Chapter 2:

Higher Education in Science and Engineering

Characteristics of U.S. Higher Education Institutions

The United States has a large and diversified set of institutions of higher education that provides a college or university education to over one-third of the U.S. college-age population. (See appendix table 2-1.) This access to higher education ranks the United States among those countries with the most open education systems in the world.

In the United States, there were 3,681 (1,594 public and 2,087 private) institutions of higher education in 1995 (HEP 1997). These institutions enrolled 14.4 million students at all degree levels (associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral) in that year and awarded 2.2 million degrees, almost one-quarter of which were in S&E. (See figure 2-5.) The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has classified these institutions into 10 categories based on the size of their baccalaureate and graduate degree programs, the amount of research funding they receive, and-for baccalaureate colleges-their selectivity.[7]  Following is a brief description of these categories.

After several decades of continual and rapid expansion of higher education in the United States, enrollment fell for the first time in 1993; it has continued to decline each year since then. (See figure 2-6 and appendix table 2-8.) This decline is partially based on demographics: the U.S. college-age population declined from 22 million in 1980 to 17 million in 1995. (See appendix table 2-3.) However, the decline in the college-age population was offset for over a decade by expanded access to higher education for all subpopulations, particularly women and minorities, and enrollment by larger numbers of older students. The U.S. college-age cohort will again increase beginning in 2001, and higher education enrollments are expected to increase concurrently.

A diverse spectrum of institutions contributes to the S&E degrees in the United States. The country's 126 research universities provide the majority of engineering degrees and a large proportion of natural and social science degrees at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. (See figure 2-7.) In 1995, research universities enrolled only 19 percent of all students in higher education, but produced over 46 percent of all S&E degrees. (See appendix tables 2-8 and 2-9.) In contrast, the associate of arts colleges enroll a large proportion of all students in higher education, but account for only a small percentage of S&E degrees. In 1995, only about 10 percent of the over 5.4 million students attending junior colleges completed an associate degree-less than 1 percent in an S&E field. These two-year colleges, however, provide continuing education and flexibility in the U.S. higher education system, allowing students to complete needed work-related courses or to obtain credits for transfer to a four-year college or university. (See "The U.S. Higher Education System.") [Skip Text Box]

The U.S. Higher Education System top

The U.S. system of higher education is characterized at the undergraduate level by diverse institutions that provide flexible access to higher education for a broad range of U.S. citizens. At the graduate level, the system serves not only U.S. students but international students as well. Demographic changes (for example, a pending upturn in the population of college-age students, with higher percentages of minorities underrepresented in S&E), the increasing capabilities of other nations, and job-seeking experiences of recent graduates are prompting a reexamination of the U.S. system of higher education.

At the undergraduate level, the U.S. system provides access for a broad cross-section of citizens. About one-third of the college-age cohort completes a college or university education in some field. Although some European countries are approaching this high level of access, the European region as a whole reaches only about half that proportion of its college-age cohort. Contributing to this broader U.S. access is the expansive institutional base of U.S. higher education, which allows for flexibility in transferring among institutions and diverse attendance patterns. Over one-third of the 15 million students in U.S. higher education are in community colleges. These institutions let students transfer credits to four-year colleges and universities; they also provide considerable remedial coursework for students who were not well-served by, or well-motivated during, their high school education. (Chapter 1 discusses this phenomenon, with particular reference to middle and high school teachers teaching out of their field, especially in math and science.)

This expansive institutional base, however, is also characterized by uneven quality and highly differential resources. Many minority students are in community colleges; although this can facilitate their continuation in the higher education system, this level of the system is the most poorly funded and has the worst track record for graduation. Only a small percentage of minority students or students from poor families completes an associate degree in an S&E field and subsequently enters a four-year institution. Moreover, since most mathematics courses at the community college level are remedial, they are not transferable to four-year institutions. This route in the U.S. higher education system has not yet resulted in commensurate representation of minority groups in earned degrees in science, mathematics, and engineering. (See "S&E Human Capital Development: Continued Unevenness Across Demographic Groups" later in this chapter.)

With its blend of advanced coursework and research experience, U.S. graduate education in S&E is considered to be among the best in the world. In the last 10 years, U.S. graduate programs have expanded, particularly at the doctoral level. Academic R&D has also grown during this period, and an increasing number of foreign students have enrolled in U.S. graduate S&E programs. Between 1985 and 1995, the number of doctoral degrees awarded in engineering, mathematics, and the computer sciences doubled. Much of this growth was due to foreign doctoral recipients, many of whom earned their S&E degrees while supported as research assistants. Postdoctoral positions increased at almost the same rate, and foreign students earned an increasing proportion of these appointments-slightly more than half by the 1990s. (See chapter 5, "Integration of Research With Graduate Education.") Beginning in 1993, however, foreign student enrollment in U.S. graduate S&E programs experienced a decline, which, if it continues, will reduce the proportion of S&E degrees and postdoctoral appointments awarded to foreign students.

Decisionmakers throughout the U.S. higher education system are examining both undergraduate and graduate levels to broaden participation of all groups in science and engineering, and to broaden career choices for those with advanced degrees. At the undergraduate level, a revitalization of science and mathematics curricula is aimed at better teaching of all students, enhanced teacher preparation for K-12 programs, and greater retention of students in S&E departments. Educators are forming partnerships between the faculties of two- and four-year schools to improve academic courses at community colleges and establish agreements for transferring credits. In graduate education, the appropriateness of current training for careers in industry as well as in academia is being examined.

Reforms in U.S. higher education are particularly important in light of ongoing demographic changes. A two-decade-long decline in the college-age cohort in the United States reduced the traditional college-age population from 22 million in 1980 to 17 million in 1995. This declining trend is expected to reverse itself in the year 2001. The projected increasing student population will then create a demand for yet further expansion of the U.S. higher education system.

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[7] The Carnegie classification is not an assessment guide, nor are the distinctions between classification sublevels (e.g., research I and research II) based on institutions' educational quality. Baccalaureate college I institutions exercise more selectivity regarding students than do baccalaureate colleges II, but in general the Carnegie categories are a typology, not a rank ordering.

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