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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering

Undergraduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees in the United States

Undergraduate education in S&E courses prepares students majoring in S&E for the workforce. It also prepares nonmajors to become knowledgeable citizens with a basic understanding of science and mathematics concepts. This section includes indicators related to enrollment and intentions to major in S&E fields, the need for remediation at the college level, and recent trends in the number of earned degrees in S&E fields.

Curricular Reform

Research on how students learn, as well as concern for the number of young people entering S&E, have driven numerous efforts to improve instructional materials and practices and to assess the effectiveness of curricular reforms (Fortenberry et al. 2007; Lewis and Lewis 2008; Quitadamo et al. 2008). Education innovators in all S&E fields are examining problems in student learning and designing ways to address them through integration of disciplinary knowledge and education research.

Many of these newer methods involve more interaction between students and faculty, improved technology, teamwork, and applications to real-world problems (Brainard 2007). Although research indicates that many of the newer methods are effective in improving student understanding of the scientific process and fundamental concepts, they are not widely adopted. Universities and departments are often unaware of or resistant to new models of instruction, and strong incentives to improve teaching are often lacking (Brainard 2007).

Remedial Education

Remedial education (also known as developmental education) offers below-college-level courses or instruction to students who enter college without skills in reading, writing, or mathematics adequate for college-level courses. In recent years, state university systems have moved remedial education out of 4-year colleges and universities and into community colleges. In the 2003–04 academic year, about 29% of community college students had taken at least one remedial course in their first year of study (NCES 2008a), and nearly 60% of students take at least one remedial course at some point during their college education (Attewell et al. 2006). Mathematics was the most common remedial course taken in 2004 (NCES 2008a). Although more than half of students pass remedial writing and reading courses, less than half pass their remedial mathematics courses (Attewell et al. 2006). (For information on the relationship between achievement in science and mathematics courses and postsecondary remediation rates, see chapter 1, "Relationship of High School Courses Taken to Postsecondary Success.")

Some have recently begun to question the effectiveness of remedial education (Bailey 2009; Calcagno and Long 2008). Fewer than half of students in all remedial classes complete the required sequence of remedial courses and few of these students go on to college-level courses (Bailey 2009). States and individual colleges and universities lack consensus on the criteria and cutoff points used for assessing college readiness and on the best strategies to address poor skills. Efforts in some colleges are more effective than others. Although some students may make progress, they still may not reach college-level skills and knowledge. Various efforts have attempted to bridge the gaps in expectations between K–12 and higher education expectations for achievement (Cohen et al. 2006), and several states are currently developing initiatives to improve remedial education. Chapter 1, "Transition to Higher Education," provides more information on the transition from high school to college as well as information specifically on states' efforts to establish standards for transitioning into higher education.

Undergraduate Enrollment in the United States

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

Trends in Enrollment and Degrees in Light of Population and Economic Trends and World Events
Trends in the college-age population, economic trends, and world events have influenced recent trends in college enrollment and degrees. Population trends and, to a lesser extent, economic factors are also used in projections of future enrollment and degree trends. Undergraduate enrollment, S&E bachelor's degrees, and graduate S&E enrollment have generally risen over time at a faster rate than population growth, reflecting increases in the percentage of the population participating in higher education. The greatest gains in higher education relative to the population occurred in the 1980s (figure 2-1 ). The college-age (20–24-year-old) population in the United States declined through the mid-1990s, especially for whites (NSF/SRS 2007). Undergraduate enrollment in all fields and bachelor's degrees in some fields declined in that period, and graduate S&E enrollment and S&E doctoral degrees declined a few years later. In contrast to population trends, the economy has generally grown faster than higher education enrollment and degrees. That is, enrollment and degrees have generally declined over time relative to the U.S. economy as measured by gross domestic product (GDP). This pattern reverses, however, in economic recessions. Upturns in enrollment and degrees relative to GDP occurred during recession periods in 1973–75, 1980–82, 1990–91, and 2001 (figure 2-1). Finally, higher education enrollment and degrees are affected by world events in very specific ways. For example the dot-com bust in the early 2000s was followed by a precipitous decline in enrollment and degrees in computer sciences, and the 9/11 attacks on the United States were followed by a steep drop in international student enrollment through 2004. (See "S&E Bachelor's Degrees" and "Foreign Undergraduate Enrollment.")

