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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 by type of institution, field, and demographic characteristics; intentions to major in S&E fields; and recent trends in the number of earned S&E degrees.

Undergraduate Enrollment in the United States

Overall Undergraduate Enrollment

Over the last 15 years, enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher education at all levels rose from 14.5 million students in fall 1996 to 21.3 million in fall 2011, with two main periods of high growth—between 2000 and 2002 and between 2007 and 2010, the two most recent recessionary periods. Undergraduate enrollment typically represents about 86% of all postsecondary enrollment (appendix table 2-14).

In 2011, for the first time since 1996, undergraduate enrollment declined slightly. As in previous years, the types of institutions enrolling the largest numbers of students at the undergraduate level were associate’s colleges (8.2 million, 45% of all students enrolled), master’s colleges/universities (3.8 million, 21%), and doctorate-granting universities with very high research activity (2.0 million, 11%). Between 1996 and 2011, undergraduate enrollment nearly doubled at doctoral/research universities and increased by 56% at associate’s colleges, 47% at master’s colleges, and 39% at baccalaureate colleges (appendix table 2-14). (See sidebar, “Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions,” for definitions of the types of academic institutions.)

According to the latest Census Bureau projections, the number of college-age individuals (ages 20–24) is expected to decline from 22.6 million in 2015 to 21.6 million in 2025 but increase in the longer term (to 25.3 million by 2060) (appendix table 2-15). The short-term decline in this segment of the population is mostly due to a drop in the number of whites who are not Hispanic, which is projected overall to continue to fall through 2060, and a decline in the population of blacks who are not Hispanic between 2015 and 2035. The populations of 20–24-year-old Hispanics and of Asians who are not Hispanic are expected to increase continuously between 2015 and 2060. The proportion of Hispanics in this age group is expected to grow from 22% in 2015 to 36% in 2060, and the proportion of Asians in this age group is expected to increase from 5% to 7%. Increased enrollment in higher education is projected to come mainly from minority groups, particularly Hispanics.[19]

Undergraduate Enrollment in S&E

Freshmen’s Intentions to Major in S&E. Since 1971, the annual The American Freshman: National Norms survey, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles, has asked freshmen at a large number of universities and colleges about their intended majors.[20] The data have proven to be a broadly accurate picture of trends in degree fields several years later.[21] Data show that up until 2007, about one-third of all freshmen planned to study S&E; this proportion gradually rose to 39% by 2012. Increases in the proportion of freshmen planning to major in biological and agricultural sciences account for most of this growth. In 2012, about 13% of freshmen intended to major in the biological and agricultural sciences and about 10% each in the social and behavioral sciences and engineering. About 3% each intended to major in physical sciences and mathematics, statistics, or computer sciences (appendix table 2-16).

In 2012, more than half of Asian American or Asian freshmen reported that they intended to major in S&E; proportions were lower for Hispanic or Latino freshmen (42%) and lower still for white (37%), black (36%), and American Indian or Alaska Native (33%) freshmen (figure 2-10). The proportions planning to major in S&E were higher for men than for women in every racial and ethnic group (appendix table 2-16). For most racial and ethnic groups, about 10% planned to major in social and behavioral sciences; about 8%–10% in engineering; about 12% in biological and agricultural sciences; 3% in mathematics, statistics, or computer sciences; and 2% in physical sciences. Higher proportions of Asian American or Asian freshmen than of those from other racial and ethnic groups planned to major in engineering; biological and agricultural sciences; and mathematics, statistics, or computer sciences. Higher proportions of blacks and Hispanics or Latinos intended to major in the social and behavioral sciences. The percentage of all freshmen intending to major in mathematics, statistics, or computer sciences has dropped since the late 1990s, whereas the percentages of students intending to major in biological and agricultural sciences, engineering, and the social and behavioral sciences have increased.

