor's degree) within an S&E field combined with knowledge of and skills in business fundamentals, management, team building, and communication. Prospective students include people already working as S&E professionals and others who feel the "strictly research" approach does not appeal to them. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5) includes funds specifically for support of such programs.*

Starting from a handful of PSM programs in 1997, there are now more than 125 such programs in more than 60 institutions in 25 states and the District of Columbia in disciplines such as mathematics, physics, biological sciences, computational science, forensics, chemistry, and geographical information systems. Most PSM programs are interdisciplinary in nature. About 2,500 students are enrolled annually, and these numbers are increasing. Student enrollment is highest in the biological sciences and biotechnology disciplines. More than 2,100 PSM students have graduated thus far, and 65% of these graduates have found employment in industry or government (NPSMA 2009). Many PSM programs were initiated with startup funds from the Sloan Foundation and the Council of Graduate Schools with the intent that they become self-supporting as their value to industry and their students' professional aspirations become apparent. Also of note are the growing number of such programs abroad, as other nations see the value of preparing an S&E-trained managerial workforce, and the growing interest in them of professional societies and journals (CGS 2008a; Teitelbaum and Cox 2007).

*See the Joint Explanatory Statement—Division A of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,, accessed 12 June 2009.
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Doctoral Completion and Attrition

An ongoing study by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS 2008c) collected data on doctoral completion and attrition of doctoral students from the 1992–93 academic year to the 2003–04 academic year from about 30 academic institutions for 5 broad fields: engineering, mathematics and physical sciences, the life sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. The study, which focused on 10-year completion and attrition rates, revealed that 57% of doctoral students complete their degrees within 10 years (and some are likely to complete after that). Completion rates varied by field, with higher percentages of students in engineering and the life sciences and lower percentages of students in mathematics and the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities completing within 10 years. Ten-year completion rates varied by subdisciplines within the broader disciplines (e.g., within engineering, 10-year completion rates were higher for civil engineering and lower for electrical engineering) and also differed between men and women and among racial and ethnic groups. Ten-year completion rates were higher for men than for women in most fields (except the social sciences and humanities) and were higher for whites than for all other racial/ethnic groups (CGS 2008b).

Exit surveys of doctorate completers conducted as part of the study found that financial support, mentoring/advising, and family (nonfinancial) support headed the factors reported as influencing doctorate completion, with more than half of the respondents reporting each of these as factors in their ability to complete their doctoral programs. The relative prevalence of these factors varied by field, although differences by broad field of study may reflect differences in the demographics of students in the fields (CGS 2009).

The study found that most students who leave doctoral programs leave within the first 4 years. Attrition rates have improved over time, with rates of attrition lower for later cohorts than for earlier cohorts of students. Attrition was highest in mathematics and the physical sciences (CGS 2008a).

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International S&E Higher Education

Globalization and Doctoral Education

With increasing student flows and increasing transnational university partnerships and agreements, doctoral education is becoming more global in nature. In addition, doctoral education in many countries around the world is being shaped by common forces in common ways. Globalization of the economy, shifts to a knowledge-based economy, and various policy efforts are transforming doctoral education around the world. Nerad and Heggelund (2008) identified several key interrelated dimensions of these global trends in doctoral education:

  • Across countries, doctoral education is increasingly seen as a commodity with a measurable economic value.
  • The market economy is demanding skills in addition to technical skills, that is, skills such as communication, leadership, and team work, which are increasingly being incorporated into graduate curricula. Private institutions and for-profit institutions are arising where only public institutions used to prevail, and tuition is being charged in countries in which education used to be free.
  • Research has shifted from individual curiosity-driven research to team research on marketable projects, and research has become more collaborative and interdisciplinary.
  • Developing countries are losing their doctoral students to more developed countries through "brain drain."
  • Doctoral education around the world is increasingly conducted in English, and scholarly papers are written in English.
  • Doctoral education is becoming more standardized in terms of common definitions of degrees, common curricular elements, interdisciplinary training, ethics training, relationship between bachelor's degrees and doctorates, and length of time.
  • Universities are developing and applying quality assurance standards and assessment techniques to compete more effectively in the global marketplace, and new accreditation agencies are being developed.
  • The Bologna Accords in Europe are moving toward harmonization of doctoral education in terms of supervision, length of study, mobility across borders, and collaboration.

