Higher education in S&E produces an educated S&E workforce and an informed citizenry. It has also been receiving increased attention as an important component of U.S. economic competitiveness. In his 24 February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama called for every American to commit to at least 1 year of education or career training after completing high school. A 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST 2012) notes that economic forecasts point to a need to increase the proportion of college graduates going into the natural sciences and engineering over the next decade. This section discusses the characteristics of U.S. higher education institutions providing S&E education and the financing of higher education.
The U.S. higher education system consists of a large number of diverse academic institutions that vary in their missions, learning environments, selectivity levels, religious affiliations, types of students served, types of degrees offered, and sectors (public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit) (Aud et al. 2010). There were approximately 4,700 postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States in the 2011–12 academic year. Of these, 63% offered bachelor’s or higher degrees, 30% offered only associate’s degrees, and 7% offered degrees that were at least 2-year but less than 4-year as the highest degree awarded. More than half of the 4-year institutions are private nonprofits, 23% are public, and 25% are private for-profits. The majority of 2-year degree-granting institutions are public (56%) or private for-profit (39%) (table
Doctorate-granting institutions with very high research activity, though few in number, are the leading producers of S&E degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. In 2011, these research institutions awarded 74% of doctoral degrees, 42% of master’s degrees, and 38% of bachelor’s degrees in S&E fields (appendix table
Baccalaureate colleges were the source of relatively few S&E bachelor’s degrees (12%) (appendix table
High Hispanic enrollment institutions (HHEs) and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) play an important role in training Hispanic and black U.S. citizens and permanent residents for doctoral-level study in S&E fields. Among Hispanic U.S. citizen and permanent resident S&E doctorate recipients who received their doctorates between 2007 and 2011, 29% had obtained their baccalaureate credential at an HHE (table
Minority-serving academic institutions enroll a substantial fraction of minority undergraduates (NSF/NCSES 2013a). In 2010, HBCUs awarded 19% of the 43,000 S&E bachelor’s degrees earned by black U.S. citizens and permanent residents; HHEs awarded about 30% of the 46,000 S&E bachelor’s degrees earned by Hispanic U.S. citizens and permanent residents. However, the percentages of blacks earning S&E bachelor’s degrees from HBCUs and of Hispanics earning S&E bachelor’s degrees from HHEs have declined since 2001. Tribal colleges, which mainly offer 2-year degrees, account for about 1% of S&E bachelor’s degrees to American Indians; this proportion has been fairly stable over time.
Community colleges (also known as public 2-year colleges or associate’s colleges) play a key role in increasing access to higher education for all citizens. These institutions serve diverse groups of students and offer a more affordable means of participating in postsecondary education. Community colleges are important in preparing students to enter the workforce with certificates or associate’s degrees or to
4-year colleges or universities. Community colleges tend to be closely connected with local businesses, community organizations, and government, so they can be more responsive to local workforce needs (NRC and NAE 2012).
In the 2011–12 academic year, there were nearly 1,000 community colleges in the United States, enrolling more than 7 million students, or about a third of all postsecondary students (NCES 2012). Six out of 10 community college students were enrolled part time. With the economic recession, enrollment in community colleges increased by about 800,000 students between 2007 and 2009 but slowed down in 2010 and declined slightly in 2011 as the labor market improved (Knapp, Kelly-Reid, and Ginder 2009, 2011).
Community colleges play a significant role in the education of individuals who go on to acquire advanced S&E credentials. Among U.S. citizen and permanent resident S&E doctorate holders who received their doctorates between 2007 and 2011, nearly 20% indicated that they had earned college credit from a community or 2-year college (table
In 2010, female S&E bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients were more likely to have attended a community college than their male counterparts (table
In 2011, about 3,400 higher education institutions in the United States operated on a for-profit basis. Nearly half of these institutions offer only less-than-2-year programs, and about 4 out of 10 are degree-granting institutions. Two-year, for-profit institutions enroll considerably fewer students than community colleges. Over the last 12 years, however, the number of for-profit institutions has grown rapidly, and the number of degrees they award has more than tripled (NCES 2012; appendix table
In 2011, for-profit academic institutions awarded between 2% and 6% of S&E degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels, as well as 33% of S&E degrees at the associate’s level (appendix tables
Online education and distance education enable institutions of higher education to reach a wider audience by expanding access for students in remote geographic locations and providing greater flexibility for students who face time constraints, physical impairments, responsibility to care for dependents, and similar challenges. Online education is a relatively new phenomenon, and online enrollment has grown substantially in recent years. In 2011–12, about 62% of 2- and 4-year Title IV institutions (i.e., institutions that participate in federal financial aid programs) offered some distance education opportunities to their students (table
More recently, changes in the online education landscape have accelerated with the appearance of massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs can provide broad access to higher education. Through their online platforms, they also have the potential to collect massive amounts of information that can be used to conduct experimental research on how people learn and to identify online practices that improve learning (U.S. Department of Education 2013).