Overall Enrollment
Enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher education at all levels rose from 14.5 million students in fall 1993 to 18.5 million in fall 2007 (appendix table 2-4 ). More than 7 million students (about 38% of all students enrolled in higher education institutions in the United States) were enrolled in associate's colleges in 2007. Research universities (doctorate-granting universities with very high research activity) accounted for 13% and master's-granting universities accounted for 22% of all students enrolled (appendix table 2-4). (See sidebar "Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions" for definitions of the types of academic institutions.) These trends are expected to continue in the near future.

Projections of High School Graduation and College Enrollment Trends
Because of increases in the population of 18-year-olds (rather than changes in graduation rates), the number of high school graduates is expected to increase through 2017, although at a lower rate than in the recent past. The number of high school graduates is projected to increase 6% between 2004–05 and 2017–18 to 3.3 million graduates. From 1992–93 to 2004–05, the number of high school graduates increased 25% (NCES 2008c). (See chapter 1 for more information on high school graduation rates, course taking, and transition from secondary to postsecondary education.)

Among public schools, the number of high school graduates is projected to increase 8% nationally, but large variations exist among the states, with increases projected in 27 states (mainly in the South and West) and the District of Columbia and decreases projected in 23 states (mainly in the Midwest and Northeast) (NCES 2008c). Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Texas, and Utah are projected to have the largest percentage increases. Louisiana, Maine, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont are projected to have the largest percentage decreases in public high school graduates.

Similarly, enrollment in higher education is projected to increase through 2017. 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).[1] According to Census Bureau projections, the number of college-age (ages 20–24) individuals is expected to grow from 21.8 million in 2010 to 28.2 million by 2050 (appendix table 2-5 ). From 2010 to 2050, Asians are projected to increase from 4% to 6% and Hispanics are projected to increase from 18% to 37% of the college-age population, whereas blacks are projected to decrease from 15% to 12% and whites are projected to decrease from 60% to 40% of the college-age population (NCES 2008c).

Largely because of these demographic changes, postsecondary enrollment is expected to increase 13%, to 20.1 million students, in 2017 (NCES 2008c). Increased enrollment in higher education is projected to come mainly from minority groups, particularly Hispanics. Enrollment of all racial/ethnic groups is projected to increase, but the percentage that is white is projected to decrease from 65% in 2006 to 61% in 2017, whereas the percentages that are black and Hispanic are projected to increase from 13% and 11%, respectively, to 14% for both groups. (For further information on assumptions underlying these projections, see "Projection Methodology" in Projections of Education Statistics to 2017 [NCES 2008c],, accessed 23 June 2009.)

Undergraduate Enrollment in S&E
Freshmen Intentions to Major in S&E. Since 1972, the annual Survey of the American Freshman, National Norms, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, has asked freshmen at a large number of universities and colleges about their intended majors.[2] The data provided a broadly accurate picture of degree fields several years later.[3] For at least the past two decades, about one-third of all freshmen planned to study S&E. In 2008, about one-third of white, black, Hispanic, and American Indian freshmen and 47% of Asian freshmen reported that they intended to major in S&E (figure 2-2 ). The proportions planning to major in S&E were higher for men than for women in every racial/ethnic group, with the exception of blacks. In 2007 and 2008, similar percentages of black men and black women planned to major in S&E (appendix table 2-6 ). For most racial/ethnic groups, about 10%–16% planned to major in social/behavioral sciences, about 6%–10% in engineering, about 8%–10% in biological/agricultural sciences, 1%–2% in computer sciences, 2%–3% in physical sciences,[4] 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 (18%) and engineering (14%). The percentage of all freshmen intending to major in computer sciences has dropped in recent years, whereas the percentage intending to major in biological/agricultural sciences has increased. (See appendix table 2-13 and "S&E Bachelor's Degrees" for trends in bachelor's degrees.) Generally, the percentages earning bachelor's degrees in particular S&E fields are similar to the percentages planning to major in those fields, with the exception of engineering and social/behavioral sciences. The percentage earning bachelor's degrees in engineering is smaller than, and the percentage earning bachelor's degrees in social/behavioral sciences is larger than, previous years' percentages planning to major in those fields. (See NSB 2008, pages 2-24 and 2-25, for a discussion of longitudinal data on undergraduate attrition in S&E.)

