Chapter 2:

Higher Education in Science and Engineering


Centers of S&E knowledge are multiplying around the world, particularly in Europe, Asia, and North America. The increasing global capacity in S&E education has implications for the United States as well as other nations. Higher participation rates in S&E degrees and a greater focus on S&E fields in higher education in other countries contribute to the potential pool of scientists and engineers. Such human capital is important for addressing complex societal needs and for technological innovations. In addition, the global expansion of S&E knowledge has the potential benefits of quickening the pace of development in other world regions. A larger global capacity for S&E education implies a U.S. need to stay competitive through continual improvement of its precollege and higher education system.

Decisionmakers throughout the U.S. higher education system have introduced improved curricula and teaching at the undergraduate level to broaden participation of all groups in science and engineering. Recent participation rates in S&E, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and sex, show some domestic progress compared to a decade ago; this reflects a somewhat more diverse U.S. student population pursuing higher education in science and engineering, particularly at the undergraduate level. In the 1990s, the number of white enrollments in undergraduate education leveled off and began to decline, while enrollment for all minority groups increased. Similarly, while overall undergraduate engineering enrollment has been declining, enrollment of women and minorities has been increasing, particularly in the 1990s. At the bachelor's level, the number of degrees earned by underrepresented minorities is increasing slightly in NS&E fields, and very rapidly in the social sciences. These trends bear watching as individual states introduce systemic reforms and other public policy changes for improved S&E curricula and teaching at all levels.

In graduate education, there has been some progress for women in S&E programs, and very slight progress for underrepresented minorities. At the master's level, women have made significant progress in earned degrees in the natural sciences, but minority groups showed only modest growth in these fields. At the doctoral level, the share of S&E degrees earned by women approximately doubled from 16 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 1995. Minority students have slightly increased their proportion of doctoral S&E degrees to almost 5 percent in 1995, but they are still at low levels of degree attainment.

The enrollment of foreign S&E graduate students in U.S. universities reached a peak in 1992, and has since declined. The rate of growth in S&E master's degrees earned by foreign students has slowed in the 1990s due primarily to a decline in earned degrees in the computer sciences. However, declining graduate enrollment of foreign students in engineering has not yet resulted in a fall-off of the number of master's degrees in engineering earned by foreign students. At the doctoral level, the proportion of S&E degrees earned by foreign citizens reached 40 percent in 1994 before leveling off. The trend toward a somewhat lower concentration of foreign students in U.S. graduate programs is likely to continue, with fewer students from those places that are building their internal graduate S&E capacity, such as Taiwan and South Korea. The decline in foreign students from some Asian countries may be further exacerbated by the recent Asian economic crisis and the devaluation of currencies, making extended study abroad unaffordable.

The U.S. university system has accelerated the diffusion of S&E knowledge in the world through the education of foreign doctoral students, who have contributed both to the science and technology infrastructure in the United States and in their home countries. Many foreign doctoral recipients have remained in the United States for some time for further study or employment. As their home countries develop the need (and provide employment) for high-level skills, some of these foreign doctoral recipients return, bringing with them both their S&E education and U.S. work experience, further accelerating globalization of S&E. This improves other countries' economic competitiveness, as well as enhances the global good of improved scientific knowledge and world economic development. U.S. higher education is also enriched by the network of former doctoral students and faculty in key research centers in Asia and Europe. The benefits include enhanced cooperative research opportunities, expanded opportunities for U.S. graduate and undergraduate students to study abroad, and international postdoctoral research positions for young U.S. scientists and engineers.

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