Generally, the percentages of students earning bachelor’s degrees in specific S&E fields are similar to the percentages planning to major in those fields, with the exception of engineering and social and behavioral sciences (see “S&E Bachelor’s Degrees” section and appendix tables 2-17 and 2-23 for trends in bachelor’s degrees; see section on “Persistence and Retention in Undergraduate Education [S&E versus Non-S&E Fields]” in NSB 2012 for a discussion of longitudinal data on undergraduate attrition in S&E). For both sexes and all racial and ethnic groups, the percentage of students earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering is smaller than the percentage planning to major in it (figures 2-11 and 2-12). The percentage earning bachelor’s degrees in social and behavioral sciences in 2011 (16%) (appendix table 2-17) is larger than the percentage that planned to major in those fields as freshmen 6 years earlier (10%) (appendix table 2-16). For women, blacks, and Hispanics—unlike for men, whites, and Asians—the proportion earning bachelor’s degrees in the natural sciences is smaller than the proportion who begin college planning to major in these fields (figures 2-13 and 2-14).

According to the 2012 PCAST report on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education (PCAST 2012), to retain the U.S. historical preeminence in S&E, the United States will need to increase the proportion of students who receive undergraduate degrees in STEM (or the natural sciences and engineering) fields considerably over current rates. Persistent historic patterns suggest that generating such an increase may be challenging because the following have been true for at least 15 years:

  • The proportion of freshmen intending to major in the different S&E fields changed little for most fields, except for biological and agricultural sciences, and even declined for mathematics, statistics, and computer sciences (appendix table 2-16).
  • The proportion of bachelor’s degrees in the natural sciences and engineering combined has remained 15%–17% (appendix table 2-17 and NSB 2010).[22]
  • The patterns of net undergraduate migration into S&E majors and attrition out of them have been stable (see section on “Persistence and Retention in Undergraduate Education [S&E versus Non-S&E Fields]” in NSB 2008 and NSB 2012).

One strategy to increase retention of students in STEM fields, however, is to improve student learning by improving the quality of undergraduate education in S&E. The 2012 National Academies report, “Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering” (NRC 2012b), examines available research on current teaching practices that have been shown to be more effective than the traditional lecture (see sidebar, “Discipline-Based Education Research”).

The demographic profile of students planning to major in S&E has become more diverse over time. The proportion of white students declined from about three-quarters in 1998 to about two-thirds in 2012. On the other hand, in the same period, the proportion of Asian American or Asian students doubled to 16%, and the proportion of Hispanic students nearly tripled, also to 16%, in 2012. American Indian or Alaska Native and black students accounted for roughly 2% and 11%, respectively, of freshmen intending to major in S&E in both 1998 and 2012 (appendix table 2-18).

Foreign Undergraduate Enrollment.[23] In recent years, foreign undergraduate enrollment has been on the rise. In the 2011–12 academic year, the number of foreign students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in U.S. academic institutions rose 11% from the previous year, to approximately 245,000 (IIE 2012). This rise continues a 5-year trend following the decline seen after 9/11. The number of foreign undergraduates enrolled in 2011–12 was 18% above the peak in 2001–02. New enrollments of foreign undergraduates in 2011–12 increased by 8% over the previous year. The countries that accounted for the largest numbers of foreign undergraduates enrolled in a U.S. institution in 2011–12 were China (75,000), South Korea (38,000), Saudi Arabia (14,000), India (13,000), Canada (13,000), and Vietnam (11,000). The numbers of Chinese and Saudi Arabian undergraduates each increased by 31% over the previous year. The numbers of South Korean undergraduates increased by 1%, whereas the numbers of Indian undergraduates decreased by 7%. In 2011–12, among all foreign students (undergraduate and graduate), the number of those studying mathematics and computer sciences increased 11% over the preceding year, and the number of those studying engineering, physical and life sciences, and social sciences also grew, each by 4% (IIE 2012).

More recent data from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) at the Department of Homeland Security show a substantial increase in foreign undergraduate enrollment in the United States between November 2011 and November 2012 (table 2-11; appendix table 2-19).[24] Most of the increase in foreign enrollment was in non-S&E fields, but within S&E the largest increases were in engineering and the social sciences. The top 10 countries sending foreign undergraduates in fall 2012 were similar to those in the preceding year (figure 2-15; appendix table 2-19). One-third of all foreign students in undergraduate programs at U.S. institutions are enrolled in S&E fields; in 2012, the proportion of undergraduate students enrolled in S&E fields was 50% or higher among students from Malaysia, Kuwait, India, and Nigeria.[25] Between 2008 and 2011, undergraduate foreign enrollment in S&E increased each year by about 6%–10%, with the growth rate more than doubling in 2012 (21%). At the undergraduate level, growth in non-S&E fields was between 1% and 3% each year between 2008 and 2011 but climbed to 16% in 2012 (table 2-11). About 50% of the growth in foreign undergraduate enrollment in the last year, both in S&E and non-S&E fields, is accounted for by the increase in the number of students from China.