MOOCs originated when a Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun, and the director of research at Google, Peter Norvig, opened admission to their course on artificial intelligence in fall 2011. Until then, enrollment was typically 200 students. When free online access was offered, 160,000 students from 190 countries registered for the class, and about 23,000 completed it. Previous efforts by academic institutions, such as the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University and OpenCourseWare at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had included online courses for public access; however, the Stanford class also allowed students to take quizzes, submit homework, and attend virtual office hours. In the wake of the popular response to this class, other selective universities have collaborated in joint ventures (e.g., Udacity, Coursera, edX) to offer free versions of their courses online, reaching large populations of students around the world. These companies are growing rapidly, adding new courses and students, and increasing the number of university partners in the United States and abroad (Lewin 2013). In fall 2012, edX and Udacity gave students the option of paying a small fee to take a proctored final exam that will validate their learning (Parry 2012). In February 2013, the American Council on Education approved five Coursera courses for college credit (Kolowich 2013). It is not clear whether colleges will generally be willing to grant credit for those courses.
Changing modes of online education are prompting questions about how the use of this technology will affect the higher education sector. In particular, it is not yet clear how many students can sustain commitment to learning in the absence of more personal contact and to what extent the growing access to higher education facilitated by MOOCs will translate into learning and, in the long run, to higher levels of educational achievement.
Higher education spending and revenue patterns changed substantially over the last two decades, in trends that intensified during the economic downturn of the late 2000s. Although all types of higher education institutions faced competing demands in a stringent budget environment, each type faced unique challenges. Increases in the number of students seeking an affordable college education compounded the challenges created by tight budgets. This section shows trends in inflation-adjusted average spending and revenue per full-time equivalent (FTE) student from 1987 to 2010, based on data from the Delta Cost Project.
Net tuition and federal appropriations, grants, and contracts are the largest sources of revenues centrally involved with education for both public and private very high research institutions (appendix table
State and local appropriations for public very high research universities have declined since 1987, with a particularly steep drop between 2007 and 2010 (figure
Revenue from federal appropriations, grants, and contracts, the source used for most research expenditures, is highest at the most research-intensive universities (appendix table
Research and instruction are the two largest core education expenditures at both public and private very high research universities. Between 1987 and 2010, research expenditures increased substantially at both types of institutions—by 89% at the private universities and by 79% at their public counterparts (figure
Instructional spending per FTE followed a pattern similar to that of research expenditures. It was much higher at private very high research institutions than at their public counterparts, and it also increased at a higher rate. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, instructional spending at private very high research universities was slightly more than double that of the public ones. By the mid-2000s, it was more than triple (figure
Most other expenditures also increased at both types of very high research institutions; however, at the public ones, spending on plant operation and maintenance declined from 2007 to 2010, with a sharp drop in 2010 (appendix table
From 1987 to 2010, state and local appropriations and net student tuition were the largest sources of revenues centrally involved with education at other public institutions offering 4-year and graduate degrees (appendix table
Spending on instruction at these institutions has been at least three times as high as almost all the other standard expense categories. It increased from an average of $5,800 per FTE in 1987 to $6,800 per FTE in 2010 (appendix table
Both revenues and expenditures are much lower for community colleges than for other public institutions of higher education. As in these other institutions, the main sources of revenue at community colleges are state and local appropriations and net student tuition (appendix table
Between 1987 and 2010, revenues from state and local appropriations at community colleges decreased from an average of $6,800 per FTE to $5,600 per FTE, with a steep drop from 2007 to 2010 (figure
At community colleges, instruction is by far the largest expenditure (appendix table