The demographic composition of students planning S&E majors has become more diverse over time. Women increased from 44% of freshmen planning S&E majors in 1993 to 47% in 2008. White students declined from 79% in 1993 to 69% in 2008. On the other hand, the proportion of Asian students increased from 6% to 12% and the proportion of Hispanic students increased from 4% to 12%. American Indian students were roughly 2% and black students were roughly 11% of freshmen intending to major in S&E in both 1993 and 2008 (appendix table 2-7 ).

Foreign Undergraduate Enrollment. The number of foreign students enrolled in bachelor's degree programs in U.S. academic institutions rose 5% in the 2007–08 academic year to approximately 178,000 (IIE 2008). The increase was the second in a row after 4 years of decline, but the number of foreign undergraduates in 2007–08 was still 7% below the peak in 2001–02. Among new foreign undergraduates, enrollment increased 7% in 2007–08, the fourth increase in a row, suggesting that enrollment increases are likely to continue. South Korea (almost 33,000), Japan (almost 21,000), China (16,500), Canada (13,600), and India (13,600) accounted for the largest numbers of foreign undergraduates in the United States in 2007–08. The number of Chinese undergraduates increased 65% over the previous year and the numbers of South Korean and Indian undergraduates increased 17% and 8%, respectively. Among all foreign students (undergraduate and graduate) in 2007–08, the number of those studying the physical and life sciences increased 2%; agricultural sciences, 20%; engineering, 7%; and computer sciences, 4%, compared with the preceding year (IIE 2008). The number of foreign students studying mathematics decreased 9%.

More recent data from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services show an 11% increase in undergraduate enrollment of foreign students in science and engineering from April 2008 to April 2009, mostly in engineering. South Korea, China, Japan, Canada, and India were among the top countries sending foreign undergraduates in spring 2009 and were also among the top countries sending foreign S&E undergraduates (figure 2-3 ; appendix table 2-8 ). Nepal and Saudi Arabia, which accounted for fewer total undergraduates in the United States, were also among the top countries sending foreign undergraduates in S&E fields, sending more than Canada and Japan.

Engineering Enrollment. For the most part, undergraduate enrollment data are not available by field. Students often do not declare majors until their sophomore year; thus, data by field would include a large proportion of missing data. However, because engineering programs generally require students to declare a major in the first year of college, engineering enrollment data can serve as early indicators of both future undergraduate engineering degrees and student interest in engineering careers. The Engineering Workforce Commission administers an annual fall survey that tracks enrollment in undergraduate and graduate engineering programs (EWC 2008).

Undergraduate engineering enrollment declined through most of the 1980s and 1990s, rose from 2000 to 2003, declined slightly through 2006, and rose to 431,900 in 2007 (figure 2-4 ; appendix table 2-9 ). The number of undergraduate engineering students in 2007 was the highest it has been since the early 1980s. Full-time freshman enrollment followed a similar pattern, reaching 110,600 in 2007, the highest since 1982. These trends correspond with declines in the college-age population through the mid-1990s, particularly the drop in white 20–24-year-olds, who account for the majority of engineering enrollment (NSF/SRS 2007). Similar trends in undergraduate engineering enrollment are reported by the American Society for Engineering Education (Gibbons 2008).

Undergraduate Degree Awards

The number of degrees awarded by U.S. academic institutions has been increasing over the past two decades both in S&E and non-S&E fields. These trends are expected to continue at least through 2017 (NCES 2008c).

S&E Associate's Degrees
Community colleges often are an important and relatively inexpensive gateway for students entering higher education. Associate's degrees, largely offered by 2-year programs at community colleges, are the terminal degree for some people, but others continue their education at 4-year colleges or universities and subsequently earn higher degrees.[5] Many who transfer to baccalaureate granting institutions do not earn associate's degrees before transferring. Associate's degrees in S&E and engineering technology accounted for about 11% of all associate's degrees in 2007 (appendix table 2-10 ).