Engineering Enrollment. For the most part, students do not declare majors until their sophomore year. Because of this, undergraduate enrollment data for domestic students are not available by field. However, engineering is an exception. Engineering programs generally require students to declare a major or an intent to major in the first year of college, so engineering enrollment data can serve as an early indicator 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 2012).

Undergraduate engineering enrollment was flat in the late 1990s, increased from 2000 to 2003, declined slightly through 2006, and has risen steadily since then to a peak of 511,000 in 2011 (figure 2-16; appendix table 2-20). The number of undergraduate engineering students increased by 26% between 2006 and 2011. Full-time freshman enrollment followed a similar pattern, reaching 122,000 in 2011—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 students (NSF/NCSES 2013a).

Enrollment by Disability Status. According to the most recent available estimates, 11% of undergraduate students reported a disability in 2008. Nearly half of them were enrolled in 2-year institutions, 41% in 4-year institutions, 3% in less-than-2-year institutions, and 8% in more than one institution. About one in five undergraduates with a disability was in an S&E field (NSF/NCSES 2013a).

Undergraduate Degree Awards

The number of undergraduate degrees awarded by U.S. academic institutions has been increasing over the past two decades in both S&E and non-S&E fields. These trends are expected to continue at least through 2021 (Hussar and Bailey 2013).

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, but others continue their education at 4-year colleges or universities and subsequently earn higher degrees.[26] Many who transfer to baccalaureate-granting institutions do not earn associate’s degrees before transferring. Combined, associate’s degrees in S&E and in engineering technologies accounted for about 12% of all associate’s degrees in 2011 (appendix table 2-21).

S&E associate’s degrees from all types of academic institutions have been rising continuously since 2007, after a steep decline between 2003 and 2007. The overall trend mirrors the pattern of computer sciences, which also peaked in 2003, declined through 2007, and increased through 2011. Associate’s degrees earned in engineering technologies (not included in S&E degree totals because of their applied focus) declined from about 40,000 in 2000 to about 30,000 in 2006, but they have been rising since then to about 38,000 in 2011 (appendix table 2-21).[27]

In 2011, women earned 62% of all associate’s degrees, up from 60% in 2000, and 43% of S&E associate’s degrees, down from 48% in 2000. Most of the decline is attributable to a decrease in women’s share of computer sciences degrees, which dropped from 42% in 2000 to 23% in 2011 (appendix table 2-21).

Students from underrepresented minority groups (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives) earn a higher proportion of associate’s degrees than of bachelor’s or more advanced degrees, both in S&E fields and in all fields.[28] (See the “S&E Bachelor’s Degrees by Race and Ethnicity” and “Doctoral Degrees by Race and Ethnicity” sections.) In 2011, underrepresented minorities 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, physical sciences, and mathematics (appendix table 2-22). Since 2000, the number of S&E associate’s degrees earned by these students grew faster than the overall national increase.

S&E Bachelor’s Degrees

The baccalaureate is the most prevalent S&E degree, accounting for nearly 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 at least the past 10 years. The number of S&E bachelor’s degrees awarded rose steadily from about 400,000 in 2000 to more than 550,000 in 2011 (appendix table 2-17).[29]

In the last decade, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded increased fairly consistently, although to different extents, in all S&E fields. The exception was computer sciences, where the number increased sharply from 2000 to 2004, dropped as sharply through 2009, but increased again in 2010 and 2011 (figure 2-17; appendix table 2-17).

S&E Bachelor’s Degrees by Sex. Since 1982, women have outnumbered men in undergraduate education. They have earned relatively constant fractions of all bachelor’s and S&E bachelor’s degrees for several years. Since the late 1990s, women have earned about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees and about half of all S&E bachelor’s degrees. Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, women also earn about half of all S&E bachelor’s degrees (NSF/NCSES 2013a).