Between 1987 and 2010, revenues from state and local appropriations and net tuition, the main two revenue sources at public institutions, grew less at community colleges than at the other two types of public institutions. In community colleges, these two revenue sources combined increased by 6% during this period, lower than the comparable increases at the public 4-year and other graduate institutions (14%) and the very high research institutions (11%). However, trends in these individual revenue sources were substantially different. States and localities cut funding for all three categories of institutions, but the reduction was smaller in the community colleges (18%) than in the very high research public institutions (28%) and the 4-year and other graduate public institutions (27%). Unlike the community colleges, though, the other two types of public institutions were able to increase revenues from net tuition. FTE net tuition revenues increased by 143% at the public very high research universities and by 136% at the 4-year and other graduate public institutions, compared with 104% at community colleges (appendix table
Expenditures for instruction followed a different pattern. They rose most rapidly at the very high research institutions (30%), where there was pressure to keep faculty salaries (a major component of instructional expenses) competitive with those of their private counterparts, which spent more on instruction to begin with and were increasing these expenses at an even more rapid rate (79%) (appendix table
In recent years, universities have been under pressure to improve the way they monitor and manage their performance and are attempting to contain costs without compromising quality or accessibility. In May 2012, the National Research Council released a report titled “Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education” (NRC 2012a), which examined key issues regarding the measurement of productivity (for a summary of the panel’s conclusions and recommendations, see sidebar, “Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education”).
Affordability and access to U.S. higher education institutions are continuing concerns (NCPPHE 2008; NRC 2012a). Estimated average net tuition and fees (i.e., the published prices minus grant aid and tax benefits) paid by full-time undergraduate students in public 4-year colleges declined from 2007–08 to 2009–10 and in their private counterparts from 2007–08 to 2010–11 because of unusually large increases in grant aid and tax credits. However, since then, net tuition and fees have increased at both public and private nonprofit institutions. At public 2-year colleges, net tuition and fees followed a similar pattern, but since 2008–09, the average student enrolled full time has received enough funding through federal tax benefits and grant aid from all sources to cover other expenses, in addition to tuition and fees (–$1,220 net tuition in 2012–13) (table
For at least the past 10 years, tuition and fees for colleges and universities in the United States have grown rapidly (see section “Trends in Higher Education Expenditures and Revenues”), whereas real median household income declined 8.9% between 1999 and 2011 (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, and Smith 2012). Some evidence suggests that increases in net tuition and fees, however, have fallen disproportionately on households at higher levels in the income distribution, where financial aid is less readily available (College Board 2012a).
Financial Support for Undergraduate Education. With rising tuition, students increasingly rely on financial aid (particularly loans) to finance their education. Financial aid for undergraduate students comes mainly in the form of grants, student loans, and work-study. A financial aid package may contain one or more of these kinds of support. In the 2011–12 academic year, federal loans constituted 38% of the $185 billion in student aid that undergraduate students received, followed by federal grants (26%), institutional grants (18%), state grants (5%), private employer grants (4%), and federal work-study programs (1%) (College Board 2012b). According to the latest data available from the NCES National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a higher proportion of undergraduates in private for-profit institutions (96%) and in private nonprofit 4-year institutions (85%) than those in public 4-year (71%) or public 2-year (48%) institutions received some type of financial aid (Wei et al. 2009).
Undergraduate Debt. Among recent graduates with S&E bachelor’s degrees, the level of undergraduate debt does not vary much by undergraduate major (NSF/NCSES 2010); however, levels of debt vary by type of institution and state. Levels of undergraduate debt for students from public colleges and universities are almost as high as those for students from private colleges and universities. Nearly 6 out of 10 students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2010–11 from the public 4-year colleges where they began their studies graduated with debt, and their average total debt was $23,800. Among students who earned their bachelor’s from the private 4-year institutions where they began their studies, two-thirds graduated with debt, and their average total debt was $29,900. Students who attend private for-profit institutions are more likely to borrow, and to borrow larger amounts, than those who attend public and private nonprofit institutions (College Board 2012b).
Levels of debt varied widely by state. Average debt for 2011 graduates of public 4-year colleges and universities ranged from $16,317 in Utah to $32,385 in New Hampshire. Average debt for graduates of private nonprofit colleges and universities ranged from $18,614 in Utah to $34,017 in Connecticut (Reid and Cochrane 2012). Cost of living may account for some of the differences by state.