S&E associate's degrees from all types of academic institutions rose from 23,400 in 1993 to 62,800 in 2003, before declining to 47,500 in 2007. Most of the increase through 2003, and the subsequent decrease, are attributable to computer sciences, which peaked in 2003. Associate's degrees earned in engineering technology (not included in S&E degree totals because of their applied focus) declined from more than 40,000 in the early 1990s to 30,100 in 2007 (appendix table 2-10 ).

Women earned 62% of all associate's degrees in 2007, up from 59% in 1993. They earned a smaller and decreasing share of associate's degrees in S&E: 39% in 2007, down from 48% in 1993. Most of the decline is attributable to a decrease in women's share of computer sciences degrees, from 51% in 1993 to 26% in 2007 (appendix table 2-10 ).

Students from underrepresented groups (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians) earn a higher proportion of associate's degrees than of bachelor's or more advanced degrees.[6] (See "S&E Bachelor's Degrees by Race/Ethnicity" and "Doctoral Degrees by Race/Ethnicity.") In 2007, they earned 27% of S&E associate's degrees, more than one-third of all associate's degrees in social and behavioral sciences, and more than one-quarter of all associate's degrees in biological sciences, computer sciences, and mathematics (appendix table 2-11 ). Since 1995, the number of S&E associate's degrees earned by these students doubled.

S&E Bachelor's Degrees
The baccalaureate is the most prevalent S&E degree, accounting for more than 70% of all S&E degrees awarded. S&E bachelor's degrees have consistently accounted for roughly one-third of all bachelor's degrees for the past 15 years. The number of S&E bachelor's degrees rose steadily from 366,000 in 1993 to 485,800 in 2007 (appendix table 2-12 ).

Trends in the number of S&E bachelor's degrees vary widely among fields (figure 2-5 ). The number of bachelor's degrees earned in social and behavioral sciences plateaued for much of the 1990s, before rising again through 2007. In engineering, mathematics, and physical sciences, the number of bachelor's degrees dropped in the late 1990s, but then rose through 2007. In computer sciences, the number of bachelor's degrees increased sharply from 1998 to 2004, then dropped sharply through 2007. Except for declines from 2000 to 2002, bachelor's degrees in biological sciences have been generally increasing, reaching a new peak in 2007 (appendix table 2-12 ).

S&E Bachelor's Degrees by Sex. Since 1982, women have outnumbered men in undergraduate education and have earned relatively constant fractions of all bachelor's and S&E bachelor's degrees for several years. Since 2002, women have earned about 58% of all bachelor's degrees; since 2000, they have earned about half of all S&E bachelor's degrees. Within S&E, men and women tend to study different fields. In 2007, men earned a majority of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering, computer sciences, and physics (81%, 81%, and 79%, respectively). Women earned half or more of bachelor's degrees in psychology (77%), agricultural sciences (50%), biological sciences (60%), chemistry (50%), and social sciences (54%) (appendix table 2-12 ).

Although gains in recent years have been more modest or nonexistent, the share of bachelor's degrees awarded to women in many major S&E fields has increased (except computer sciences and mathematics) over the past 15 years (figure 2-6 ). Among fields with notable increases in the proportion of bachelor's degrees awarded to women are earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (from 30% to 41%); agricultural sciences (from 37% to 50%); and chemistry (from 41% to 50%) (appendix table 2-12 ).

The number of bachelor's degrees awarded to women in S&E and in all fields rose from 1993 through 2007. In contrast, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to men in S&E and in all fields remained fairly flat in the 1990s but increased from 2001 through 2007.[7]

S&E Bachelor's Degrees by Race/Ethnicity. The racial/ethnic composition of S&E bachelor's degree recipients has changed over time, reflecting population changes and increasing college attendance by members of minority groups.[8] Between 1995 and 2007, the proportion of S&E degrees awarded to white students declined from 73% to 64% (appendix table 2-13 ). The proportion awarded to Asians/Pacific Islanders increased from 8% to 9%; to black students, from 7% to 8%; to Hispanic students, from 6% to 8%; and to American Indian/Alaska Native students, from 0.5% to 0.7%, although the shares to black and American Indian/Alaska Native students have remained fairly flat since 2000 (figure 2-7 ). The number of S&E bachelor's degrees earned by white students decreased in the 1990s as their numbers in the college-age population dropped but then rose again through 2007. The number of S&E bachelor's degrees earned by students of unknown race/ethnicity also increased (appendix table 2-13). (See sidebar "Increase in Student Nonreporting of Race/Ethnicity" in Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 [NSB 2008].)