Within S&E, men and women tend to study different fields; these tendencies are also observed at the master’s and doctoral levels, as will be seen below and in the workforce data in chapter 3. In 2011, men earned the vast majority of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering, computer sciences, and physics. Women earned half or more of the bachelor’s degrees in psychology, biological sciences, agricultural sciences, and all the broad fields within social sciences except for economics (appendix table 2-17).

Since 2000, changes have not followed a consistent pattern. The share of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women declined in computer sciences (by 10%), mathematics (by 5%), physics (by 2%), and engineering (by 2%) (figure 2-18; appendix table 2-17). Fields in which the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women grew during this period include atmospheric sciences (by 9%), agricultural sciences (by 6%), astronomy (by 3%), chemistry (by 2%), anthropology (by 3%), and political science and public administration (by 1%) (appendix table 2-17).

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to men and women in S&E and in all fields increased in similar proportions between 2000 and 2011.[30]

S&E Bachelor’s Degrees by Race and Ethnicity. The racial and ethnic composition of the cohort of S&E bachelor’s degree recipients has changed over time, reflecting both population changes and increasing rates of college attendance by members of minority groups.[31] Between 2000 and 2011, the share of S&E degrees awarded to white students among U.S. citizens and permanent residents declined from 71% to 63%, although the number of S&E bachelor’s degrees earned by white students increased during that time (figure 2-19; appendix table 2-23). The share awarded to Hispanic students increased from 7% to 10% and to Asians and Pacific Islanders from 9% to 10%. The shares to black and American Indian or Alaska Native students have remained flat since 2000, at 9% and 1%, respectively. The number of S&E bachelor’s degrees earned by students of unknown race or ethnicity nearly tripled in this period, to about 42,000.

Despite considerable progress over the past two 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. In 2011, the percentage of the population ages 25–29 with bachelor’s or higher degrees was 20% for blacks, 13% for Hispanics, and 39% for whites. These figures changed from the 1980 shares of 12%, 8%, and 25%, respectively (Aud et al. 2012). Differences in completion of bachelor’s degrees in S&E by race or ethnicity reflect differences in high school completion rates, college enrollment rates, and college persistence and attainment rates. In general, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives are less likely than whites and Asians or 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 the “Transition to Higher Education” section in chapter 1.) Among those who do enroll in or graduate from college, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives are about as likely as whites to choose S&E fields; Asians or Pacific Islanders are more likely than members of other racial and ethnic groups to choose these fields. For Asians and Pacific Islanders, almost half of all bachelor’s degrees received are in S&E, compared with close to one-third of all bachelor’s degrees earned by each of the other racial and ethnic groups. However, the proportion of Asians and Pacific Islanders earning degrees in the social sciences is similar to that of other racial and ethnic groups (appendix table 2-23).

The contrast in field distribution among whites, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives on the one hand and Asians and Pacific Islanders on the other is apparent within S&E fields as well. White, black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native S&E baccalaureate recipients share a similar distribution across broad S&E fields. In 2011, between 9% and 11% of all baccalaureate recipients in each of these racial and ethnic groups earned their degrees in the natural sciences, 2%–4% in engineering, and 15%–18% in the social and behavioral sciences. Asian and Pacific Islander baccalaureate recipients earned 21% of their bachelor’s degrees in natural sciences and 8% in engineering (appendix table 2-23).

Since 2000, the total number of bachelor’s degrees and the number of S&E bachelor’s degrees rose for all racial and ethnic groups. The number of bachelor’s degrees in all broad S&E fields except computer sciences also rose for most racial and ethnic groups (appendix table 2-23). In all racial and ethnic groups, the number of degrees in computer sciences followed the pattern for the general population: it increased considerably through 2003–04 and then sharply declined through 2008–09. In the last 2 or 3 years, the numbers started to increase, and in the case of Hispanics, the number of earned bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences in 2011 was close to the peak reached in 2004.