Financial Support for S&E Graduate Education. More than one-third of all S&E graduate students are primarily self-supporting; that is, they rely primarily on loans, their own funds, or family funds for financial support. The other approximately two-thirds receive primary financial support from a variety of sources, including the federal government, university sources, employers, nonprofit organizations, and foreign governments.
Support mechanisms include research assistantships (RAs), teaching assistantships (TAs), fellowships, and traineeships. Sources of funding include federal agency support, nonfederal support, and self-support. Nonfederal support includes state funds, particularly in the large public university systems; these funds are affected by the condition of overall state budgets. Most graduate students, especially those who pursue doctoral degrees, are supported by more than one source or mechanism during their time in graduate school, and some receive support from several different sources and mechanisms in any given academic year.
Other than self-support, over time RAs have been the most prevalent primary mechanism of financial support for full-time S&E graduate students (appendix table
Primary mechanisms of support differ widely by S&E field of study (figure
The federal government plays a substantial role in supporting S&E graduate students in some fields but a smaller role in others. Federal financial support for graduate education reaches a larger proportion of students in the biological sciences; the physical sciences; the earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and engineering. Lower proportions of students in computer sciences, mathematics, medical and other health sciences, psychology, and social sciences receive federal support (figure
The federal government was the primary source of financial support for 19% of full-time S&E graduate students in 2011, whereas 45% were supported by nonfederal sources (institutional, state or local government, other U.S. sources, or other non-U.S. sources) and 36% were self-supported (appendix table
For some mechanisms of support, the federal role is fairly large. In 2011, the federal government funded 61% of S&E graduate students who were on traineeships, 51% of those with RAs, and 24% of those with fellowships (appendix table
Most federal financial support for graduate education is in the form of RAs funded through grants to universities for academic research. RAs are the primary mechanism of support for 73% of federally supported full-time S&E graduate students. Fellowships and traineeships are the means of funding for 21% of the federally funded full-time S&E graduate students. For students supported through nonfederal sources in 2011, TAs were the most prominent mechanism (40%), followed by RAs (30%) (table
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NSF support most of the full-time S&E graduate students whose primary support comes from the federal government, followed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) (appendix table
For doctoral degree students, notable differences exist in primary support mechanisms by type of doctorate-granting institution (table
Notable differences also exist in primary support mechanisms for doctoral degree students by sex, race or ethnicity, and citizenship (appendix table
To some extent, the sex, citizenship, and racial and ethnic differences in types of support mechanisms are related to differences in field of study. White and Asian men, as well as foreign doctoral degree students, are more likely than white and Asian women and underrepresented minority doctoral degree students of both sexes to receive doctorates in engineering and physical sciences, fields largely supported by RAs. Women and underrepresented minorities are more likely than other groups to receive doctorates in social sciences and psychology, fields in which self-support is prevalent. However, differences in type of support by sex, race or ethnicity, or citizenship remain, even after accounting for doctoral field (NSF/NCSES 2000, NSB 2010).
Graduate Debt. At the time of doctoral degree conferral, 45% of S&E doctorate recipients have debt related to their undergraduate or graduate education. In 2011, 28% of S&E doctorate recipients reported having undergraduate debt, and 32% reported having graduate debt. For some, debt levels were high, especially for graduate debt: 5% reported more than $40,000 of undergraduate debt, and 7% reported more than $70,000 of graduate debt (appendix table
Levels of debt vary widely by doctoral field. A higher percentage of doctorate recipients in non-S&E fields (49%) than those in S&E fields (32%) reported graduate debt. In 2011, within S&E, high levels of graduate debt were most common among doctorate recipients in social sciences, psychology, and medical and other health sciences. The proportion of doctorate recipients in these fields who reported graduate debt has increased since 2001. Psychology doctorate recipients were most likely to report having graduate debt and also high levels of debt. In 2011, 24% of psychology doctoral degree recipients reported graduate debt of more than $70,000 (appendix table
Men and women differed little in level of undergraduate debt, but women were more likely to have accumulated more graduate debt. U.S. citizens and permanent residents accumulated more debt than temporary visa holders. Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indian and Alaska Natives had higher levels of graduate debt than whites, even accounting for differences in field of doctorate (NSF/NCSES 2012).