Despite considerable progress over the past couple of decades for underrepresented minority groups earning bachelor's degrees in any field, the gap in educational attainment between young minorities and whites continues to be wide. The percentage of the population ages 25–29 with bachelor's or higher degrees was 20% for blacks, 12% for Hispanics, and 36% for whites in 2007, up from 12%, 9%, and 25%, respectively, in 1987 (NCES 2008a). Differences in completion of bachelor's degrees in S&E by race/ethnicity reflect differences in high school completion rates, college enrollment rates, and college persistence and attainment rates. In general, blacks and Hispanics are less likely than whites and Asians/Pacific Islanders to graduate from high school, to enroll in college, and to graduate from college. (For information on immediate post-high school college enrollment rates, see chapter 1, "Transition to Higher Education.") Among those who do enroll in or graduate from college, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives are about as likely as whites to choose S&E fields; Asians/Pacific Islanders are more likely than members of other racial/ethnic groups to choose these fields. For Asians/Pacific Islanders, almost half of all bachelor's degrees received are in S&E, compared with about one-third of all bachelor's degrees earned by each of the other racial/ethnic groups (appendix table 2-13 ).

The contrast in field distribution among whites, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives on the one hand and Asians/Pacific Islanders on the other is apparent within S&E fields as well. White, black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native S&E baccalaureate recipients share a similar distribution across broad S&E fields. In 2007, between 9% and 11% of all baccalaureate recipients in each of these racial/ethnic groups earned their degrees in the natural sciences,[9] 2% to 4% in engineering, and 15% to 18% in the social and behavioral sciences. Asian/Pacific Islander baccalaureate recipients earned 19% of their bachelor's degrees in natural sciences and 9% in engineering (appendix table 2-13 ).

For all racial/ethnic groups (except white), the total number of bachelor's degrees, the number of S&E bachelor's degrees, and the number of bachelor's degrees in most S&E fields (except computer sciences) has generally increased since 1995. For white students, the total number of bachelor's degrees, the number of S&E bachelor's degrees, and the number of bachelor's degrees in most S&E fields remained fairly flat from 1995 through 2001 but have increased since then (appendix table 2-13 ).

Bachelor's Degrees by Citizenship. Since 1995, students on temporary visas in the United States have consistently earned a small share (4%) of S&E degrees at the bachelor's level. These students earned 9% of bachelor's degrees awarded in economics in 2007 and about 10% of degrees awarded in electrical and industrial engineering. The number of S&E bachelor's degrees awarded to students on temporary visas increased from about 14,700 in 1995 to about 18,800 in 2004 before declining to 17,400 in 2007 (appendix table 2-13 ).


[1] Based on previous projections, NCES has estimated that the mean absolute percentage error for bachelor's degrees projected 9 years out was 8.0 (NCES 2008c).
[2] These data are from sample surveys and are subject to sampling error. Information on estimated standard errors can be found in appendix E of the annual report "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2008" published by The Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute, University of California–Los Angeles (, accessed 23 June 2009). Data reported here are significant at the .05 level.
[3] 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.
[4] The physical sciences include earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.
[5] About 17% of 2001 and 2002 S&E bachelor's degree recipients had previously earned an associate's degree (NSF/SRS 2006).
[6] Data for racial/ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.
[7] For longer trends in degrees, see the NSF report series "Science and Engineering Degrees,", accessed 12 June 2009. For more detail on enrollment and degrees by sex and by race/ethnicity, see Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2009 (NSF/SRS 2009d).
[8] Data for racial/ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.
[9] The natural sciences include agricultural; biological; computer; earth, atmospheric, and ocean; and physical sciences and mathematics.

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