Bachelor’s Degrees by Citizenship. Students on temporary visas in the United States have consistently earned a small share (3%–4%) of S&E degrees at the bachelor’s level. In 2011, these students earned a larger share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in economics and in chemical, electrical, and industrial engineering (about 10%). The number of S&E bachelor’s degrees awarded to students on temporary visas increased from about 15,000 in 2000 to about 19,000 in 2004, then declined to 17,000 by 2008, but it increased through 2011, peaking at almost 21,000 (appendix table 2-23).

Notes
[19] The population projections in this section and in appendix table 2-15 are based on the latest population projections published by the Census Bureau, which are in turn based on the 2010 Census (http://www.census.gov/population/projections/data/national/2012/downloadablefiles.html, accessed 15 May 2013). In its publication “Projection of Education Statistics,” NCES projects enrollment trends in postsecondary institutions. However, in the latest publication (Hussar and Bailey 2013), NCES used Census projections from 2008, which were based on the 2000 Census. Unlike the Census Bureau, NCES incorporates disposable income (a measure of ability to pay) and age-specific unemployment rates (a measure of opportunity costs) in its projections.
[20] These data are from sample surveys and are subject to sampling error. Information on estimated standard errors can be found in appendix D of the annual report The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012, published by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute, University of California–Los Angeles (http://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2012.pdf). Data reported here are significant at the 0.05 level.
[21] The number of S&E degrees awarded to a particular freshman cohort is lower than the number of students reporting intentions to major in S&E. It reflects losses of students from S&E, gains of undecided students and students from non-S&E fields after their freshman year, and general attrition from bachelor’s degree programs.
[22] The PCAST report also included associate’s degrees trends in the natural sciences and engineering. The proportion of associate’s degrees in these fields was also fairly stable at about 5%, except in the early 2000s when it increased to 8%–9% because of the rise in the number of associate’s degree awards in computer sciences, which declined after 2004.
[23] The data in this section come from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). IIE conducts an annual survey of about 3,000 accredited U.S. higher education institutions. An international student in this survey is defined as anyone studying at an institution of higher education in the United States on a temporary visa that allows academic coursework, primarily F and J visas. SEVIS collects administrative data, including the numbers of all foreign national students enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States. Data on exchange visitors are not included in this chapter; some limited data on this topic can be found in chapter 3.
[24] The figures include active foreign national students on F-1 visas in the SEVIS database, excluding those participating in optional practical training (OPT). Students with F visas have the option of working in the United States by engaging in OPT, temporary employment directly related to the student’s major area of study, either during or after completion of the degree program. Students can apply for 12 months of OPT at each level of education. Starting in 2008, students in certain STEM fields became eligible for an additional 17 months of OPT. The number of students in OPT varies according to labor market conditions. According to data from SEVIS, the number of students with F1 visas in OPT declined sharply between November 2010 and November 2011 and rose back up steeply by November 2012 (68,510 in November 2010; 22,820 in November 2011; and 80,680 in November 2012).
[25] These data include foreign students pursuing both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees. Comparable data for U.S. citizen and permanent resident students do not exist. However, the proportion of S&E associate’s and bachelor’s degree awards earned by U.S. citizens and permanent residents is considerably lower.
[26] About 14% of recent S&E bachelor’s degree recipients who earned their degree between 1 July 2007 and 30 June 2009 had previously earned an associate’s degree (National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Survey of Recent College Graduates 2010, special tabulation).
[27] Data on degree completion from NCES were obtained from WebCASPAR (https://webcaspar.nsf.gov/). Data uploaded in WebCASPAR correspond to NCES provisional data, which undergo all NCES data quality control procedures and are imputed for nonresponding institutions. These data are used by NCES in their First Look (Provisional Data) publications.
[28] Data for racial and ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.
[29] Data on degree completion from NCES were obtained from WebCASPAR (https://webcaspar.nsf.gov/). Data uploaded in WebCASPAR correspond to NCES provisional data, which undergo all NCES data quality control procedures and are imputed for nonresponding institutions. These data are used by NCES in their First Look (Provisional Data) publications.
[30] For longer trends in degrees, see NSB 2010. For more detail on enrollment and degrees by sex and by race and ethnicity, see NSF/NCSES 2013a.
[31] Data for racial and ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.
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