The nature of the individual university's responses to these changes and the extent to which universities and countries embrace or resist them vary.

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International Changes in the Ratio of Natural Science and Engineering Degrees to the College-Age Population

The ratio of natural sciences and engineering (NS&E) degrees to the college-age population is one measure of the technical skill level of those entering the workforce. Over time, the United States has fallen from one of the top countries in terms of its ratio of NS&E degrees to the college-age population to near the bottom of the 23 countries for which data are available. The ratios of first university degrees in NS&E to the college-age population increased substantially in recent decades in these 23 countries. In 1975, only Japan had a higher ratio than the United States of NS&E degrees per hundred 20–24-year-olds (the college-age population). By 1990, a few other countries/economies had surpassed the U.S. ratio, and by 2005 nearly all had done so. A recent NSF report (NSF/SRS 2009b) examined the relative influence on this ratio of increased university degree completion relative to the college-age population and NS&E degrees as an increasing share of all degrees. This study examined increases in the ratio of NS&E first university degrees to the college-age population in the United States and 22 other countries/economies for two periods: 1975–90 and 1990–2005.

The study found that the rising ratio of NS&E degrees to the college-age population in the locations compared with the United States can primarily be attributed to increased university degree completion, not to an increased emphasis on NS&E education; however, the relative importance of these components varies substantially by location. In both the 1975–90 and the 1990–2005 periods, the university degree completion component was either the only component or the larger component for the majority of countries/economies for which such data were available. That is not to say that increased emphasis on NS&E was not an important factor in some countries. The NS&E share component was either the only component or the larger component for five countries in the 1975–90 period but for no countries in the 1990–2005 period. In another eight countries in which the university degree completion component was larger, the NS&E share component and/or the interaction component was substantial in one or the other period.

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Changes in European Higher Education Since the Bologna Process

In 1999, 29 European countries, through the Bologna Declaration, initiated a system of reforms in higher education in Europe. The goal of the Bologna Process is to harmonize certain aspects of higher education within participating countries by the year 2010 so that degrees are comparable, credits are transferable, and students, teachers, and researchers can move freely from institution to institution across national borders. Its aim is to replace the varied degree programs in existence, which typically have taken 5 or more years to complete, with a standard 3-year bachelor's degree and a 2-year master's degree and with a standardized credit system. Implementation of these reforms has implications for graduate admissions to U.S. academic institutions: Will U.S. academic institutions see these 3-year bachelor's degrees as equivalent to U.S. 4-year bachelor's degrees? (IIE 2009). The Bologna Process is also stimulating discussion about reform of the U.S. higher education system (Adelman 2008).

By 2008, higher education reform in Europe had been extended to more than 45 countries, but it is still in process in many countries and in many fields, and the impact is still uncertain. Many countries have established regulations for reform, but implementation of changes is ongoing, particularly in some disciplines. In many European countries, law and medicine have not moved to the 2-cycle (bachelor's and master's) structure. One of the major difficulties countries are experiencing in the shift to the 2-cycle structure, particularly in law and medicine, is with the bachelor-level degree's relevance to the labor market (Huisman, Witte, and File 2006). In a few countries, the impact of the change on degree trends is already apparent. In 2001, Italy introduced a 3-year bachelor's degree in accordance with the Bologna guidelines, and the number of students completing an undergraduate degree has since increased, particularly from 2004 on (appendix table 2-36 ). In Germany, implementation was later, but evidence of the change is apparent in the number of first university degrees in 2006.


Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010